Synapse Review – Insane In The Membrane

A (mind)killer app for the PlayStation VR2.

I think I was supposed to be paying a little more attention to what’s going on in Synapse, the latest from well-known VR studio nDreams (Fracked, Powerwash Simulator VR), especially given it features the vocal chops of some industry legends in Jennifer Hale and David Hayter, but the truth is I couldn’t tell you much of anything about what happened in it. I know that I was some kind of secret brain spy diving into the literal mind of a rogue Colonel through a virtual gateway in order to thwart some nasty plans, but truthfully I was far too immersed in being a certified badass throughout my handful of hours with the game to take too much notice, which I consider genuinely high praise.

When it’s not telling its incredibly-thin tale, Synapse takes cues from roguelite games with a run-based structure that sees you attempt to break through eight zones of defenses within your target’s mind before tackling a final showdown and “finishing” the game, with each death sending you back to the beginning. Of course, you’ll be better equipped going in each time thanks to points earned in previous runs which can be spent on upgrades to give you an edge.

It’s a mechanic that works especially well here, with the mini-challenges that dole out the necessary points making an otherwise-successful run still feel worthwhile. You’re not rewarded for how far you get in but by how you meet certain conditions in a growing challenge tree, so even if you don’t make it as far in as you’d like you’ll still usually feel like something was accomplished on each run.

Better yet, a fair few of the challenges involve making the best use of Synapse’s ridiculously fun take on shooting. Equipped with a gun in your dominant hand and telekinetic powers in the other, the game wants you to feel like a badass at every possible opportunity and it’s rare that it’s ever not the case. Synapse uses the PlayStation VR2’s eye tracking for targeting your telekinesis, which results in probably the closest video game Jedi simulation I’ve encountered. It’s especially great when you learn that you can lightly grip explosive barrels to move them around and then give a considered squeeze to crush and explode them.

On top of being able to fire a handful of different weapon types and throw shit around with your mind, Synapse also features a very cool cover system that essentially lets you use the L and R bumpers on the Sense controllers to grip any part of the environment to pull yourself behind it for protection or even to climb just about any wall or ledge you see. By the time you’ve unlocked a few upgrades and you’re able to throw dudes off ledges and even turn enemies against each other, weaving behind cover, pinning baddies on the ground while you finish them off with a close-range shotgun blast it’s an absolute thrill.

You’ll need to make good use of everything on offer too because Synapse isn’t shy of a challenge – expected given its roguelite tendencies. Ammo is incredibly scarce, as is health, at least until you fill out the top end of your upgrades, so making good use of your telekinetic powers to slam enemies against walls until they’re pulp, hurl their grenades back at them or just drop heavy boxes on their heads repeatedly is incredibly important. Eventually you’ll find yourself doing all of that and popping off headshots around every corner like you’re Keanu Reeves’ Neo mixed with Keanu Reeves’ John Wick.

RELATED:  Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Review – Friendly Fire

A complete run to the game’s “conclusion” only takes about an hour in totality but most people will spend more than a few hours just getting to a point where that feels possible – at which stage a harder version of the run opens up and dangles a carrot of further narrative exploration, followed by an even tougher one. I did find myself wishing for more than four enemy types and four different weapons by the time I was well into my third complete playthrough, a similar criticism that developer nDreams has faced with its previous efforts, but simplicity does work in the game’s favour when it comes to letting players really hone their skills, and the level layouts and different enemy groupings that are generated for each run tend to feel unique time and time again.

Simplicity also extends to the game’s look, which – aside from the brief intro, intermission and end narrative sequences – is almost entirely monochrome. Any colour you’ll see within each zone is there to guide your eye toward something, whether it’s an item you’re focused on, an upgrade or healing station, the rain of fire from your weapons or the saving grace of a level exit. It’s gorgeous and striking, and makes encounters very easy and intuitive to read at a glance, especially with the extra immersion afforded by VR. It all looks nice and sharp and clear on the PS VR2 as well, although sometimes a zone would be shrouded by a fog that’s supposed to add extra spice by obscuring your view, but wound up making me feel a bit uncomfortable.

nDreams has also done a great job with the game’s audio production, with explosive effects, unnerving cult-like enemy barks, otherworldly wails and the aforementioned vocal tones of Hale and Hayter peppering the crunchy sci-fi soundtrack and really pulling the whole presentational package together.

All of the great PS VR2 features are also really well-utilised here. Bullets thumping into your head through the visor haptics, the feedback from the Sense haptics and adaptive triggers, 3D audio, all of it comes together superbly to put you in the zone the entire time you’re playing. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this aware of my surroundings and assailants in a game like this and it just adds so much to the experience of being a badass mind infiltrator. Synapse really does feel like a game designed to take full advantage of the PS VR2.

This is also a game where I found using full analogue stick-based locomotion and smooth camera turning to be incredibly comfortable either standing or seated, despite its relatively quick pace. It almost felt necessary to play that way as well thanks to how spicy the challenge can be, but for those that need it all of the usual comfort features that you’d want from a VR title are present and work well.

Somewhat short, but oh-so-sweet, Synapse is an unflinching thrill ride of a shooter with an intoxicating one-more-go structure and unmatched badassery in its dual-wielding telekinetic shooter action. It's more than just a great showpiece for the PS VR2's capabilities – this is easily the coolest I've ever felt playing a video game.
Dual-wielding telekinesis and guns feels incredible
Run-based gameplay loop is addictive
Striking visuals that serve gameplay perfectly
Great use of PS VR2-specific features
Sound effects, voice acting and soundtrack are all top notch
Lacking in weapon and enemy types
Will feel quite short for skilled enough players
Some level designs/effects are a bit nauseating