Synapse’s State of Play reveal showcased a powerful combo of handguns and telekinetic combat. Last month at PlayStation Showcase, developer nDreams used the release date announcement to dig into the story of a lone agent diving into the minds of another to avert global catastrophe, and the reunion of two high-caliber voice talents who once again find themselves embroiled in a black ops-style mission, but this time on different sides of a battlefield. And now, through hands-on experience with a specially curated playable demo, we have a better understanding of how Synapse gameplay unfolds.
Let’s break down the basic gameplay loop. It’s driven by tactical combat, using your basic bullet and TK abilities along with interactive items to clear the multi-tiered arenas of enemies. These encounters are hard-hitting bursts of action that increase in complexity and intensity. You are outnumbered, continually outflanked, attackers able to teleport at close range to position themselves better. The odds are turned in your favor with regularly unlocked abilities and random buffs, all tools designed to inspire you to be as pleasantly and efficiently creative with your skills as possible. Synapse has the DNA of a roguelite.
Let’s dig deeper. A run will have you fighting an increasing mix of enemy types across multiple levels, with the sequence of these stages being randomized and drawn from a large number of potential locations. Completing any one opens a door to the next, at which point you are offered one of two possible traits. These add fun modifiers for the rest of your run. Grab an object with TK to kick in slow motion. Add a curve to your bullet points. Turn enemies grabbed by TK into short-term allies or targets for other attackers to keep the fire away from you.
Synapse’s minimap is carefully executed. Flip the palm of your TK hand over so that a Radial-style device materializes on it. A 3D space floats above, locates enemy locations and collectibles. It’s an interaction with the same simple satisfaction – and muscle memory – as checking notifications on your watch.
Revelations is Synapse’s name for permanent buffs spread across three skill trees, for your TK, weapons, and overall resilience respectively. These trees are available between runs and will give you, among other things, the ability to grab enemies (and throw them like rag dolls) or their grenades (catch them mid-run), increase your loadout of weapons. You can activate shrines that will appear in levels, granting you bonus health or new weapons.
All are unlocked and used when I pick it up, early access granted with a generous dose of XP (called Defiance in Synpase) for demo purposes. But before entering multiple arenas to play with my powers, I need to learn how the basic mechanics work. Cue tutorial and basic mechanics.
Movement is an uncompromising first-person shooter, character movement and camera operated by Sense controllers, with comfort settings also offered. You can also choose which of your hands does what. The gun hand is
is self-explanatory but does not work in isolation: weapons must be reloaded by partially ejecting them, then reinserting the magazines. You can use your other hand. Or any solid surface, which includes cover points and an enemy’s noggin. Reloads continue to feel good throughout the run.
Your other main is where multitasking takes off. It can be used to take cover, movement of your Sense controller reflected in-game to get you out, up or to the side of whatever you’re dodging behind. As long as you have your finger on the trigger on the Sense controller, you’re anchored. It’s a design carried over from nDreams’ previous PS VR title Fracked. A cool feature that gives you mobility options while stationary.
The game’s music is composed by Paul Weir, who also composed No Man’s Sky. The direction he was tasked to take inspiration from was the blockbuster cerebral films of Christopher Nolan, lending a Zimmer-like soundtrack to Synapse.
It’s that hand, along with the PS VR2’s eye tracking, that powers TK. You learn very quickly what is interactive in Synapse: crates, platforms (and later, enemies and their grenades). In an entirely monochromatic world, objects made to be manipulated are suddenly delimited by bright colors. Grab the Sense controller and you’re free to move the item as telekinetically intended.
The movement and speed of the object is dictated by the movement and speed of your hand. Hold a stable, closed crate, and you have mobile coverage. You can launch a fast bullet and use this flying box to cannonade – and aim right, one-hit kill – enemies. The finesse and precision that TK physics offers is impressive. I’ll admit I spend more time in the tutorial than necessary, neatly stacking crates or trying to juggle three in the air, spinning them faster and faster as I catch them and releases them, throwing them higher and higher.
Two examples of using TK during combat: Crates can be held and swept back and forth, knocking enemies over like bowling pins. Barrels can be an explosive way to take out enemies well hidden behind cover.
There’s also some clever use of the Sense controller’s adaptive triggers, with volatile objects such as barrels and live grenades requiring a lighter grip if you want to hold them securely. Pull the trigger all the way and you’ll crush them, leading to explosive results. Perfect for throwing and then squeezing as they rise above the heads of gathering shooters, though a stray bullet either side can just as easily ignite a barrel.
Even in these early encounters, the action quickly escalates, forcing you to think even faster, identify possible configurations of useful items, enemy locations, your route through and around any danger. All the familiar ingredients of a roguelite, but TK gives Synapse a unique flavor.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t take the time to acknowledge Synapse’s artistic direction. Monochrome levels with pops of bright color initially echo the best OLED TV demos in showrooms, but the longer I took to soak up my surroundings, the more subtly unsettled I felt. The studio points to surreal art as an initial inspiration, but I realized what the desolate shoreline and rocky outcroppings of that first biome reminded me of. It’s a black-and-white starkness reminiscent of the setting of the Swedish fantasy film The Seventh Seal. In it, a knight plays for his life in a game of chess against Death.
Perhaps this parallel is no accident. The story of Synapse is built around a battle of wits between two minds: the Colonel and his invader. In reality, it comes from three different sources: the colonel’s mind, your character’s mind, and the AI that controls the system. I’m curious to see what unfolds visually. nDreams promises a strong narrative to draw you in, stating that it will take three full runs to experience the full extent of its story. And even after its conclusion, the game’s roguelite design is designed to keep you coming back for another mental dive.