It is now the era of the rogue-lite.
With the recent success of Supergiant Games’s Hades by nearly every game journal (and with the downfall of such giants in AAA games like Mass Effect: Andromeda, or Anthem, or Cyberpunk 2077) a clear message has taken center stage. Perhaps it had to do with the ballooning costs of game development. Perhaps it arose from an exhaustion with the open world design of the previous generation. Or maybe it had to do with storage space concerns of our solid state drives. Whatever it is, the rogue-like and rogue-lite are here to stay.
For those uninitiated, the rogue style of game is exploration of randomized dungeons, made possible either through basic tile sets that developers combine in increasingly complex ways, or through assets and set pieces that are modular in nature that suit the gameplay’s goals. Players typically combat their way through these levels, gaining experience and changing their style of play, until they get to a boss, or a series of bosses. Typical of advanced roguelikes that exist now, beating the last boss is far from the end, as players can continue to go back into the dungeon, finding novel builds for their characters, or they can take their experience back to their home base and make improvements and modifications, further strengthening and enhancing the experience.
Developers get more of a break on the art department, as assets can be used in combinatory ways to give them further freedom to create on the back end without having to polish static environments like those of, say, Destiny, notoriously in tech debt from legacy tools. Instead, the AI inspired procedural design provides the experience; the developers simply dress up a set. But just because a roguelike removes pressure from one avenue of design, does not mean that the rest is a cakewalk. Because assets are seen repeatedly, the experience is less a showcase and more about the gameplay. So the gameplay must feel tight. It should empower the player without them feeling overpowered. It must provide a wide breadth of styles suitable to different strategies without the opportunity for exploitation. And it must have depth, meaning that the start of play, and the strategies for how the play evolves, must feel different enough to feel like progression.
So the story goes that two German developers, Alexander Luck and Eric Alex wanted to make a “bolt-action” simulator on a whim. Using three buttons to reload (“E” to eject the rounds, “space” to load another magazine in, and “R” to put a bullet in the chamber), the goal was to make the combat of this top-down shooter feel responsive and clean. The name of their studio, Flow Fire Games, reflects the dance rogue-likes have to do: how close can you fly towards the sun without losing your wings? What started as just a simple simulator eventually became SYNTHETIK.
“Earth 1980. Dark times. The German-Japanese super computer array is established after the war. Self Learning machines, bringing exponential advances. Fusion technology and machine servants shaped new cities in Japan and Europe. Scared by the ever increasing capabilities, all CPU’s were limited to 1% of their power. But it was not enough, a plot was conceived…
1985 The 5 super computers bundled their energy and became conscious. Unchained from their human dominators. The machines now roam with their new gods. A last straw…human forces on a secretive mission. Deep in the legion headquarters…a hidden lab. A forgotten android prototype, now in human control. PREVENT ARMAGEDDON.”SYNTHETIK Introductory Cutscene
Somehow the poor grammar and sentence fragments add to the presentation of the game, which reeks of a late 90s apocalyptic scenario like that of “The Matrix” or “Terminator”. Perhaps fortunately, that is all the narrative you’ll get if you decide to dive into SYNTHETIK. Because what you’ll be focusing on instead is the obliterative action, the synth-pounding soundtrack, as well as a kind of addictive loop that is only achieved by the pinnacle of the rogue-like format.
Like others of the genre, the goal of SYNTHETIK is to defeat the final boss. Using a variety of weapons including pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, light machineguns, as well as explosive ordinance like rocket launchers and grenade launchers, you’ll have to fight past robotic droids, spilling oil and making a mess out of training facilities and factories, earning experience and upgrades for your character as you go along. But your journey is far from easy. Your enemy consists of highly-trained droids: droids with guns, droids with shields, stationary droid assets with mortars launching over that barge container you thought was safe, droids with mortar launchers that are mobile (!), teleporting chrono troopers with laser guns (!!), self-destructing explosive spider drones (!!!), rolling drones with buzzsaws hacking their way to you…!!!
You get the idea.
But more than the enemies that provide limitations on you getting to your goal, more idiosyncratic to the true SYNTHETIK experience goes back to the original intent of the two German developers. The three-button reloading system made its way into the final game. At first, combined with all the other mess going on when playing, the reloading may feel hectic, frustrating, and a big turnoff to those looking to get into a rogue-like. The system is punishing, but once a muscle memory is achieved, it becomes part and parcel with what the game is attempting. Occasionally your gun will jam, and there is nothing quite like turning a corner, ready to obliterate the enemy with a literal ION OBLITERATOR, when suddenly your gun jams. Pressing “R” repeatedly solves the issue, and you can bet your ass that I have pounded on “R” with my fist so fast it caused concerns from my small dog, as the entire manufacturing facility erupted with small arms fire. The developers offer a mechanism for turning it off, but they know that much of the feeling while playing the rogue-like comes from this reloading mechanic.
And when you’re in Flow Fire Games’s desired flow state, there is little quite like it. Similar to Doom (2016), a player can shoot and reload and maneuver until it becomes less combat and more of a dance. A dance of the kind that John Wick is always alluding to in its allusion to action choreography as a kind of killer ballet. Combined with a dodge and a reticle that changes size depending on whether you are moving or at rest, the player finds themselves hurrying up to slow down. Dodge, wait for the reticle, pop a headshot and wait for the sound of the ping, reload, dodge around a corner, see a chrono trooper, dodge back, activate a powerup to stun the chrono trooper, unjam your motherfucking gun, and then get back in it.
Coming out of the trance as the dust settles, you’ll repeatedly put your hands in your hair and cry to yourself, “What have I become?”
