SYNTHETIK: Ultimate Review (Switch) – Rise Against The Machine
It was only recently that my opinions on roguelikes/roguelites changed. I used to think they were pointless, with no real objective to them, just looped gameplay played out with randomised levels. Then, Hades came along and blew my mind with its interwoven story elements in a roguelite game. So when something like SYNTHETIK lands at HQ, I approach it with a more positive approach than I used to.
Now, don’t go getting your hopes up if you’re expecting a robotic version of Supergiant’s sleeper hit of 2020. SYNTHETIK doesn’t revolutionise the format, nor will it tug at your heartstrings with an uplifting and powerful story. It won’t be vying for Game of the Year in technological or groundbreaking advancement, shall we say.
Yet there are times when you don’t want a game to be revolutionary or system-defining, you just want it to be fun. Thankfully, SYNTHETIK has that, with its weird retro charm and progression system (making this a roguelite), I’ve had a blast with it. Just because it doesn’t have a deep and hooking narrative doesn’t mean it won’t have depth to it. Shall we find out what I mean?
Humanity’s Last Clichéd Hope
That bit above not having a massively deep and engaging story? You see, I wasn’t exaggerating that bit. SYNTHETIK has the narrative complexity of a Mr. Men book. There are no “your wife is actually your arm” or “your brother’s cloned arm is possessing the villain” twists and turns here, oh no. Also, those are real plot points from other games and yes, they are as absurd as they sound.
The story here is not too far removed from that of Ultracore: a big ol’ army of robots wants to wipe out mankind, you’re the last bastion of hope to stop them. It shares that same air of retro-futurism too, the kind of future dreamed up in the 80’s that makes you instantly think of Blade Runner or The Running Man. If you want a video game comparison, think Smash TV (and that’ll make sense later on), or early Syndicate games. SYNTHETIK is pure cheese and it knows it, which makes it more enjoyable than a game trying to do it “ironically”.
The gist is that the world’s gone to pot, nuclear destruction, AI taking over and all that. You know, the plot from the Matrix. However, unlike “The Chosen One” you are not a nerd-cum-messiah, you are an android kitted out with a swanky cyber-suit and a mission. That mission is to raze the Citadel from the ground up, quite literally, as you ascend the robo-headquarters and bring them down.
See, told you it wasn’t very original. But then, does it have to be? It’s the gameplay of this video game that needs to sell it. Thankfully, it does.
Find And Destroy The Heart Of Armageddon
The core of SYNTHETIK’s gameplay is that of a twinstick, top-down shooter. If you’ve ever played Geometry Wars or Nex Machina, you’ll know the drill: left stick moves, right stick aims/shoots. In this instance it’s the aim, with R or ZR (on the Switch) pulling the trigger. I say either of those two because, through a minimum amount of faff, you can change them. To me, I prefer it as ZR for that trigger feel.
Whilst there are multiple classes of character you can play as, the main tenet seems to be a more faster-paced approach than methodical. Much like Ruiner, there’s more enjoyment to be had in the dashing and bashing, yet paying heed to health at times and exercising caution.
You start with two weapons and a handful of abilities on each one, ranging from offensive blasts, tank-like buffs and even a stealth cloak for a particular class. Unlike Hades, where a lot of abilities are passive, SYNTHETIK’s are more towards the offensive, with passive being secondary.
But the game’s real hot seller has got to be its arsenal.
A One Android Army
In my [admittedly limited] experience with the genre, it seems a game can make or break on its combat. Thankfully, SYNTHETIK makes the cut with its creative cache of weaponry.
Most classes start with a secondary pistol and a primary, depending on the class. The Breacher will have a shotgun and pistol, whilst the Demolisher will have a grenade launcher. The only exception to this is the Assassin class, that just has a pistol at the beginning. However, it does allow you to use a sweet stealth cloak for some surprise attacks.
As you progress, you’ll see boxes littering levels with a random new weapon in it. The variety is impressive, covering all bases from belt-fed machine guns, sniper rifles, explosive crossbows (as in, explosive bolts) and allsorts in-between. Don’t expect Borderland-esque levels of insane variants, but there’s an extensive enough library that make no two playthroughs stale.
Coupled with guns is the massive range of abilities and support weapons you can pick up along the way. Turrets, grenades, randomised electrical strikes… these are but a few of them. The game promises over one hundred and forty different combinations each time you play and you know what? I believe it.
