A Top-Down Shooter Rogue-lite Unlike Any Other
I’ll admit that I’m something of a roguelike purist. A small part of me was a little skeptical that a mashup between a roguelike (or, in this case, a roguelite) and a top-down shooter could be executed well. My admittedly low expectations were greatly surpassed by Synthetik: Ultimate from Flow Fire Games. Synthetik is absurdly addicting, brutally challenging, and unique in the best of ways.
I won’t spend a lot of time going over the story. Honestly, there’s next to none. The opening scenes before the start menu let you know that machines have grown too powerful, and they must be stopped. That’s about as much as you’re gonna get out of it. And really, it’s okay. It works. This is not a game where you’re looking for a deep, moving narrative. It’s the gameplay that will tug you back in again and again. So if you need something with a story to keep you motivated to play, this is not the game for you.
Each Class Is Entirely Unique
Before you even begin playing, you’ll be presented with eight different classes to choose from: Riot Guard, Breacher, Sniper, Assassin, Raider, Heavy Gunner, Engineer, and Demolisher. Each class has its own unique ability: Riot Guards recover health and gain movement speed when getting kills or taking damage. Breachers can dash for longer distances, and dashing grants damage resistance and bonus damage based on how many enemies are within range. Snipers have special drones that will mark a target, making it extra vulnerable for that first shot, and giving a bonus if done within 10 seconds. These are just a few examples.
Not only does each class have its own unique ability, but it also plays completely different from any other class. Prefer to charge in, guns blazing, and take down your enemies in a storm of fiery bullets? Try the Breacher or Heavy Gunner. Prefer being a sneaky-sneak, attacking invisibly or from a distance? Give the Assassin or the Sniper a try. Full disclosure, I lean heavily towards the sneaky-sneak side of the spectrum, so I spent the most time with the Assassin, Sniper, and the Raider.
For my personal playstyle, sneaking around and picking off enemies from a distance or, with the temporary invisibility ability the Assassin has, sneaking up and quite literally stabbing them in the back helped me survive the longest in each of my runs. Although some of the classes were not for me (looking at you, Demolisher), I was very impressed with how incredibly different each one played. I don’t think there was any overlap between the classes in how you had to approach each dungeon run.
Keeps You Coming Back For More
The gameplay in Synthetik: Ultimate is ridiculously addicting. No matter how many times I died (an embarrassing number of those times being on the first floor), I was eager to jump back in. It’s oddly rewarding when you make it to each new floor in the game. Even more rewarding when you successfully get through the insane boss fights. There’s also something so perversely delightful about blowing up some of the larger robotic enemies, and it’s burnt out husk remains as a testament to your victory. Or the oily splatter marking the final resting place of the more humanoid robots.
Dungeons are randomly generated, so you’ll never find yourself in the same room twice. The sole exception being boss fights, with each boss having its own designated level, which always remains the same. Each level follows a pretty standard formula: always rectangular or square, plenty of boxes, pipes, and other machinery to either hide behind to avoid detection or use as cover from enemy fire. There are a set number of enemies per stage, though that number and the type of enemies varies wildly. Your goal is to find the exit point of each level to move on to the next, preferably without being killed. If you die, that’s it for your dungeon run. Thankfully, it’s not an exercise in futility; should you die, you’ll still earn experience points that will level up whatever class you chose for that run. This is important, and I’ll get into more on that later.
Mayhem And Madness, Oh My
It might seem like the best course of action would be to just sneak through the level and find the exit, but Synthetik actually encourages you to explore each level carefully. Some of the machines that look like background junk will actually offer you upside quests with some pretty great rewards, such as new weapons, items, or additional skills. Scattered around are weapon boxes that will give you a randomly generated weapon, ammo boxes that help refill some of your ammo, and item boxes that will give you assist items (such as drones, grenades, and healing items). These are just a couple of the things you can find when carefully scouring each level. Part of the fun of each dungeon run is making new discoveries, so I don’t want to give away too much, but trust me when I say thorough searches are well worth the effort.
