Like a blend of RoboCop and Blade Runner without the satire or existential dread, Synthetik casts you as a literal killing machine sent to destroy a legion of intelligent androids. While its central mechanics will be familiar to anyone who’s played a rogue-lite shooter before, its innovative gunplay and deep upgrade system offer plenty of reasons to embark on run after run.
As with most games in the genre, Synthetik sends you through a series of procedurally generated levels with nothing but obscene amounts of firepower at your side. Each of the game’s four classes starts with a handgun and a dash move, along with a suite of specialized abilities and items. Nothing revolutionary, but it’s the first sign that Synthetik has more going on than the typical top-down shooter. Loadouts for each class are well tuned for a different style of gameplay, encouraging anything from high-risk tactics to stealth and precision. Even fundamental mechanics such as healing work differently from class to class.
Of course, this variety only matters if the game is fun, and fortunately, Synthetik makes committing violence on your fellow androids satisfying indeed. The game has lots of clever intricacies built in that engage your mind as much as your reflexes. For instance, standing still increases your accuracy, which turns gun fights into dances of positioning and evasion. Firing your weapon causes it to build up heat. Let it overheat, and you’ll take serious damage. To reload, you need to manually eject your clip -- losing any unspent bullets in the process -- then press another button to load the next round. Like in Gears of War, you can then press that button when a reload indicator on your screen hits its sweet spot to instantly finishing loading your weapon and gain a damage boost. On top of that, guns can jam, leaving you desperately tapping your keyboard to clear the chamber in the middle of a firefight.
All this complexity can be overwhelming on your first few runs, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be ready for even more complexity when you start plumbing the depths of the upgrade system. As you play, you’ll gain experience, credits, and data. Experience, predictably enough, levels up your character, granting new passive buffs and strengthening core abilities. Credits are used to buy and upgrade items within the level and are lost when you die. Data is probably the most interesting of these currencies; you keep what you’ve collected when you die and use it to purchase new starting weapons or permanent upgrades that apply across all classes.
Yet another layer is the weapon upgrade system. Weapons can be found in chests throughout the level, and the sheer variety is staggering. You’ll find everything from pistols to lightning cannons, and each time you pick one up you have a change of getting a named variation that has different stats or drastically alters its behavior. Upgrade kits are also scattered around, each buffing your weapon and giving you a choice between three randomized attachments that add further perks.
It’s incredible that this Jenga tower of systems can support its own weight, and nigh miraculous how well the pieces play off of each other. On paper it sounds like a chaotic mess, but when you’re in the thick of it, you hardly think about the dozen different factors that define your strengths and weaknesses. With so many random elements in the mix, it’s impossible to build a fully optimized character. You just pick which class you want to play and hope to find complementary weapons during your run. Even if you don’t quite find what you wanted, some combination of upgrades, abilities, items, and weapons is bound to synergize. With all these levels of augmentation, a long-range shotgun that fires ricocheting rounds and occasionally launches missiles is not out of the question.
Get far enough into the game and even this absurd amount of firepower may not seem like enough. Players usually go into rogue-lites seeking a challenge, and Synthetik doesn’t fail to deliver. With a seemingly unlimited number of ways to kill you, the game never entirely lets players off the hook. It doesn’t matter how powerful your arsenal is when you take a barrage of missiles to the face. Every level is punishing, but bosses are downright brutal. They’ll push your skills to the limit as they shrug off your gunfire while filling the screen with flak.
Fortunately, you have several ways of dealing with the challenge. Synthetik has a modular difficulty level that allows you to configure a dozen different aspects of the gameplay to suit your taste. If you still find yourself outgunned, you can always bring in reinforcements, thanks to the game’s simple online multiplayer mode. From the main menu, you can search for open lobbies or start your own, and as long as you’re online you can chat with other players regardless of whether you’re in the same lobby. It isn’t the most active online community, but I never had much trouble finding a teammate when I wanted one.
Synthetik’s graphics and sound are well done, but they’re obviously secondary to gameplay. Aside from a theme song that might as well just be a remix of the Stranger Things theme, there’s not much music to speak of. Sound effects are also sparse, but they pack a visceral punch, especially when you’re using heavy weapons. The game’s graphics are more notable. Only a few of the enemy designs were particularly interesting, but they’re all painted in broad patches of vibrant color and stand out clearly even in the midst of a hectic firefight. Visually, everything has a sterile, mechanical menace that suits the game well, even when it isn’t otherwise that impressive.
Synthetik is a masterful rogue-lite, but it still shares the genre’s biggest problem. There’s a slight irony to the way that games built around randomness and variation inevitably start to feel a little repetitive. Running through the same gameplay loop as you die over and over is bound to get boring after a while, and randomized weapons and enemies can only do so much to mitigate that. Synthetik doesn’t address that issue, trying instead to make its central loop as fun and technically fulfilling as possible. While it succeeds extraordinarily well there, it still makes no concessions to players’ limited time or patience as they repeatedly throw themselves toward almost certain death. Even though I had to eventually accept that I would never master Synthetik, it was still a joy to fail at, time and time again.