Platform reviewed: PS5 / PSVR 2
Available on: PS5 / PSVR 2
Release date: July 4, 2023 (Out Now)
PSVR 2 finally has another exclusive to shout about. Synapse is the next game from nDreams (Fracked, Phantom: Covert Ops), and it taps into the growing reputation of the VR roguelike, a genre that is slowly being refined by savvy developers, generating innovative results.
In Synapse, your mission is complicated: enter the mind of the once-respected, now dangerous Colonel Peter Conrad and tackle his procedural mind baddies to prevent imminent disaster. You’ll wipe out increasingly complex arenas full of goons as you progress deeper into his subconscious with the aim of extracting his juicy secrets.
Along the way, you’re coached by a handler who has a history with the colonel, and as you namelessly rage against the dying of the light, they bite at each other and allow you to unravel tantalizing bits of sub-narrative intrigue.
The Colonel and The Handler are voiced by David Hayter (Solid Snake) and Jennifer Hale (Commander Shepard, Rivet), respectively, and, as legends of the voice-acting game, they put a real shift in and elevate the experience considerably, even if the story is ultimately quite predictable.
But that’s not really the draw of Synapse. As the trailers have shown, it’s mostly about indulging your inner Jean Grey as you activate traps, move platforms, and lob barrels at bad guys. This is tempered by a weapon in your other hand, which you’ll use to tap heads and speed up your body count.
It’s a pretty tricky game (as roguelikes tend to be), and I wouldn’t recommend Synapse as somebody’s first VR experience. But if you’ve beaten Half-Life Alyx or The Light Brigade and you’re looking for more of that high-intensity shooter action, Synapse delivers in its own endearing way. It’s not breaking any new ground, but it has some fun ideas, and most importantly, it’s a welcome stocking stuffer in the PSVR 2’s library, which is starving for reliable exclusives at present.
My favorite thing about Synapse is how it augments this compelling fantasy with the unique features of the headset. The PSVR 2’s eye-tracking means you just have to look at the object you want to fling in order to highlight it, which speeds up the pace of combat considerably. The tracking isn’t perfect all of the time, but when it works, it’s a treat and adds a level of compelling nuance to the gunfights.
Texture work, assets, and enemy models are nice and detailed up close, but while it feels like Synapse has an ‘art style’ of its own, it doesn’t ground me in the fantasy of being in another person’s mind with the same efficacy as the likes of Psychonauts. Terracotta artifacts of The Colonel’s consciousness sit stoically in the background of certain stages, but I was left wishing that they would come and truncate the action. The static monochrome backgrounds make the Colonel’s mind seem dull.
There’s a decent amount of variety as you push through the zones toward Hayter’s hippocampus, but you’ll eventually note the similarities in architecture, so it’s not quite a different run every time. Enemies range from your typical grunts to frustrating flying leather monsters and minigun-toting brick heads that look like The Heavy from Team Fortress 2.
The Sense Controller’s Adaptive Triggers allow you to gently levitate a barrel towards your target and then pull hard to crush it and cause a deadly explosion. You will almost certainly end up murdering yourself several times with this feature before you figure out the required tensile strength, but, once you do, it’s extremely satisfying.
The most annoying foes, however, are the ceaseless phantoms that run at you, all with the aim of exploding and taking you with them. Sometimes, you’ll be backed into a corner and you won’t have the means to deal with them, but worse still is when they’re far enough away, and you get the drop on them with a deft shot, only for them to explode at a considerable distance from you and still deal damage despite your best efforts. It’s a nuisance that speaks to the game’s limitations.
For a game that you can run through in an hour or two (with the right luck and equipment), the pool of baddies is sufficient, but I often found myself hoping that Synapse would throw a few extra spanners into the works. For example, when you first face heavy enemies, you learn that you have to literally pull their armor off with telekinesis so you can hit their weak spot. I had assumed this kind of mechanical fun would extend to the rest of the game’s special enemies, but there’s no such luck.
The base-level enemies all look very similar to each other, too, barring changes in weaponry. They also share the same voice lines which, as you might expect, eventually start to grate. Broadly, it also became very annoying to have to hunt the last few enemies on a map, as they seem to spawn in chunks regardless of where you are.
That said, dispatching these bad dudes with the tools at your disposal is solid fun, especially when you start to collect extra abilities with the ‘Defiance’ you earn from kills and pickups. Each level has its own set of stalls you can approach to grab health, upgrades, and weaponry, and you can upgrade the stalls by completing mini-missions within your run. This is where the roguelike elements manifest.
When you die, you can redeem said missions to earn more currency and upgrade points, spending these on a permanent skill tree in the game’s hub to better yourself.
Haptic feedback does a lot of the work in making the guns feel nice, as they can feel a bit toy-like in practice, lacking heft and recoil. The grenade launcher and shotgun, in particular, feel a bit weak. I used the pistol, mostly, which comes into its own with an ability that turns the last bullet in each mag into a grenade, which saved my ass countless times.
Broadly, the abilities available to you are more than mere stat buffs and meaningfully change the game, such as providing homing shots. Some even offer interesting gambits, like reducing or improving the power of explosions, which could help or hinder you depending on your loadout. All of these factors meld to create a challenge that is well worth the effort it takes to fight, die and come back stronger as you endeavor to persevere.
Unfortunately, there are a few run-killing glitches in the game. I lost my telekinesis hand a few times and couldn’t retrieve it, and on one awful occasion, had a Heavy blow up the cover I was holding onto, leaving me trapped in place in front of a firing squad.
Either way, I beat Synapse on my third run without very many upgrades unlocked, and my VR aptitude was pushed to its very limits, offering a challenge that made the experience exhilarating.
At one point, I was protecting a giant neon cube I had found as I slowly edged my way up a seemingly endless flight of stairs, fighting off a serious horde of nasties. I began talking to the inanimate object, and I was emotional when they nearly fell off the edge of the map - they became my best friend and saw me through to the game’s first ending. Unfortunately, that homegrown narrative meant more to me than any facet of the game’s story.
So when the adrenaline had subsided, and I redeemed almost every unlock, I found it hard to meaningfully come back to Synapse with just the promise of more narrative. I still enjoyed the gunplay and environmental tinkering, but the broader lack of variety hampers the game’s replayability. Even with all these caveats, Synapse would easily make it into a list of the best games on PSVR 2, especially as one of the hardware’s few exclusives. It’s a substantial experience, not a tech demo, and we need more of those.
Synapse has an accessibility menu that allows players to activate a vignette with varying degrees of intensity, which will help with motion sickness while moving. You can also choose to swap between incremental and smooth turning depending on your experience with VR, change dominant hands, and add subtitles. However, Synapse conspicuously misses navigation alternatives like teleportation or blink movement, meaning that players are forced to move in a realistic fashion with the left stick – a big ask for VR newbies.
How we reviewed Synapse
I completed Synapse’s core campaign and then continued running through its zones with a range of different weapons, picking up nearly all of the game’s unlockable abilities. I made sure to test out every part of the game’s combat toolset and use different ability combinations as possible so as to test every aspect of Synapse’s combat mechanics.
If you're looking to get the most out of your PSVR2, we've got a list of all the best PSVR2 games. We've also got a great list of all the best PS5 games if you're looking to put the headset down for a bit.