April 23, 2018 // 4 p.m.
Developer: Flow Fire Games
Publisher: Flow Fire Games
Platform(s): PC (Windows)
Synthetik lauinched just a month ago on March 16. 'But Jake,' I hear you say, 'why wait a month to review it?'
Mostly because this robotic rogue-lite, which layers hardcore weapon mechanics and RPG elements over a top-down blaster, was so surprisingly good it ate up all of my time.
Synthetik's core gameplay is so compelling the game should be whispered about in the same reverence usually saved for hits like Nuclear Throne or Enter The Gungeon.
One of the most interesting mechanics, and the thing that marks it out from the rest of the genre, is that reloading is a two-step process. Reloading your gun requires you to eject the magazine, causing you in most cases to lose the ammunition in the discarded magazine, before performing an active reload — tapping the reload button again in a green area — to get numerous benefits, the most obvious of which is quicker access to a loaded weapon with which to shoot back at the veritable tide of robotic attackers descending on you from all directions.
This means that reloading feels like a more actively involved process than just mashing a reload button as you duck into cover, which for some will be too much complexity, but it adds a flow to the combat that's satisfying, as a player can emerge, dump a magazine and then make their escape while ejecting the spent mag and slamming a new one home. This is what you do in any shooter, really, but having an active part in the separate stages creates a greater sense of physicality, almost as if you're actually doing the reload yourself instead of just mashing a button while gurning in panic.
The timings on each individual weapon differ - just a split second or so, but it's enough that you have to learn each weapon. The game has a deep RPG-like system that exists outside of the individual runs, allowing you to research extra gameplay elements, level up classes, and gain mastery with certain weapons.
This has the effect of providing a mechanical bonus to the weapons as the player gets more familiar with their individual quirks, which in turn provides a nice endorphin rush when a familiar weapon drops Not all weapons are created equally, however, and even the same one could land in a different configuration, forcing a slight change to your strategy.
Synthetic is full of these nice little endorphin rushes. Every item and weapon in the game seems designed for one specific purpose: blowing stuff up. Throughout every run, whether you're playing as a stealthy Rogue or the defensive Guardian, you'll be blowing the hell out of everything, terminating robots with extreme prejudice.
At first, Synthetik is overwhelming. The simple act of survival is enough to keep your plate fairly full, but you need also to account for the reloading system, ammo management, and having to accept and organise your upgrades on your screen while avoiding a small, localised war that is constantly moving towards your position.
This doesn't ever get easier, but over time you adjust to the situation and start to pick up ways to eke out an advantage. Maybe there's a tiny alleyway that can be hidden in to change a reload, or two enemies can be goaded into shooting each other with high powered lasers. By mastering these micro-strategies, you can even the odds slightly, but there's never a time when you'll feel in fully control. You're in the middle of a whirlwind, which is appealing for a short play session, but there are few games as exhaustively relentless as this.
The game's signposting is quite poor, and often you won't know what something does except by trial and error. This can be challenging with the multitude of weapon types on offer, but there's a general chat room that's always enabled in-game, and I've found I get a pretty rapid response any time I have a question; perhaps this isn't ideal when you're under fire, but in that case the old ways work best: point gun towards enemy, pull trigger until enemy is no more.
Similarly, while the game looks great in screenshots, there's something a little off about the animations in motion. The player and all enemies are robots, so it shouldn't be that unusual to see them waddling, well, robotically, but there's something uncanny about it and most of the other animations that takes away from the actual shooting. Movement feels clunky, but less in an accurate robotic way and more in an unfinished one.
However, these are small issues that wrap around an engaging core. This game should and would stand alongside top-down rogue-lite shooters like Nuclear Throne and Enter the Gungeon if there was any justice in the world. However, it seems more likely that this will remain a counter-culture curio forevermore, and that's a shame, because there's a lot of promise here, and putting enemies down with the game's extensive collection of semi-realistic weaponry remains incredibly satisfying throughout.