When I first reviewed the PS VR2 in February, I was hoping that would be my big return to VR, given how much I’ve admired the technology over the years.
However, a combination of so many good games this year and a lack of compelling new PS VR2 titles meant that I haven’t really touched the headset ever since. Thankfully, Synapse, the latest creation from veteran VR nDreams (Fracked), is exactly the sort of thing I needed to get me to pick back up the PS VR2.
The game follows an unnamed secret agent tasked with infiltrating the mind of a terrorist to prevent catastrophe. It’s the sort of fun spy thriller premise you’d expect from a Christopher Nolan movie, and it’s aided immensely by two talented Canadian actors, David Hayter (Metal Gear‘s Snake) and Jennifer Hale (Mass Effect‘s Commander Shepard). Channelling Michael Keaton’s “let’s get nuts!” energy from Batman, Hayter is clearly having a blast as the larger-than-life villainous Colonel Conrad, and I was eager to learn more about him as I played. Offsetting that manic energy is Hale’s Clara Sorensen, a calm and collected handler whose presence is most welcome within the Colonel’s sinister mind.
The story isn’t exceptional by any means, but it gets the job done, especially thanks to Hayter and Hale. But the real star of the show is the action-packed gameplay. On a base level, Synapse is a fairly basic shooter, with only a few types of standard guns, like a pistol and SMG. Drawing from nDreams’ own Fracked, you can also use the DualSense controllers to reach out from cover to peek and aim, which feels extremely natural. But it’s the ways in which nDreams uses telekinetic powers that make combat truly sing.
Using precise eye-tracking technology, you can target objects and enemies simply by looking at them and then waving your DualSense controllers to levitate them. It feels incredibly intuitive and has even multiple use cases, such as throwing an explosive barrel at an enemy, lifting the crate they’re taking cover behind, or slamming them into the ground. Synapse even cleverly uses the DualSense’s adaptive triggers so you can press down lightly to pick something up and fully push down to crush what you’re holding. It’s the ultimate power fantasy, evoking the feeling of a Force user in Star Wars barreling through crowds of enemies.
There’s also a smart roguelite structure to Synapse, with your character’s journey through Conrad’s mind represented through various runs. This means that you’re going to be dying and restarting a lot. Admittedly, I normally dislike this framework, as it often feels both repetitive and like you’re not making much progress, but that’s offset here by Synapse‘s shorter runtime (roughly eight hours to do everything) and uniquely immersive gameplay. Plus, a VR headset isn’t something many people, myself included, want to wear for prolonged periods, so the roguelite getup provides Synapse with a welcome pick-up-and-play appeal.
You’re also encouraged to complete mini-objectives that yield upgrade points, so this incentivizes a bit more experimentation. In typical roguelite form, these upgrades — which include increased health, the ability to lift enemies and bullets with knockback effects — will be permanent perks that carry on throughout each run. This ensured that it felt like my abilities were getting better over time, only adding to the feeling of that aforementioned power fantasy.
Unfortunately, Synapse‘s efforts to avoid the roguelite grind don’t apply elsewhere, and a larger sense of repetition starts to creep in. That begins with the painfully small enemy variety (there are only a few different types) and extends to the setup of each room, which boils down to “defeat x amount of enemies to progress.” As engrossing as the telekinesis gameplay can be, it becomes decidedly less magical when you’re fighting waves of the same enemies ad nauseum. Periodically unlocking new Hayter-voiced narrative morsels between runs definitely helps, but that only goes so far.
Still, Synapse is a rock-solid PS VR2 title, especially if you’re a lapsed user of the headset like me. With a reasonably intriguing narrative elevated by two strong performances and stellar combat, Synapse is well-worth playing, even if it begins to drag toward the end. Above all else, though, the core foundation here is so sound, and I’d love to see nDreams return to iterate on this with a sequel.
Synapse will launch on PS VR2 on July 4th.
Image credit: nDreams