An unsatisfying shooter caked in neon nonsense.
I had high expectations for Desync, and maybe that’s why I don’t like it very much. 2016 was a great year for weird, innovative niche shooters – two particular standouts being SUPERHOT, which was one of Hey Poor Player’s top 25 games of 2016, and the difficult and stylish Devil Daggers, a game I still obsess over in my spare time. Desync, with its “Tron-inspired” neon graphics and its purported difficulty and its weird combo system, looked to be a new project in that vein, and the fact that so many other outlets were singing its praises seemed to only confirm my suspicions that this was going to be a delightful little FPS experience.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. Desync is an ugly, jittery, unsatisfying mess, all the more disappointing because you can see the golden nuggets of brilliant ideas hidden in the muddy presentation.
I’m going to be using screenshots from the Steam store page in this review, but please don’t be fooled – for the most part, they’re not at all indicative of what the game looks like. For one thing, most of them are missing the scanlines. See, most games with this sort of retro aesthetic (DYSTORIA is a really good example) emulate the feel of old technology but don’t try to actually replicate it. Desync, on the other hand, covers its shiny neon with scanlines that renders any text almost completely unreadable and makes everything grainy and hard to look at. Because, y’know, that’s what scanlines do. There’s a reason we stopped using those kinds of monitors.
What’s more, these screenshots don’t show the game in motion. The whole thing’s meant to look like it’s in a simulation of some kind, a simulation that’s glitching out wildly. This means that assets will often randomly shake and flash, separating into their RGB colors so the whole thing looks like you’re watching an old red-and-blue 3D movie without the glasses. No wonder the game opens with a very prominent epilepsy warning – I’m not epileptic myself, and looking at the game’s neon filth still made me feel bad.
Worse than the ugly visuals is the core shooting itself. It’s difficult, sure, but not in the way that Devil Daggers was. Devil Daggers was harsh but fair – a delicate dance it took you awhile to find your place in, but one which could be overcome, and one where death always felt like it was your own fault. Desync is just frustrating, spawning enemies behind you and around you when you’re already preoccupied, withholding all but the tiniest sampling of health and ammo, and leaning heavily on melee brutes who leap into the air and kill you with ridiculous and nigh-impossible-to-dodge aimbot tracking. It’s not even that hard, really – it just takes a lot of tries to get a run where you’re not instakilled by a buffed brute spawning right next to you. And while all the enemies move incredibly fast, moving the player avatar always feels like trying to walk through a knee-deep sea of molasses.
Everything just feels unsatisfying – monsters don’t really respond to getting hit, weapons are over-designed polygonal messes like everything else that feel like they pack less punch than a T-shirt cannon, and even the rocket launcher has a ridiculously slow projectile. Speaking of weapons, instead of offering a wide range of weapons with lots of different use cases, every new gun you get is really just a straight upgrade. The only reason to use anything other than your newest weapon is because you ran out of the three shots of ammo the game gives you. Unless you’re trying to do a specific combo, that is.
Yes, here we get to the real meat of the game – its combo system. Performing specific sequences of moves known as Attack Sequences will deal bonus damage and give special bonuses – most importantly, health and/or ammo pickups. Thing is, I’m not really sure why you’d bother. They give you more ammo and health but not enough to offset how quickly you run out of both, and the extra damage really isn’t significant enough most of the time for it to feel worthwhile. And the rewards you get for completing more difficult Sequences aren’t that much greater than the rewards you get for completing easy ones, so after a while the only combo I bothered doing was “dash forward and shoot,” a decision that didn’t seem to hurt me at all.
That’s the thing about this game, really – it wants you to find your own fun. Yes, this could hypothetically be a game about running, jumping, dodging and weaving, a game that rewards experimenting with lots of different playstyles, but why bother when “use your biggest gun and dash occasionally” is just as effective? There’s leaderboards, but the promise of seeing my name at the top of a list of numbers isn’t enough on its own for me to care about memorizing and performing a massive list of combos. In DOOM 2016 I didn’t need a leaderboard to run and jump and dash and try different weapons and mods – I happily did all those things myself, because they were fun to do. In Desync those things don’t feel fun – they feel like a desperate attempt at tricking you into thinking a mediocre shooter is something more than it is.
That’s it, really. I’m sure some people will find something to enjoy in Desync – for some, those leaderboards will be all the incentive they need to bother mastering the game’s squillions of combos. And that’s fine, I suppose, but I was expecting something more. As it is, Desync is just another poorly-designed FPS that, for all its bells and whistles, requires little more strategy than W+M1 and learning the cheap spawn locations. In the end, its most unique feature is its nauseatingly hideous graphics.
Final Verdict: 2/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Adult Swim Games; Developer: The Foregone Syndicate; Players: 1; Released: February 28, 2017 ; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Desync given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.