morecowbell24's Synthetik (PC) review

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Robo-synthetic shooting with a pulse.

Seemingly spawned from the 90s, Synthetik both visually and through its gameplay emulates that era of PC gaming, evoking the memories of games like Crusader: No Remorse and Syndicate but modernizes it with Roguelike sensibilities. It’s a robotic shooter with a pulse and it's unrelenting in its willingness to put players on the back foot.

Synthetik opens with the God of War, Zir, growing tired of watching your failed attempts at betrayal in other timelines and granting you transcending consciousness, so that your synth-self may succeed. After a brief tutorial, the game begins. Your Mission: Find and destroy the heart of Armageddon.

Sad to say, Zir is probably going to be watching a lot more failed attempts. Synthetik generally feels appropriately challenging, spiking just enough throughout to keep you vigilant. Its final gauntlet however, comes out of nowhere as one of the most unfairly designed encounters you could possibly imagine. And when you do manage to claw and clutch your way past the Last Defender, the game unceremoniously ends and immediately begins anew. It’s comes as a bit of a shock to fight through something so difficult and be met with very little in the way of fanfare.

To say the storytelling is sparse is an understatement. The ending offers no answers and poses no questions. There is nothing beyond what the tutorial sets up. It’s up to players to interpret what little they find, see or hear in the few kinds of environments you have to shoot your way through. The roguelike gameplay really inflates how much each level looks like the next. The third area does look wild compared to the rest of the Synthetik, but despite being a welcome change of scenery, it’s a bit jarring when upon clearing it you’re right back to the same kinds of cyber-military industrial warehouses you were clearing earlier, especially without any sort of story beat to tie the transitions together.

Despite the similarity of the environments, Synthetik executes and maintains a clean, yet industrial and cyberpunk military aesthetic. Stopping for a moment to take in all the explosions and gunfire might result in a death, but from top to bottom it’s got a sleek look. The soundscape only accentuates that sleekness and really amps up the rest experience with potent gun sounds, tinking headshots and pulsating synthwave rhythms that would make Frank Klepacki proud.

Fortunately, what Synthetik lacks in story and environments it makes up for in its arsenal, encounters and enemies. The core, moment to moment gameplay is a visceral delight, but also offers a bit more depth with its rogue-like trappings. There are four classes that all emphasize more specialized styles of play, each featuring its own progression with perks to unlock, opening up new ways to play while also ensuring some level of forward progress after repeated failed runs.

The core to the game is reminiscent to that of a twin-stick shooter, but with a mouse and keyboard. The highs of Synthetik’s frenetic pace make it difficult to imagine other options working too well, despite it taking a little getting used to. Strangely enough, weapon management is one of the primary focuses of gameplay. Keeping enough ammunition around is a concern, and guns can jam, overheat or the recoil might get away from you, leaving you in a sticky situation.

In what seems like a concerted effort to stop compulsive reloading, Synthetik’s most interesting mechanic revolves around reloading. It requires you to press an entirely different button to eject your magazine before you can reload, and then also features the Gears of War active reload system as a cherry on top. Mastering this mechanic feels central to getting to most enjoyment out of what the game has to offer. However, with its more modern approach to difficulty settings, Synthetik allows for modifiers to be switched on and off to tune the experience more to your liking. For example, the magazine ejection can be made automatic, or you can make the game more difficult by making weapons generate more heat.

While it is a mechanically sound gameplay experience, it would only go so far without the variety found in its artificial bestiary. When your life is finite, encountering new enemies can be stressful, especially when they so many threaten your destruction in a way considerably different than the last. It’s not all stress though, once you have an idea of what to expect, and find yourself with the right gear, you can really get into a rhythm. There is even a little quiet time you can use to explore and gather yourself before moving on, which becomes doubly nice considering you’ll be needing every item and upgrade you can get your hands on to conquer the Synthetik’s final boss. More and more roguelikes seem to want to force a speedrun upon you, so it’s refreshing that this one doesn't punish a less reckless approach.

It’s a shame that its final gauntlet, lack of story and flat area designs are holding it back just that little bit. Synthetik’s core gameplay is just so solid, and it almost fully encapsulates PC action gaming in the 90s with its clean, robo-synthetic military industrial future aesthetic and brings it to the modern world as some sort of long lost bastard child of Crusader: No Remorse and Syndicate.

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