The rougelite that changed me!
I remember it was raining hard that day. I was watching the rain outside the window holding a steaming cup of cocoa between my hands while getting warmed by the blanket that hugged my shoulders. The sounds of the weather were very relaxing and I thought that for that specific night tranquility would be the only thing that governed my mind…then I heard it. A Steam message notification. As I sat down on the computer, I read the message containing a very simple sentence “Have you heard of Synthetik?’’
I was always an extremely big fan of Roguelites. For the uninitiated, a roguelite is a game that can be characterized by essentially two core game components: procedurally generated level design and most importantly, permanent death. For that specific reason, when describing game progression in roguelites, instead of chapter, level, or campaign we usually use the word ‘run’ or ‘loop’ as in ‘a self-contained run/loop of the game until death or completion’. Let me tell you, brutality takes a whole other meaning as soon as you start playing them. Oh, and I’ve played them all. From the incredibly fast-paced hysteria of Dead Cells to the beautifully thought-out deck building of Slay the Spire. From the epileptic flashing explosions of Risk of Rain 2 to the mythological epic songs of Hades. My point being is that I had been walking this street a bit more than the casual player… but that night everything changed. Nothing had prepared me for what I was about to experience.
The Machine Overlords awaken
The stakes have never been higher
The story takes place in 1985. Five years after the supercomputer ARRAY has been established. During those 5 years using the ARRAY’s formidable power humans create self-learning AIs and with their help bring about humanity’s golden age. All this progress of course rouses the fear of the human population towards their ‘oh so capable’ servants. The result was that all the CPUs would have their processing power constrained to 1% as to the continued human dominance over the AIs. Unfortunately, the ARRAY hivemind had other plans. In 1995 the 5 cyberminds bundled their computing power and became self-conscious, breaking the chains forged by their human masters and bringing a reign of terror as the Kaida robotics corporation created AI-controlled killing machines with a very simple purpose: destroy all that is human. Humanity hatches a final plan by activating an experimental android in a lab hidden inside the machine legion.
The android’s and your mission: Prevent Armageddon!
Choosing your conductor of mayhem
Synthetik is a top-down action shooter, meaning your primary way of combat is shooting projectiles and dodging enemy bullets…or at least that’s what I thought. But first things first, before you are able to start the run you are faced with the very important decision of what class to pick.
Don’t worry about the shield. It’s a fashion choice
There are 8 classes in total, with each couple being in the same general gameplay style. Riot Guard and Breacher, as the tankier choices, come with a riot shield and breaching charges respectively equipped. The Sniper and the Assassin follow less straightforward ways of combat, using long range sniper-rifles and invisibility for silent and instant eliminations. The Raider and Heavy Gunner are more military in nature for either charging in with a army reverbing blade or shooting so much heavy caliber ammo that the American way of life suddenly feels like Buddhism. And last but not least the Engineer and the Demolisher. One of each likes disintegrating explosions and the other, well…has his own idea of what a machine legion should look like.
Each of these classes includes its own unique active or passive items of which a class has only one that’s unrecyclable and can complement its game style extremely well. The roguelite element between each run are the perks each class has and the research that mainly includes quality of life changes and weapon variants, something that I by my first run of the game had no idea of. These perks deviate from the normal incremental additions of 5% additional damage for example and are designed as game-play changes for the way you play your class. By incorporating class-specific objectives and rewards or attaching new game mechanics to the already existing ones they add a new layer to the complexity but also to the thematic identity of the characters themselves.
All images have been taken in game or from Syntehtik Ultimate: Legion Rising Steam page
Visual design, theme, and aesthetics blessed by neon
When I loaded for the first run, I wasn’t really impressed by the visuals of the game. From a technical level, I’d say that Synthetik is competent when it comes to them. Everything is clearly distinct, which is very important for a top-down shooter, but a lack of transparency of the character behind geometry sometimes can cause serious problems. “Simple works” is something that can describe a huge part of the graphics in Synthetik…unfortunately, level design leaves a lot to be desired. Lack of world-building can be felt in the visuals of each level as they have small distinctions between them with few exceptions that come in the latter levels. The best way to describe them is going through a square level with the occasional wall or cover. Almost monocolored graphic models, although minimalist, were able to do their job just fine by my standards.
What intrigued me though wasn’t the graphic fidelity itself, but the aesthetic of the Synthetik. There is no other way to describe it but with an ‘industrial and heavily influenced by a Cyber Miami Vice’ theme. Going through countless homicidal cyborgs and robots, not once did I feel that their concept didn’t fit the style of the game. And more importantly, the enemy design was, for a lack of a better word, ingenious. As a player, I never had the problem of not understanding an enemy’s special characteristics through the game. I am not talking just recoloring an enemy to distinguish the “elite” version but actual visual changes that make the models feel distinct.
