It’s gonna be a robot riot

DESYNC is a tough nut to crack. On the one hand, it’s a really fun, hyperactive shoot-em-up filled with clever design work, stellar music, a futuristic aesthetic inspired by great science fiction (always an A+ in my book), and a strong level of challenge. On the other, it’s incredibly frustrating, repetitive, and god dammit I ALMOST HAD IT THAT TIME, WHERE THE HELL DID THOSE STUPID SPIKES COME F-

Okay. Let’s try that again.


DESYNC, a cyberpunk action game developed by The Foregone Syndicate and published by Adult Swim Games, has a pretty simple premise. You’re a polygonal robot. You shoot at other polygonal robots as you make your way through a stage. You get a variety of weapons to pick from/purchase as the game goes on, and you face an ever increasing army of robots with varied weapons and attack patterns. Rinse, repeat, you have a game. Sounds like a formula for a nice, fast-paced, and easy-to-master game, right?

Well, about that….Let’s talk about the good stuff first. The thing about DESYNC that sticks out the most at first glance is its overall design. Every set piece in the game feels like it popped right out of Tron, with its harsh jagged angles and neon blue hues. The game consists of a series of levels which house rooms designed like an MC Escher fever dream. Each area has a pair of exits, a series of stairs and elevated platforms, and plenty of hiding spots to cower from the robot masses in. While DESYNC’s levels are visually striking, its sound design (or rather, its lack thereof) help to really sell the mood of the game. You’ll often find yourself listening to yourself stomp around the world of the game with the background music playing ever-so-softly, making for a very isolated experience. The game never feels empty, just…confined. It’s like you’re boxed in with no way out. The game has a good sense of atmosphere, really selling you on this digital, alien landscape.

The gameplay is fairly straightforward, but it doesn’t especially need to be complex. As you traverse these wide-open rooms, enemies will spawn in random positions, heralded by a beam of pixels and polygons. It’s your job to fight these robotic creatures, blow them to smithereens, and move onto the next room. Along the way you pick up and purchase more powerful weapons and get some modifiers thrown at you to mix things up (ranging from damage amplification to double speed for both you and your enemies) as you try to make it to the final room in one piece. Then, you do it all over again in a new level with new designs and you get the picture.
Your character’s base speed is kind of low, almost clunky, but it works-you’re playing as a bulky robot, so you wouldn’t be zipping around at super fast speeds (unless the game decides you should). The weapons are…weapons. Some are one-handed, some dual wield, plenty of them have super cool abilities-it’s usual shooter fare, but they do have a fair amount of variety. What you do with the weapons, though, is up to you. That’s where a lot of the fun comes in; the thrilling rush that comes with doing a flying, Matrix-style mid-air kill shot isn’t something to be taken lightly.

The game’s feel seems to toe the line between a classic arcade game and a modern shooter.  It feels very much like a throwback to the “defeat the endlessly spawning creatures” kind of games you’d find littering pizza parlors or roller rinks back in the day. It does veer more toward the modern-day “action shoot-em-up” category, however; its emphasis on badass attacks (rewarding you for such things as a dual-wielding take down) and points/ranking system made it feel a lot more like a less-frantic Devil May Cry. You’d think that with a game this simple in its execution, the hordes of enemies would start off easy to beat and work their way up in difficulty until they become a legitimate challenge.

That’s not exactly how it goes. Rather, the hordes start off challenging and evolve into pure evil.I can’t count how many times I turned the corner to try to shoot one of the tinier enemies only to find myself shot in the back by something that spawned without my realizing it. That goes double for the amount of times I leapt over a bridge straight into a hammer-wielding behemoth that turned my face into a pancake. No matter where I went or what I did, there was always something chipping away at my health bar. This wasn’t even hours into the game-this was just in the first set of levels! I’d love to tell you that this gets easier to deal with as you progress through the game, and it…kind of does? You get more used to the live-die-repeat cycle, and you start predicting and spotting patterns with a lot less difficulty. It’s one hell of an uphill climb, though.

It also doesn’t help that the music, while inspired from and taking influence from a lot of great cyberpunk media, can become kind of repetitive. When you die over and over in the same room, you’ll hear the same musical cues and the same beats on a constant loop. Don’t get me wrong, the soundtrack is great (they even include it with the game for an extra cost on Steam, if you’re so inclined). There’s a limit to the amount of times that you can hear the same robotic techno-pop piece without wanting to break your headphones, though, and DESYNC toes that line very closely.Despite all of this, though, I had a blast whenever I booted the game up. It was satisfying whenever I got even an incremental amount of progression. Sure, the game was frustrating. I might have died more times than I care to count. And I would be lying if I said I didn’t shut the game off in a seething rage once or twice. But whenever I went back in and tried one more time-“Just one more time,” I told myself-it was unbelievably gratifying when things finally went my way. I can’t say that what I dealt with on my playthrough will be the same for everyone, and DESYNC’s brand of “die until you get good” gameplay will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Even so, being able to have the tiniest victories after lots and lots of work makes for a very vindicating experience, so it might be worth picking up just to test your skills.

DESYNC is a beautiful but unbelievably cold game. It will knock you down and keep its foot on your chest when you struggle to get back up. You’ll fight swarms of robots, again and again, listening to the same music cycle for minutes on end. You’ll scream obscenities as you get hit by one stray blast from something you swore was in front of you two minutes ago. You’ll come close to punching your computer screen as you manage to land a cool killshot, only to find that you’ve walked in front of a wall of spikes. Again.

And yet, you’ll keep coming back to it. Time and time again, you’ll keep coming back to it. You’ll keep fighting. You’ll learn the ins and outs of the system, trying desperately to gauge when and where something will attack you. You’ll learn how many blasts it takes from Weapon A to take down the Hammer Robot (I’m sure it has a name, but I don’t recall it). You’ll eventually wipe everything out and get a nice, big score, and it will make everything worth it.

Until you get to the next room, at least. Then the game is out to get you 100%.

Solid cyberpunk styleEerie and isolated atmosphereHead-bopping soundtrackAny victory feels like a major success
Hefty learning curve to conquerMusic not as fun the 20th time you hear itAI and level design can be a bit too deadly
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