Synapse takes PSVR 2 eye tracking to the next level: Anything loose you look at can be hurled to its doom with motion controls.
The exclusive roguelite action game Synapse for Playstation VR 2 makes power fantasies come true. At Ndreams’ preview event, I lifted opponents into the air from a distance like a Sith Lord, crashing them to the deadly asphalt.
Even more amazing is the intuitive use of eye tracking in the PSVR 2. I simply marked objects in my field of view with my gaze, then used the left controller to snatch them into the air and propel them into my opponents. Fluid hand motions worked best. After all, objects such as large cubes do have a certain amount of mass.
Eye-tracking action on the PSVR 2.
So it’s not surprising to see players waving their arms wildly in the air in front of the demo stations – almost like a group of old-school ravers or cyber-goths. The collective movements were purely coincidental, of course: this is a single-player title, after all. But where do the unusual powers in the VR game come from? The background is a special mission in the mind of a supervillain.
The main character, specially trained for the mission, connects his brain waves to those of Colonel Peter Conrad. In his mind world, the mission is to decipher the plans for a devastating event. The biological attack planned by his “consortium” could endanger the entire world.
Conrad will not let the “Operator’s” assault on his mind go unchallenged. As a former black ops leader, he also knows how to defend himself in his dream world with conjured mercenaries who rattle out attack orders in deep voices.
Little by little, players fight their way into deeper and deeper areas of his subconscious. The levels are designed by hand so that players can memorize the layout. However, spawn points, enemies, tasks, and locked areas change from playthrough to playthrough.
Despite the surreal setting, the battles felt familiar at first. As enemies dug in behind various covers, we engaged in gun battles. With the laser sight available from the start, quick hip shots were also rewarded.
Telekinesis tricks in the VR game
When telekinesis was added, the gameplay changed dramatically. Eventually, targeting “tangible” objects with my eyes became so second nature that I didn’t even notice the unusual controls.
At first, only movable objects like crates could be lifted and hurled at enemies with sweeping arm movements. After a failed run, however, I invested my accumulated points in the branching talent trees so that I could lift enemies out of cover myself. Some I simply hurled over the cliff or into each other.
Grabbing enemies and slamming them against the wall felt a little too easy. For the playable demo, however, the team had cheated a bit to show us powerful upgrades more quickly.
In the finished game, some abilities for weapons, telekinesis, etc. will only be available when significantly stronger and faster enemies are already scurrying through the jagged cliffs, explained Game Director Dan Taylor. Later, shotguns, grenade launchers, and MPs can be upgraded with target-seeking rounds.
Telekinesis, for example, can be upgraded with the ability to grab thrown grenades in mid-air and throw them back. A cool idea instead of frantically running out of cover or using your hands. Later on, it will also be possible to grab or push telekinetically held objects. Hopefully you will be able to hurl them forward like a projectile like in Outlier.
Fluid and comfortable
Left-handed players can reverse the dual-wielding system if they wish, so they can shoot with their left hand and blow things up with their right. Climbing ladders and some rocks works ambidextrously anyway.
The same goes for cover, which is based on the system used in the PSVR shooter Fracked. Again, I grabbed a block of rock with one hand to quickly take cover behind it or peek over for a quick shot. The implementation of the cover system felt even more intuitive than in the already smooth Fracked.
I especially enjoyed pulling out of cover so quickly that I threw my character a bit into the air. Similar to Stormland or Outlier, the sudden physical jolt was also comforting here. I didn’t feel any nausea.
Again, the key is probably to trick the body’s senses, especially the cochlea in the inner ear. Once the fluid in the organ of equilibrium gets going, the brain seems to handle sudden movements in virtual reality much better. At least that’s what my VR experiences have shown me so far.
Here I make much smaller jumps than in the similarly designed arcade game Outlier. The result in Synapse looks more fluid and sophisticated than in Joy Way’s Early Access game, which was unfortunately discontinued.
Why 120 Hertz with reprojection?
Ndreams, on the other hand, seems to keep only those mechanics in its Unreal Engine 5 title that add to the gameplay experience without overloading it. For example, after lifting an explosive barrel into the air via telekinesis, I can use the haptic triggers to “crush” it right next to an enemy and make it explode – a perfidious gift!
Another fun trick is to reload on rocks or even on the heads of enemies. After ejecting the magazine, a new one can be hammered into the gun with all sorts of hard objects.
Unlike Vertical Robot’s Red Matter 2, the team didn’t opt for native 120 frames per second. Instead, it uses reprojection to interpolate 60 frames per second to 120 hertz.
“Red Matter 2 really pushed the limits of Quest 2,” said Senior Producer Wolfgang Graebner. While the PSVR 2 version is also incredibly beautiful, players should keep in mind that it is, at its core, a conversion.
Ndreams, on the other hand, wanted to push the envelope with Synapse on PSVR 2 and at some point had to make a decision for or against reprojection. Since the feedback from testers was positive, the team ultimately decided to go with 120 Hz and reprojection, Graebner told me.
Raytracing in virtual reality
I also didn’t really notice on site that the frames were doubled with the technology. The action in the dark dream world seemed pleasantly direct and fluid, especially since the glowing neon accents against a black and white background harmonized well with the PSVR 2’s HDR display.
According to Graebner, the art design and Dynamic Foveated Rendering contributed to the sharp look. The latter calculates the background only in the currently targeted area in full detail, which saves a lot of computing power. Ray tracing is also used with the help of Nvidia’s RTX Global Illumination, explains lead programmer Attilio Provenzano. However, this is limited to certain areas of the image, such as glowing cracks in the cave ceiling.
As an acoustic connection to the outside world, players have “The Handler” at their disposal. She repeatedly reports in via a kind of thought voice chat. Her voice actress Jennifer Hale also voiced Naomi Hunter in Metal Gear Solid and Rosalind Lutece in Bioshock Infinite. Colonel Peter Conrad is voiced by David Hayter (Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid, General Nikolai Zhurov in Phantom: Covert Ops).
I’ve already had a lot of fun with the fluid combat of Synapse. I was particularly surprised at how quickly I learned to use the eye control to aim at objects. After only a few minutes, the mechanics no longer seemed foreign to me.
My only concern is that the Roguelite principle might not hold my interest as long as the classic story shooter Fracked with its cool James Bond staging. On average, test play took about eight hours for the first successful run-through and about twelve hours for the complete game.