Controls for Synthetik are your standard two-joystick affair, the left moving you, the right aiming your weapon. Clicking the left joystick will let you dash. You fire with ZR, and you can change weapons either with X or up/down on the D-pad. The only time the controls felt clunky to me was when I used the Sniper class. They’re equipped with a laser scope to help you make more accurate shots (oh, did I mention you can make headshots in a top-down shooter? Cause they totally made that thing in this game, and it’s great). You hold R to use it, but then have to shoot with ZR, which made for some uncomfortable feels. Thankfully, button mapping solved that problem very quickly for me. Synthetik also has an eject and reload mechanic that you’ll definitely need to master if you hope to survive some of the intense fights.
Eject And Reload Or Die
Once you run out of ammo, you have to hit the L button and then hit ZR, which will cause a meter to appear. Hit ZR again in the colored zone of the meter, and you’ll successfully reload. Hit it wrong, you’ll have to wait a couple of extra seconds before the reload will complete. And those precious few seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Alongside the ejection and reloading mechanic, your weapons can occasionally jam. In order to clear the magazine, you’ll need to hit ZR multiple times, and then you’ll have to reload.
Customization is where Synthetik really shines. You can also find “data” during a dungeon run that you can use from the main screen to finance research to grant additional in-game powerups, like finding weapons more frequently, or finding variants of weapons you’ve already found. That experience you earned from your dungeon runs comes into play after each successful or failed run. Not only do you have the eight classes to choose from, but as you level them up, you’ll unlock new modules, which are essentially equippable skills. You can equip up to two of them at a time, and they vary wildly, from granting boosted health recovery, to increasing damage against enemies.
Level Up To Make Insane Boss Fights Easier
There are hundreds of weapons, assist items, and power-ups to find in each run, and they’ll show up in the master list on the home screen, so you can review them later if you wish. You aren’t able to save them for future dungeon runs, though, so keep that in mind. Weapons come in an absurdly wide variety; sniper rifles, nail guns (literally), rocket launchers, handguns, and more. You can also come across different types of ammo if you’re lucky, which have all sorts of effects, like armor-piercing or causing continuous damage.
Assist items also come in just a staggering variety; you can find drones that will help attack enemies for you, different types of grenades, healing items, lasers you can trigger from space, and much, much more. And then there are the power-ups, which will either grant you additional character skills, or will upgrade your weapons, giving them larger magazines, greater damage, increased range, and more. There really isn’t enough room in this review to go into the sheer amount of customization that is available to you in this game. Even after a couple dozen runs, I’d barely put a dent in the number of weapons and items I was able to discover, so if you’re a completionist, this should keep you busy for a very, very long time.
So. Much. Customization.
The final customization option I want to touch on regards the game’s difficulty level. If you find that the game is too challenging (as I did on several occasions), you can actually customize several different aspects to adjust the difficulty percentage. With only the base option selected, the game is at 60%. But it quickly goes up from there. You can choose to let the enemies have a chance at reflecting some damage back at you, flinch when you take damage, taking damage can cause bleeding, and more. However, there are options to reduce the difficulty, such as turning off flinching, jamming, and manual magazine ejection. The difficulty levels operate on a risk and reward system, where the more risks you take, the greater the rewards will be.
Stupidly Hard, But Incredibly Rewarding
Synthetik is a great game, but it’s not without its flaws. The graphics are admittedly generic and basic, and the level designs, while perfectly fine, aren’t particularly inspiring. The brief tutorial is only minimally helpful, and I had to figure out the game largely on my own. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if you need clear guidance on how to play, you might find the learning curve a bit on the steep side. The music is fine, but again, it’s a little generic. It’s not a game where the tunes will be stuck in your head for a few days after you play. It only happened once during a run, but the game did crash, and I didn’t receive any experience from the progress I had made. And, finally, the framerate does sometimes stutter when there is too much happening on the screen. The drop in framerate wasn’t ever enough to ruin the experience, but it could be a hassle.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Synthetik: Ultimate. The gameplay kept drawing me in again and again, the customization options kept me playing, and the difficulty, while brutal, was adjustable and made the game feel more rewarding overall. I really think there’s a little something for everybody in this game with the insane customization options. If you’re looking for something difficult that you can pick up and play whenever, definitely give Synthetik: Ultimate a shot. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Switch (reviewed), PC; Publisher: Flow Fire Games; Developer: Flow Fire Games; Players: 1; Released: December 16, 2020; MSRP: $15.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.