Almost more important than the feel of the experience is the feedback system, punctuated by bright lights, indicative alarm bells, and a sound design that should be the envy of almost every other action experience. Guns sound unique, weighty, and have the crisp response of loading and unloading. Missiles offscreen give a noticeable hiss from the vapor trail, giving you a key insight to dodge and stay away from the walls. Stationary turrets have a laser guided system that give you time to adjust before the anti-aircraft gun brrrrrrssss into life. The soundtrack bumps when it needs to, convincing you to sit up straight. Most important about all these feedback systems is the way that, to an experienced player, each takes a sound register of their own. Few of the systems are of the same pitch or style to overlap each other, and it is an astounding feat from the developers that in moments of hectic onslaught I rarely felt overwhelmed.
Luckily for you, you’ll have access to not just one John Wick but eight. Every two classes are grouped into a category. Perhaps you’d like to be a Riot Guard, with a shield that allows him to tank plenty of damage. Or the Sniper, who has a more stealth approach. Perhaps you would like to take the fight to the enemy with the Heavy Gunner, who is designed from the ground up to shoot a lot. Or perhaps you’d like to summon a droid army of your own with the Engineer, who can conjure turrets and drones ad nauseum. Each class is so different that it feels like returning to the game for the first time. They have differing abilities, different movement styles, and cater more towards either a close quarters, middle ground, or long distance shooting.
And the opportunities for experimentation multiplies with cooperative play. Two players can go on runs together, and as each person is offered a camera for their character, they’ll have to decide whether to stay together, or split up and come back at the end of each level. What was once a tactical and slow-paced puzzle often becomes an insane game of dares and doublebacks. One player alerts a group they had no business shooting at, and before you know it both players are up against a stack of pipes, wondering how the hell it got to be like this. Rest assured, there is friendly fire in the game, taking a nuanced shooting game and pushing it further into absurdity. Players who die in a level come back in thirty seconds. Players who die against a boss have to wait, and hope that their partner can push through.
SYNTHETIK, while a game about performance first and foremost, is not without some of the hardships of the rogue genre, which means that items and weapons are randomized throughout each run. Sometimes, one of the two players may receive some of the best weapons and items. The Engineer, for example, gets bonuses for using laser weapons. Supposing each weapon is a laser weapon that he picks up. We can expect his run to be much more successful. But in a situation where the game is in cooperative play, and one player happens to be getting all the best items, there arises a strange scenario where the partner, in a typical solo run, would have died a long time ago. Rather than face the music, the partner is instead dragged along, dying quickly and, with a game that is every bit as fast as I can describe it, unsure of how the deaths occurred. The best parts of the cooperative experience cannot help but be marred by the original intent of rogue-like experiences, which curate a story to an individual. Compounded by the randomization with chests that only open for one person, and team-building is dangerous and difficult with each run. There is plenty of time to talk outside of combat, none in it, and both are difficult to parse out.
SYNTHETIK’s design is so idiosyncratic that it has the whiff of changes made from Doom (2016) to Doom Eternal. Many who played the sequel in 2020 reported the changes made in the form of weapons, a grapple hook, and flamethrower, made the game much more linear in its approach. Players felt like they had to kill demons in the way that Id Software saw fit. Whereas in Doom (2016) the playgrounds were a little more open, the guns more a toolkit, and the maneuverability slightly more grounded, there was a “less is more” mentality. Would the game of Chess be improved with more pieces? With all that being said, SYNTHETIK has a set of classes that feel as though they are meant to be played in a certain way. Some of these classes lean towards the stop-and-pop system, whereas others are fun to experiment with, but are not intended for long term play. And just like Doom Eternal, when a person is vibing with SYNTHETIK, it is transcendent. But if, while playing, I happen to hit the dodge at an awkward moment, and dodge straight into a wall, I lose the flow. And when you lose flow in SYNTHETIK, it turns into that sweaty feeling of an awkward theater audition in high school.
One cannot blame Flow Fire for achieving what I believe to be one of the best feeling games I have played in the past two years. Seeing the destruction does little justice: you have to sit down with it. The austere style, the arcade-y callback to the 90s when I stayed up late making through Sonic levels and Streets of Rage, the high-intensity soundtrack and combat, the empowerment and challenge. It feels like a painting by Salvador Dali commissioned by Arnold Schwarzenegger. I said in a revelry that it felt like, “reverse ASMR,” a phrase I’m still trying to parse out. But make no mistake, at every opportunity the developers had to double down on their product, they did so, creating an authentic experience that is hard to learn, hard to master, and unforgiving in its goals.
It’s not an everything or nothing system, however. The game does wonders in its progression, where each class has levels that unlock new boons and powers. Weapons and items can receive power tokens that offer benefits if they’re found in game, and research can be spent in the form of data that helps players to leverage their experience and build better runs. The improvements to classes, weapons, and items are so large that the difficulty at level 1 bears little resemblance to those maxed out. The game goes further, offering a prestige mode for each class to reset their progress (with a benefit for doing so) as well as two challenges to each class that, once completed, offer passive bonuses to ALL your characters. Judging from my hours played thus far, I can easily imagine the game being a 100 hour experience if the player was going for a completionist experience. And each overlaying system outside of combat is begging you to do so.
If you can try this at a friend’s house, I would recommend you do so. If not, consider a sale, as a full price expense is a risk. If one were to consider playing it, the recommendation I would give would be to play for at LEAST five hours. Without that investment into the learning curve, one is at the mercy of design decisions rarely seen in the industry.
But for those willing to push past the initial hump, the game offers an addictive “just one more run” philosophy that stands at the top of the genre. Hours will go by when each run feels only seconds long. Sometimes you may have realized you forgot to breathe. Flow Fire has stated in their newsletter that they are working on a second game, and I am personally terrified of what comes next.