Roguelikes have been dominated by top down twin stick shooters ever since The Binding of Isaac popularized the genre in 2011. New titles entering the ring must either bring innovation or great execution. Synthetik has just enough of both to compete.
In general terms, Synthetik is more of the same. The player fights through procedurally generated levels. The avatar accumulates weapons, upgrades, and items along the way. Every few levels the player is confronted with a boss fight. Synthetik, however, differentiates itself with some subtle combat mechanics and well executed progression.
Combat in Synthetik is defined by movement. Moving heavily reduces accuracy, and landing precision headshots is critical to eliminate threats. However, standing still for longer than is absolutely necessary leads to a quick death. This results in a shoot-and-scoot rhythm of dodging shots and stopping to aim whenever possible, all of which is aided by some clever UI and design choices. Enemies display ammunition and reload times. They also give indications of when they see or lose track of the player’s avatar. This information gives the player an idea of when to stop and aim. It also enables some stealth gameplay, which is a rarity in the genre.
The action is accompanied by solid feedback. Weapons are loud and punchy. The targeting reticle clearly indicates the accuracy of the next shot. Damage numbers are displayed after every hit to indicate the type and amount of damage dealt. Grenade type weapons have an overlay to display the area of effect. Synthetik feels great when the combat gets hectic and is at its best when you are dancing through enemy attacks while landing high damage precision shots with your favorite weapon.
In-run and meta progressions are comprehensive. The player can find a large selection of weapons of varying rarities during a run. These weapons are then upgraded per consumable upgrade kits, upgrade kiosks, and experience.
The avatar also collects active and passive items. Most have interesting and significant effects which range from a lifesteal aura to rockets to the ability to summon allies. Many actives also carry additional passives or stacking buffs. For example, the target cogitator grants a large accuracy buff while active, and all kills earned during this time provide permanent passive accuracy. The player earns experience and credits as enemies are defeated. Obviously experience levels up the player, while credits can be spent in a variety of shops.
Finally, a few passive upgrades are broken into parts. Gathering enough bolts, artifacts, and shards will unlock even more upgrades.
Significant meta upgrades also exist outside of individual runs. Each of the four classes earn experience to access new passives. “Data” earned after a run can be spent to unlock permanent perks and starting options. These unlocks include new starting pistols and the ability to manipulate item drop chances.
Unfortunately, a few issues hold the game back. A shocking number of slowing effects are present for a game that is often move or die. Some enemy attacks slow arbitrarily. Floor based hazards, such as barbed wire or mines, also trigger slows and stuns. The frustration posed by these hazards is exaggerated by their small size and low contrast. They are simply difficult to see. The problem continues with enemy attack indicators that are faint. Many signal extreme danger and should be shouts instead of whispers. Speaking of visual ambiguity, some cover elements are deceptively useless. While some objects block shots, others only block movement. Presumably this simulates obstacles at hip level. In practice, differentiating between the two types of walls can be difficult, especially during the heat of combat when the player may need to process this information quickly with peripheral vision.
Despite the number and variety of items, the player is restricted by inventory space. The avatar can only hold two weapons on top of a terrible starting pistol. Each of the four classes receives bonuses for a particular weapon class and the weapons grow in power over time, which means the player will commonly find a decent class weapon early and use it almost exclusively for most of a run. The player cannot drop items so they’ll need to destroy those items they already have if they want to make room for new ones. This is particularly frustrating when you have to burn a permanent item to acquire a consumable. Also, passives and actives occupy the number keys. This is a spectacularly awkward layout, especially for active items. Anyone who has used a keyboard should be able to imagine why.
Long and Hard
Finally, the game is very difficult. Much of the difficulty involves the unexpected movement pitfalls, unclear cover mechanics, and gimmicks. A good example of the inflated difficulty is the two button reload mechanic. Synthetik is inexplicably proud of the fact you must press two buttons to reload most weapons. This only adds an artificial challenge with a slow and unusual mechanic that isn’t satisfying to master. Weapons can even jam. I can’t imagine the type of masochist it takes to enjoy that novelty. Presumably, the game is easier in multiplayer. However, I had trouble finding a stable lobby, despite the game’s relative popularity. If you’re looking for a challenge, a solo Synthetik run should provide.
Synthetik is also rather long. A decent run can easily exceed an hour in length. Although “about an hour” isn’t particularly unusual for this style of game, Synthetik drags. I imagine this is due to how often the player is encouraged to hold on to upgraded weapons and items for long periods of time, draining combat variety in a run. A lack of enemy variety doesn’t help, either. Synthetik may be hard to recommend for anyone looking for an adaptive roguelike with a snappy pace.
Synthetik is a game that handles the tropes of its genre competently while making a genuine effort at innovation. The effort doesn’t always succeed, but it is enough to make Synthetik recommendable. At least until Advanced Gungeons and Draguns hits.