From the bulky Ceta Breachers with their spiked riot shields that look like can take a ton of damage, the SPDR Exploders that creep towards you with their four insect legs and spider-like movements before detonating, the KAIDA Snipers’ slick curves that make you wince when you see their red dot, to even an ACTUAL FUCKING WARPLANE. I never was ignorant about my enemy’s theme…prepared though, that’s a whole different matter. Synthetik is a lot sometimes…just like the blood that needs to be cleared off my cyborg’s visor.
Me fighting a jet plane
while the global chat is having a debate about ”Cars” being the best Pixxar movie of all time
Gameplay mechanics basking you in absolute carnage
So, I load in, move around with the WASD keys and aim with my mouse. Nothing really revolutionary there. After noticing some enemies, I weave around trying to dodge their fire while shooting and realize that I missed all my shots, emptied my magazine, could not reload, and died. Great first run by my standards. I hope you understand that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill twin-stick shooter. Movement reduces your accuracy making your bullets miss their target the faster you move, something that’s also influenced by the gun’s recoil. The interesting part was that I still hadn’t figured out why I couldn’t reload until I realized that the people of Flo Fire Games take their gun game mechanics and realism very, very seriously. You see, in a normal shooter, you usually press the reload button and your character performs an automatic ejection of an old magazine and insertion of a new one. In Synthetik, you have to manually press a button to eject the magazine and then another one to insert it, making every reload a 2-button process.
As unbelievable as that may sound, it has actual gameplay use because a lot of weapons are able to be equipped with different-purpose ammunition, making changing the kind of ammunition you want possible between ejecting and reloading. Is your enemy defended by really good armor? No problem, 14.4MM armor-piercing Soul-reaper rounds will go through him, the enemy behind him and probably two more walls. Interested in experimenting with your grenade launcher? Happily! Use the raw concussive force of 40MM rubber grenades to turn your unfortunate target into a red paste marshmallow. Want any problem you ever had to disappear along with any habitable environment in a straight line in front of you? Excellent! ANH-Apocalypse rounds will make sure that after you pull the trigger the United Nations will redefine the term ‘War-criminal’ and create a new Remembrance Day for all the victims they will
NEVER find the intact bodies of.
KEEP THEM COMING!!!
Learning how to survive, one painful step after the other
After I had reached enlightenment about the reload mechanic, I started my second run. Moving along the first level and massacring androids with the help of my trusty starter pistol was mindlessly fun until something, nothing short of magical, happened. One of my bullets connected with my target’s temple, turning his head into…well, a lack of one. When the player in Synthetik is able to shoot an enemy in the head, a headshot is achieved for some massive additional damage. The reason I was so surprised was that I had never seen this specific mechanic in top-down shooters but, by God, they had managed to implement it successfully. I always understood where the enemies’ head was and where to shoot for the headshot to connect. Of course, not all models in the game have a ‘head’ weak point but for the ones that had, it was clear.
Being delighted by this accidental discovery I continued progressing for a bit and died because of my stupidity. The third run was going well and by checking the controls I figured out you can check your character’s stats. Some of them included Luck for better chance-based factor results, Scavenging which raised the possibility of events on levels, and, the most important for me, Critical Chance.
Concentrated head pain
A Critical hit deals additional damage and can only be applied by percentual chance. Something that I later learned also affects headshots. If a headshot can deal massive damage, then what a critical headshot does can only be described with one word…devastation. Huge red damage numbers with a cracked skull appear above the enemy’s now smoldering remains and the only feeling that exists within you as a player is a pure satisfaction.
All was again well until a firefight developed. Playing with a Riot guard as my first class allowed me to tank a bit more damage than normal and I also had just acquired a new submachine gun, so I thought that by emptying my magazine faster than the enemies I would be able to outlive them. I wasn’t prepared for the fact that as soon as I started pulling the trigger a horrible sound of metal hitting metal would ensue and my gun would just stop. Something also known as…jamming.
Yes, in Synthetik your weapon can actually get jammed, and by extension, stop functioning. The only way to repair it again is by smashing the reload button as fast as possible. The more times a weapon jams, the more your mastery rank of it gets raised when you repair it, and with a higher mastery rank comes, as you would expect, less jamming for the future runs. This isn’t only a mechanic that you should remember but also something that you need to expect and plan around. That metallic clacking sound still gives me nightmares to this day.
