Friday, May 17, 2013

Tea Time with Synaesthete

Never pay attention to seizure warnings.
This week marks the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest, an event where people all over the world gather around to yell at Europe for voting incorrectly. Why did you pick another ballad over rapping astronauts? Look at what you've become, Sweden.

In honor of bad musical choices, this tea time features Synaesthete, a rhythm game that has a few things to share with you concerning the nature of existence.

What if, like, what you saw as red, another person saw as green? But they called it red. So, like, your entire life, they're calling green red and you're calling red green and you'd never even know. This could be green right now and we'd have no way of knowing.

Synaesthete is a game from a DigiPen student team, where it won Best Student Game in 2008. In it, you play a transcendental being that serves as an antibody to the collective unconscious. In practice, you run around in circles shooting lasers out of your eyes at floating penguins that desperately want to bodycheck you.


Each room spawns several enemy waves before allowing you to move onward. Your main method of attack is through the classic rhythm game mechanic. Hitting a note on time produces the aforementioned optic blasts. Missing results in lessened or no damage. Each stage features a new song and each world has a different style of music: house, trance, hardcore.

Synaesthete's graphics are bright and simple, favoring simple geometric shapes in a presentation that is heavily influenced by the (in)famous trance rail shooter Rez. The level design is repetitive, but the never-ending focus on hitting notes mean that you'll barely have time to notice, especially when you add in a steady stream of screen-obscuring platitudes.

Can't See the Forest for the Bass

Synaesthete is one of those games that is better referred to as an experience. As a person who is absolutely horrible at rhythm games, success hinged entirely upon how prominent the bass line was in any particular song. Even then, Synaesthete is so incredibly forgiving that there was never a point where losing was a concern.

There is no penalty for missing notes other than ruining your combo. There's no great fanfare for having an accomplished point total, and even in the later levels it was all A Ranks. In fact, it is perhaps that A Rank is the lowest and this run through never saw anything higher than that.

On the other hand, Synaesthete's design choices with the note system are a great way to handle multiple skill levels. The tutorial recommends that you don't try to hit all the notes, and the game fades out note streams that you are not currently attempting to hit. A risk or punishment system that affects more than just points could very quickly turn frustrating.

Synaesthete features three or four enemy types, minus the bosses. All of them do absolutely trivial amounts of damage. With the frequent (though minor) health pickups, the game might as well not have a health dynamic.

Oh man, an easy part of the song came up. Phasers charged, captain.

Throughout the game, the player unlocks several spells that, by and large, destroy groups of enemies in novel ways. For those who are direly in need of help, the very first spell is another health refill. For those who like big numbers, another spell does nothing but massively increase the combo total. With the lack of punishment for missing notes and the nonthreatening nature of the enemies, the damaging spells were curiosities rather than helpful tools.

While the player does control movement, that is almost unnecessary as well. Nearly all of the action is hitting the notes and the most one can do to avoid enemies is to circle strafe or stand still, depending on the type.

The most interesting sections of Synaesthete are the boss fights. Movement and positioning suddenly become a concern, engaging the player on a level that the enemy waves do not. The battlefield changes as the boss adopts different patterns, forcing the player to also move in new ways. Unfortunately, these sequences are very short thanks to the terrifying power of eye lasers.

And Pose Like a Guru

Speaking as a person with pedestrian tastes in techno and a passing familiarity with house/trance/etc, the music in Synaesthete is acceptable. It veered closely to same-sounding at multiple points, which is likely a weakness of having a single artist for the entire game. None of the songs stood out and made me want to track them down.

Viper Vizier is evil Jesus from an alternate dimension and also the villain of the
unreleased third film of the Future Force trilogy.

Overall, Synaesthete is an interesting effort that, like many other indie games, is in need of an editor. The concept of combining Robotron-esque battlefields with a classic rhythm game format seems like a great idea until you start to think about it. How many DDR players pay attention to the background when they're engaged with a song that is any more difficult than 'could literally play blindfolded'?

It is a short game if you're not interested in higher difficulties (which ramp up the speed), so get in the Eurovision mood and give it a try by clicking here.

Want to suggest a game or genre for the next tea time? Email me at
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