Synapse review – the new reality of first person shooters

GameCentral reviews the latest PSVR2 exclusive, that aims to make fast-paced action games a reality in VR.

VR games have a problem with rapid motion and its unfortunate ability to trigger motion sickness. You get used to it after a week or two but, especially for new users, it can create unavoidable sensations of sweaty nausea, which is nobody’s idea of a good time. The way developers tend to deal with that is by making your character stationary, slowing movement to a crawl, or replacing fluid motion with short distance teleportation – none of which feels like a perfect solution.

It’s gratifying to discover that Synapse takes another route. Its relatively speedy in-game motion comes with sufficient frame rate that, at least for seasoned VR players, you can move fairly quickly without wanting to throw up. It does offer various comfort settings, but even with those enabled, you can run around at what feels like normal speed for a video game.

That’s important, because Synapse is a first person shooter, or more accurately, a first person shooter with added telekinetic powers, a bit like Control – although, as with most VR games, on a far smaller scale. So, to go with your beginner’s pistol and the SMG, shotgun, and grenade launcher you can also pick up objects using only the power of your mind.

Initially, that means extending bridges, detonating explosive barrels, and hurling large, inert cubes about the place, but you soon unlock the ability to pick up enemies, which is when the game changes out of all recognition. After that, it’s not so much a shooter, as a game of hurling bad guys into walls, ceilings, floors, and pits of molten lava.

You’ll be tossing them over your shoulder only to turn around and finish them off with a flourish of bullets, or lofting one high into the sky before re-catching them and dashing them into nearby rocks – or one of their colleagues.

It’s as if John Wick suddenly discovers he has a high Midichlorian count, before being dumped on a series of bleak, rocky islands filled with henchmen. The upside of that is that within an hour of installing the game your position in the pecking order changes from bullied underdog to vengeful demigod. The downside of that is that it means the game doesn’t last all that long, despite its plot requiring several complete playthroughs at increasing difficulty.

Structured as a sort of rogue-ultra-lite, it doesn’t feature procedurally generated levels, although the location of power-ups and exit portals varies each time you play. It also comes with an extravagantly over-powered ability tree that offers permanent and significant upgrades to your powers, in return for completing relatively straightforward tasks as you play.

Enemies come in several varieties, from standard cannon fodder to kamikaze troops that run at you before exploding, to flying laser-firing sentinels. There are also chunkier minigun-toting giants whose armour you need to peel off using telekinesis. While those varieties are introduced gradually over the course of your first full run, they arrive sooner and in greater numbers as the difficulty ratchets up in subsequent runs.

While eye-tracking works in a number of PlayStation VR2 games, Synapse makes particularly good use of it, your psychic abilities applying to whatever object your gaze happens to be resting on. That makes it easy to pluck a particular enemy from behind cover or use a distant cube to batter a group of them into submission, without inadvertently grabbing a nearby explosive barrel and blowing yourself up with it.

It works seamlessly and makes the combat highly intuitive, a sense that’s heightened by the variable resistance of the trigger used to grab things. It gives you an impression of the weight of the object or person you’re picking up, making the whole process feel physical and immersive, the headset’s haptics letting you feel any resulting explosions or thudding impacts through your very skull.

Like Sairento VR on the original PlayStation VR, you swiftly become so powerful that formerly terrifying enemies become trifling distractions and, like that game, much of its joy comes simply from exercising your powers on the onrushing horde of hapless antagonists. If you prefer your games to maintain a Soulsborne level of robust resistance, this is unlikely to appeal.

Graphically, Synapse is very convincing; its stark, almost monochromatic volcanic landscapes contrasting with the blossoming orange of explosions. It’s also pin sharp, suffering none of the blurriness that, despite updates, still haunt the vastly more complex but identically priced No Man’s Sky; at the same time its violence is entirely bloodless, enemies dying in a shower of polygons rather than viscera.

Like a lot of games in the emerging medium of VR, Synapse feels more like a tech demo than a full game, albeit an impressively fully featured demo. It feels incredible to play, your rapid locomotion and superpowers combining to inspiring effect, but, equally, the lack of balance and variety robs it of long term challenge.

It’s a wonderful way to relieve stress though, annihilating innumerable divisions of growling, faceless bad guys with a wave of your hand. It also points the way to a more action orientated future for VR, demonstrating that it can indeed transcend its current sedentary pacing and expand into the realm of adrenaline gaming without needing an accompanying a sick bucket.

Synapse review summary

In Short: A beautiful and exquisitely violent ballet of gunfire and telekinesis, that feels incredible to play but lacks the challenge or variety for long term play.

Pros: Seamless use of eye-tracking to target your psychic abilities; combat is fast and intuitive, with excellent immersion thanks to the PlayStation VR2’s haptics.

Cons: Challenge falls of sharply after the first hour of play and there aren’t many levels to explore.

Score: 7/10

Formats: PlayStation VR2
Price: £29.99
Developer: nDreams
Publisher: nDreams
Release Date: 4th July 2023
Age Rating: 12

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