Synapse is a smartly designed rogue-lite shooter that is predominantly played in black and white; the world is monotone; in other hands this artistic restriction could have left you feeling numb, but developer nDreams has used that limitation to create something truly unique.
In this PSVR 2 shooter you’re literally playing inside a person’s memories, stealing their secrets and empowering yourself to dig deeper, and that limited palette really helps sell this Inception-like premise. (If you've yet to get a Sony headset, read my PSVR 2 review, also take a look at my C-Smash review.)
Now, I’m a little surprised how much I love Synapse. The concept could be too limiting in other hands but nDreams has been developing in VR for many years and understands how to design for this hardware, and not least, where to apply the detail and how to create immersive virtual reality experiences. Synapse has its flaws, but getting the most out of being inside a VR space is not one of them.
The rogue-lite game design is perfect for PSVR 2, it ensures you can dip in for short bursts of play and feel like you’ve experienced something. In Synapse the idea is to shoot your way through ever more complex ‘arenas’ filled with enemies that get more tactical, earning unlocks, temporary buffs and upgrades that can either be gambled to improve your chances on the next run or saved for permanent skills.
Where Synapse excels is in making you feel everything you do inside these mind-games. First, nDreams cleverly sells the setting by making me walk through a beautifully rendered sunlit beachside mansion before entering the minimalist, monochrome world of the villain's mind.
The setup is a wonderful use of design, as I physically feel one world melt away and the new one, the one of the interior, of black and white marbled cliffs and dark sand, emerge around me. Portals appear to link arenas, and these again look solid and sell the idea of peering into another world wonderfully.
Artistically Synapse is a triumph, but nDreams also makes use of every feature of PSVR 2 to ensure this plays like no other shooter; it’s a physical and rewarding experience. Whether I'm reloading my guns by manually pushing the magazine into the weapon or grabbing objects as makeshift ordinance, I need to actively engage with Synapse. The sense of immersion is excellent, for example that weapon reload can even be achieved by tapping the handle of my pistol against a wall.
There's subtlety in the design too, for example you can reach out to grab an explosive barrel with one hand, but pull the grip too forcefully, using the controller’s trigger, and the barrel will detonate. nDreams has even made use of PSVR 2’s eye-tracking feature to ensure your telekinesis powers feel otherworldly.
Combat in Synapse is built around these powers, enabling you to adapt on the run (yes there’s full motion with zero sickness). Few VR games have matched the level of control you can have in a situation quite like Synapse, it’s mazy caverns and sleek mind-temples can be toyed with, it’s gun-toting inhabitants my playthings.
nDreams has been canny in choosing the rogue-lite formula for Synapse, which means I can play in short periods and feel like progress is taking place. But this also means there is a lack of content - the game reuses the same maps - but the placement of enemies, rewards and upgrade stations (used to activate in-mission perks) are never in the same place twice.
You will likely complete one run of the game in around two hours but you won’t have maxed out your abilities and perks in this time. Like many rogue-lites the game length is extended organically, you can expect at least ten hours of re-runs before you get close to completing everything.
This structure is good for VR yet soon the moves and ways to deal with enemies and complete arenas can become over-familiar. It's an odd sensation, the more you spend time in Synapse, the more I take for granted its stylised visuals and unique controls.
Yet, I would argue, some games aren’t about loading up on content, particularly in VR. Synapse is about the experience of interacting with this virtual space, and few games feel this palpable.