nDreams is back with a compelling new addition to the burgeoning VR action roguelike genre. Synapse is a high-octane shooter for the PlayStation 5’s PSVR 2 that tasks you with infiltrating the mind of a high-risk target and tactically murdering your way through unpredictable levels in search of information imperative to preventing a global catastrophe. Following a classic ‘live, fight, die, repeat’ process, Synapse revels in the tension of sunk cost. You’ll fail hard and lose runs often as you bray against the forces in the colonel’s mind. But will you want to keep getting back up? And is this one of the best PSVR 2 games so far?
Built on the bones of nDream’s 2022 mountain-based VR shooter Fracked, Synapse supes up the gunplay, adding a healthy dose of telekinesis, and throwing some extra narrative intrigue into the mix. Here you’ll use some impressive sci-fi machinery to infiltrate the brain of a rogue agent by the name of Colonel Peter Conrad, who is voiced brilliantly by none other than Solid Snake himself, David Hayter. As you progress further into his goon-filled cortex, things start to get murkier, with each level uncovering some difficult truths, leaving you wondering if things are really what they seem on the surface. Accompanying you for the ride is your no-bullshit handler Clara, voiced with flair by another legend of videogame voice acting, Jennifer Hale.
Kicking things off with a well-paced tutorial, Synapse quickly introduces you to the main elements of the game’s combat across a few test levels. During this process, you’ll learn to duck, shoot, swipe, and squeeze your way through enemies and obstacles. As a novice to the world of VR shooters, I found this extremely helpful in removing any outlying anxiety I had in the face of Synapse’s high-paced combat. This was especially useful considering that when you progress to a new area, you’ll need to hunt down every single enemy on the map. Within this process, it’s also explained that you’ll need to make your way through a series of ‘zones’, moving through the Colonel’s Preconscious, Subconscious, and so on to gain all the pieces of the puzzle and complete the mission (though there’s still plenty to investigate after the credits roll).
Once you exit the tutorial, the real test begins as the pacing shifts quite abruptly, courtesy of some gun-toting grunts, explosive runners, and all kinds of mind-based killers who want to expunge you from the area with as much brute force as they can muster. Synapse is tough at first, but it becomes a lot easier once you start to dig into its upgrade system and get a feel for the fight. One important caveat to Synapse’s ace combat is the continuous movement style. Where some VR games like Half-Life Alyx offer several kinds of traversal options (teleportation, for example) so that everyone can play, Synapse only allows you to explore in a smooth fashion via the analogue stick. It’s a system that suits the game well, but the lack of choice will make avoiding bouts of motion sickness challenging for those who don’t have their VR sea legs.
Players are tasked with ambient in-combat goals called Revelations, mini-missions which can range from ‘crush ten enemies with a mental block’ to ‘get three critical hits’, and ‘spend 2,000 Defiance’, the currency that Synapse’s enemies drop. Once achieved, you’ll gain Insight, which you can spend in your pre-run hub to commit permanent upgrades, including everything from an extra life to new weapons and Telekinesis abilities you can leverage to toy with your targets. Revelations add ever-changing creative goalposts to each run, which allows the gameplay to stay reasonably fresh. These two systems felt wonderfully symbiotic, with none of my goals feeling impossible or out of reach as I scaled the skill trees.
The player is also privy to enticing upgrades within missions that help mix up each attempt, from ‘Mind Hacks’, which you gain as you pass through zones, to purchasable upgrades you can find throughout levels. The additional buffs felt like they added a healthy mix of choice and chance to grapple with as I progressed.
Blending your death loops into the story is a clever way to integrate the plot with the gameplay and added some healthy tension to my runs. As I progressed deeper, I learned curious pieces of the narrative, but once the damage was too much to bear, I was sent back to the start, tasked with dismantling the mental minutiae again and again. Even so, each morsel of dialogue I earned was a badge of honor I could wear as I returned to the first zone, this time with more planning and information to run with.
It was in this repetitive nature I also found some frustration, though. While the gunplay and mind powers were increasingly fun, especially as I unlocked more upgrades, the repetition of dialogue and enemy barks frustrated me. The first few times I had “They are not one of us” spewed at me in an angry synthoid tone, I enjoyed it, reminding me of the random aggression found in Star Wars battle droids. That novelty was short-lived, however, as I found myself bored of their verbal assaults eventually, which in the end only served as a noise to telegraph where they were.
In the heat of battle, some mechanics weren’t as polished as I’d hoped either, with small problems like non-functioning grab motions or ammunition needing multiple attempts to pick up giving me grief. While these bugs aren’t noticeable in small doses, they added unwanted frustration to my many brushes with death.
Synapse is coated in pleasing monochromatic greyscale, with your telekinesis abilities and rounds of ammunition breaking it up with neon blasts. Often I found myself delighted as streaks of red and pink flooded my screen when throwing blocks or defeating enemies. A personal highlight was lifting, throwing, and squeezing Synapse’s oil barrels until they burst with the adaptive triggers of the PSVR 2 Sense Controllers, sending splatters of orange and yellow paint across the map.
This stylistic choice looks stunning on the PSVR 2’s 4K screens, which allow each rocky ridge and slick mirror texture to shine. Some choice lighting tech and gritty textures also worked wonders to keep the world from feeling flat, which is important, as you’ll likely spend a lot of time in it.
Synapse is a moreish VR take on the classic roguelike experience, and successfully leverages the PSVR 2’s most impressive features to create a world of intrigue and upgrades that I enjoyed my time in. It has its valleys, and the movement style is not for everyone, but even so, nDream’s latest VR FPS game consistently convinced me to die another day.
Synapse (PSVR 2)
Synapse is a compelling addition to the world of VR shooters, loaded with plenty of appetizing gameplay and intriguing monochromatic world-building, even if some frustrating bugs and a challenging difficulty curve could get in its way.