There has been a bit of a thing within the indie scene as of late for uber-hard retro-stylised games. Most tend to be roguelikes, 2D platformers or top-down shooters – the likes of Butcher, Hotline Miami, Enter the Gungeon and Salt and Sanctuary, etc.
With the neon-drenched DESYNC, The Foregone Syndicate have instead opted, somewhat refreshingly, for a good old-fashioned twitch FPS. But, while clearly being a throwback to genre classics such as Doom, Quake and Unreal Tournament, the focus on combos and stunt kills means it actually owes a lot more to 2011’s Bulletstorm.
DESYNC throws you into a Tron-like universe, an abstract virtual reality that’s all unrelenting purple glare and chunky polygons. You find yourself flying through a vast cyber tunnel, assembling itself as you progress. A cryptic monologue rants about resurrecting your first mind using your ninth. Eventually, you emerge. Immense and inscrutable structures tower over you, the simple geometry twisting and undulating mysteriously and menacing. Heading down a lift, you arrive at the Link Network. A message awaits on a giant terminal: “Establish user intrusion, dismantle the structure, reboot and initialise”. Apparently you are the enigmatic user and they “are waiting for you”.
It’s a great start with a nice foreboding atmosphere. But don’t be expecting some kind of story-based adventure, DESYNC is pure shooter – the scant narrative merely a device to set up the initial premise. The general aim is to blast your way through sequential zones, each divided into several mini-arenas in which you battle any number and variety of extremely-aggressive cyber baddies.
Clearly intent on handing your simulated posterior to you on a plate, you face a constant onslaught of projectile and melee attacks from a bunch of angry Transformer rejects. There’s fearsome low-poly warriors with oversized mallets, swords and shields, mites that leap onto your face, ninja chicks that lob shuriken, beholder-esque flying drones, and pint-sized robots that fire rockets. And then there’s their tougher variants, known as syncs. I’m guessing that wherever it is you are, you’re not supposed to be here.
In order to survive you need to quickly master DESYNC’s mechanics. Stamina-based dashing helps you to evade attacks but also get in close to finish off enemies. Overkills, i.e. delivering a large amount of damage in a very short period of time, results in health drops. And every weapon has a specific role, with tactical alternative fire modes such as stun shots, energy traps, powerful explosions or penetrating bolts. Oh, don’t fooled by the silly sci-fi names, all the FPS stalwarts are here – the virtual equivalent of the pistol (tristol), shotgun (terrablaster), assault rifle (polyhedrom), rocket launcher (diameteor) and railgun (diffuserail), etc.
The key concept in DESYNC is the attack sequences, where you combine various shooting and movement patterns, with precision timing and aiming, to unleash extra damage and bonus effects such as ammo drops. Things like staggering an enemy then finishing them off with a different weapon, or blasting them upwards and hitting them again mid-air, or exploiting environmental traps, and various other trick shots and manoeuvres. You have to discover these all for yourself, so there’s a strong emphasis on creativity and experimentation.
In between finished zones you return to the Link Network, where you can view stats and tutorial messages, replay old levels, and customise weapons and abilities. As you progress and complete challenges you unlock different sidearms and cores. The sidearm is a temporary item, such as a shield or freeze shot, that becomes available after performing enough attack sequences. The core is a one-off or time-limited bonus ability, such as health restoration or increased attack speed, that’s charged up by dispatching foes.
You also earn fragments that can be spent on modifying your guns with improved damage, fire rate, projectile speed and ammo consumption (actually the guns don’t use ammo, they “degrade” and you repair them with energy cubes, but whatever, same difference). However, each upgrade has an equivalent random downside. So, for instance, if you increase damage by two points, it will decrease something else by two points, though you don’t have to accept the result.
Lastly, is a thing called desyncing, which provides a method of countering the tough sync variants. At the Link Network, you can select discovered attack sequences to “imbue” specific types with. By performing these combos on the relevant sync, time slows down (desyncs) for a short period and you gain a shedload of points and fragments.
DESYNC is very much a game obsessed with scoring. The more kills and attack sequences you chain in quick succession, and the fancier your manoeuvres, the more points you’ll rack up. You receive a rating and score for every section of every level, and then an average at the end. It makes judgements on play style, efficiency and stylishness, claiming to track “mobility, situational awareness, accuracy, mouse movement patterns, attack variety, and more.”
For the super competitive, there are detailed online leader boards and you can return to old levels with new abilities and gear in order to better your standing. And for those wanting an ultra-challenge, you can try out the aberrations. These are inverted versions of previous maps, but with a new mutator added for each stage and no gear customisations allowed.
I think DESYNC has some great ideas and I love the art style, although the CRT distortion and flicker effects are just too much. It took a while for my eyes to get used to them (after-image galore) and it actually made me feel woozy the first few times I played it. There definitely needs to be an option to turn some or most of these off. Amusingly, the seizure warning at the beginning is barely on the screen long enough for you to read it.
I also dig the darkly energetic synthwave soundtrack by Daniel Deluxe and Volkor X, which suits the aesthetics perfectly and gives a sense of rhythm and purpose to the chaotic action.
The problem is, DESYNC is just too hard and unbalanced to be fun. The difficulty ramps up very quickly, not really giving you time to get comfortable with its mechanics. Enemies come thick and fast and hit hard. Ammo and health drops are few and far between. Inevitably you spend most of the time circle strafing and back peddling while simultaneously trying to avoid the numerous traps and pits and backing into newly spawning baddies. There’s just not enough room to manoeuvre on the maps and the dark tones means it can be difficult to see edges and obstacles.
Don’t get me wrong, I generally gravitate towards more challenging games and I hate ones that hold your hand and wrap you cotton wool, but DESYNC just seems masochistic, cruel and far too unforgiving. You’re often dead within seconds, before you can even begin to think about tactics and attack sequences. While other hard games reward persistence and repeated play, DESYNC only frustrates until you hit a brick wall (or punch your monitor) and decide to call it a day. Plus I really hate multi-stage boss fights, the ones where you think you’ve defeated it only for the fucker to come back even stronger with a new health bar.
It certainly needs better tutorials and explanations of its principles, which are fairly vague and laconic (some of which can’t be re-read), perhaps even with visual demonstrations or a practice zone to hone your skills and test out new equipment combinations. Failing that, a wimp mode or something.