What also makes this fun, and the lite part of roguelite, is its progression system. Each class has an experience bar, meaning they all level up independently of one another. The trick is to play around with different combos and see which you prefer, then focus on building a strong class as you ascend the citadel.
While its story might be on the generic side, the gameplay certainly makes up for it. Playing around with different classes, experimenting with weapons and tools and even getting a friend to help online is a blast. But no matter how hard you try, death is still inevitable.
However, because of the progressive nature of how you build character/classes up, it’s not a pain in the ass. So don’t get pissy when you die at the first boss, like I did, as you’ll be lucky to get far on your first attempt.
What does help with leveling is SYNTHETIK’s risk/reward difficulty system. Besides the usual difficulty settings, you can add or remove certain perameters that can grant experience bonuses. Take reloading: you can manually eject magazines as well as hit a Gears of War-style reload bonus prompt. It’s on by default, but turning it to automatic reload makes it easier at the cost of less experience gained.
Other modifiers like granting enemies a percentage chance of damage deflection may not sound ideal, but the benefit is that you can potentially dash further. It doesn’t sound much on er, “paper”, but in practice it means you can zip about quicker and close gaps to deal that missed damage back.
There’s also a modifier that makes you susceptible to more ailments like poison and shell shock, but the positive is you can more from buffs picked up on the field. It’s there if you fancy dabbling, but it won’t cheapen the immersion if you want to keep it at its already challenging vanilla level.
In The Future, Even Advanced AI Can’t Do Interface Properly
Whilst the gameplay in SYNTHETIK is all fine and lovely, the menu UI is possibly one of the most frustrating I’ve ever come across. For one, I wish console games (and even Cyberpunk is guilty of this) would stop the faux-PC cursor approach. It works on PC because you have a mouse on a cursor. It doesn’t on console, thumbsticks are a pain in the ass to hold and drag across to highlight what I want. I have perfectly good directional buttons too, let me use them.
It also adds tension to tedium by it being the world’s slowest cursor. That’s no exaggeration either, made even weirder that it speeds up if you use the right stick in tandem. Why not just make it the default speed?! Alright, you can use the touch pad but that’s just unnecessary faff when the D-pad is programmed to scroll, not select. Ugh.
The whole presentation of the menu system makes it painfully obvious that this is a PC port. It’s not terrible, per se, it’s just annoying that user ease of accessibility wasn’t considered when switching to a different layout. The combination of slow tracking and fiddling with the touchscreen is mind numbing.
In the several hours I’ve had with it, I can’t really find much to complain about. The graphics suit the handheld nature of the Switch Lite with its clunky, Bitmap Brothers-era looks, but I’d imagine it wouldn’t dazzle on a normal TV. Given that there’s no human element to the game, the same-note voices of your enemies can become stale after a fashion. Of course, you can turn these down, or the music up, if you like. It’s not a deal-breaker.
Fall Of The Robots
Once you get past the iffy UI, you’ll find a fun and surprisingly deep game in SYNTHETIK. I would love to tell you all about the benefits of leveling your classes up, but I can’t. Not for lack of trying, mind. It’s just that this is a roguelite, and the major component of this genre is grind. However, that’s not a negative, instead something I would implore you to invest some time in. Hades is one of my games of this year, with this coming in a steady second for the genre.
It’s a simple enough game mechanic, if a little challenging at times. There’s a Firing Range if you want to mess about with loadouts, as well as an Arena wave mode if you want more challenge. It seems a weird addition when you consider the main game is similar, but Arena offers stricter criteria for the masochists.
In terms of gameplay and progression depth, there’s loads to invest in. In broader terms like world and lore to discover, there’s not so much of that. But as I said at the start, you don’t always need that. Sometimes you want don’t want engrossing narrative, just a battlefield of ‘bots to destroy. If you can get a buddy in to help (who take over a friendly robot looking straight out of Probotector) then even better.
Considering developer Flow Fire Games is a two-man team from Germany, this is a worthy output in an ever growing market of rogue-ish games. It may have some fiddly UI and configuration settings, but don’t let that detract from the core concept: destroy all the things.
Offering a modern roguelite spin on a retro-inspired concept, SYNTHETIK is a cracking title from a small team. A fiddly menu system can be a pain at times, but the core gameplay of this robot rampage is absolutely top notch. Either solo or with a friend, there’s hours of fun to be had in trying to overthrow the machine.
SYNTHETIK is available now on PC, with the Nintendo Switch (reviewed on Switch Lite), PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions available from December 16th.
Developer: Flow Fire Games
Publisher: Flow Fire Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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