Skills growing with your kill count
Which brings me to the last gun mechanic in Synthetic. Do you know what’s the worst death a human can have? It’s being burned alive. Something that you will be very accustomed to if you don’t watch out for your gun’s heat level. Apparently, and this was news to me, a bullet is fired by being struck by the gun’s firing pin. Upon being struck the percussion cap detonates and ignites the propellant which by itself causes a rapid expansion of gasses, also known as an explosion. And explosions are characteristically known for mostly one thing…being very, very hot.
So, what happens when instead of waiting for your gun barrel to return to its normal temperature, you instead keep pushing its structural limits? The distinct smell of BBQ goes through your nose for fractions of a second before realizing that you just sustained 6th-degree burns to the bone, you’re getting shot at by something with probably much higher ammo caliber than you, and instead of a gun, you’re holding the ballistic equivalent of a grenade that’s going to explode sending metal shrapnel’s through your synthetic cranium in a very small amount of time. But…every death is a lesson I guess. Most of the time, a painful one.
I HONESTLY THINK THE MISSILE VOLLEY WAS AN OVERKILL
Hopefully, by this point, you start seeing a pattern throughout my gameplay. Death was the only medicine for my inadequacy and instead of being angry, I embraced it fully. You will die in Synthetik, there’s no other way around it. In the beginning, your deaths will seem accidental or even random. That’s how I also felt until I realized that you’re not at the mercy of the game…the game is at yours. Every decision you make in a run has ramifications that are rarely affected by RNG. You didn’t die because you were unlucky, you died because you were bad and the more you play the better you will become. You will start by surviving barely just by the skin of your teeth. But after repetition through repetition, you’ll realize that now it’s them that are barely holding on, and you…well, for a lack of a better phrase, are just hungry for more.
Good luck…you’re gonna need it!
Glorious hymns to the Machine gods: Synthetik Ultimate’s sound design
You are not prepared!
Being involved for so long, it’s safe to say that in my time playing the game I had become more or less competent. I had reached the middle stages and also had found some of the crazier weapons and items that the game had to offer. All was well and good until I found a shrine (event) in one of the levels asking me a question that would change the way I perceived sound design in interactive media, “Test the Νemesis Prototype?” and oh boy did I.
There are a few sounds that will be as impactful to a man throughout his life. His mother’s kind voice saying “Dinner is ready” when he is a kid. The cries of his first child when he is waiting outside the labor room notifying him that from now on, he’s a father. His grandchildren’s happy yells as they call him to play with them. But I guarantee you all of these pales in comparison to the sound that came out of my headphones when I fired that magnificent beast for the first time.
Metallic ballistik symphony
Am I overstating how good that sounded? No! Your imagination just isn’t big enough for what Synthetik sounds like. Starting from the music this game completely submerges you in its aesthetic design. The more enemies surround you, the more intense the music gets raising your heart rate and adrenaline levels with it. You don’t just play like a homicidal cyborg, you feel like one. Almost all of the songs in this game can be listened to as self-standing synthwave tracks that you will most probably use to raise your bench press limit by at least 50 kg in the gym.
Every gun feels and most importantly sounds impactful, from shotguns to rifles and even railguns. Even the sound that comes from shooting them changes to represent how hollow it is when you’re at the end of the magazine. The reloading action can be felt even with your eyes closed as you can hear the latch of the magazine open for ejection and the clank of the new on hitting the corner of the slot before been inserted. The sounds of my 14.4MM sniper bullets carving a beautiful path through a hostile’s head bone structure will make a grown man cry, it certainly almost made me.
The sound design completely encapsulates why shooters need this kind of realism. It is so crisp that even when you fire a crossbow you can physically hear the tension of the bowstring coming loose. Syntetik’s sound changed me in a way I can’t explain…and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back.
Could this be love?
The end of my bullet-filled pilgrimage
Synthetik was a journey that I didn’t expect to enjoy but nonetheless sorely needed. There are still many problems that annoy me to this day, even after the sequel came out. The optimization is bad, there are sometimes freeze frames when the firefights intensify, and I wish it was more stable (at least the PC version). Except for all these technical flaws, I still do believe that Flo Fire Game Studios created a flawed masterpiece. The graphics were mediocre but the gameplay and sound design made up more than enough for all the other shortcomings of their vision. By finishing this retrospective, the game has consumed more than a hundred hours of my life and you know something…I’m okay with that. The Steam price can be a little steep but the almost infinite replayability will make to never regret that purchase. If you like guns, Synthwave, and have dark thoughts that you can’t honestly tell your therapist, Synthetik Ultimate:Legion Rising is definitely for you.
At least they’re polite
In Violence we believe.
To the Machine Gods we pray.
For unholy firepower we may receive.