Runs Great, Needs Paint
HIGH The core systems offer a great action-focused roguelike experience.
LOW The UI and menu systems need a lot of work.
WTF How am I supposed to disable the APC without getting my ass shot off?
First impressions count for a lot, and in the case of Synthetik: Ultimate, those first impressions are horrible.
Without knowing anything other than the fact it was a roguelike, I was instantly put off by the odd controls, confusing mouse-control menus, tiny text, unclear tutorials and all-around roughness apparent in every aspect. I was about to delete it, but there was a little itch that kept me going. It seemed like maybe something was there underneath all of the jank?
The gameplay was right up my alley – top-down, twin-stick shooting starring the cybernetically-enhanced operative of the player’s choosing. There was a lot of stuff onscreen and I was fumbling my way through it with the first of eight classes, but despite the things that were putting me off, the core of it felt… alright? Promising, perhaps?
I tried a few other classes and settled on the Engineer, primarily because they have a sentry turret that can be deployed to act as a distraction, or as temporary backup – much needed while I was still finding my feet. That little bit of breathing room allowed me to piece the rest of Synthetik‘s formula together, and once I had the measure of it, I started enjoying myself a great deal more.
Like the best roguelikes, Synthetik: Ultimate knows that the key is in making each run feel fresh, and here it succeeds greatly. In addition to a variable loadout for each class with new unlocks as they level up, the player will encounter tons of randomized guns and gear that add a different spin to each run — the tactics needed when trying to shotgun one’s way through a swarm of guards are quite different than having a sniper rifle and an autonomous drone, for example.
Even better is finding a passive power or automatic attack. In one of my earliest runs, I came across a bit of kit that unleashed a lightning bolt every few seconds to fry nearby foes (awesome!) and another attempt rewarded me with several batteries of devastating homing missiles to back up the multi-pronged laser I was already packing.
Other details that revealed themselves over time gradually convinced me that Synthetik had a good grasp on the fundamentals — where it counts — despite the clumsiness and lack of polish in the UI.
Random shops pop up offering players potentially huge boosts in firepower if they have the cash, the exits in a level sometimes offer multiple destinations that the player can choose depending on how bold they’re feeling, and when starting a new game, there are a slew of toggles that add another layer of challenge – things like a higher chance of a gun jamming, or tougher enemies from the get-go. The upside is that these opt-in hurdles also add a welcome boost to EXP. These nuances (and others) are all smart additions that elevate the improvise-as-one-goes, tactically varied qualities that great roguelikes offer.
While I wish the developers would give their awful UI a top-to-bottom revamp, anyone who makes it past the initial mess and manages to dig in will find a challenging, persuasive roguelike actioner that delivers an unexpectedly sophisticated good time. The exterior needs a fair amount of elbow grease, but the engine underneath is purring.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Flow Fire Games. It is currently available on Switch, XBO and PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 8 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed (still playing — it’s tough!) There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E10+ for Mild Blood and fantasy Violence. The violence here is tiny humanoid cyborgs shooting other tiny humanoid cyborgs and robots with guns and rockets. There’s no gore and it’s all generally bloodless. There is shooting and things get destroyed, but it’s all fairly abstract, especially given the camera perspective.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played the entire game on mute and had no problems at all. Text is generally too small and cannot be resized or altered, but in terms of how easy it is to play without sound, it’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.