Frozen Synapse 2 Review
Reviewed on PC
Frozen Synapse 2 is a stressful game.
Video games are meant to be a fun and relaxing antithesis to the stress of everyday life, and so to call the game ‘stressful’ would seemingly be a criticism. However the nervous intensity derived from it is not a shortcoming but a testament to an expertly crafted game. Developers Mode 7 Games has found the line between ‘challenging’ and ‘too hard’, and by giving players the tools to cross that line of their own volition, have made a wonderfully engaging gaming experience.
You can be forgiven for having to quickly look up the original Frozen Synapse as it released seven years ago, and Frozen Synapse 2 was the subject of two years of delays. However the extra work put in was clearly worth it, as the game is one of the most engaging gaming experiences of the year.
Frozen Synapse 2 is a turn-based tactics game in which you control a squad of up to six soldiers, of various classes, in small arenas. This premise may sound very similar to the XCOM games but the similarities are few and far between, as Frozen Synapse 2 has a fundamental difference – after you’ve plotted out your actions for the turn you ‘prime’ your actions, and they play out simultaneously to your opponents. This means you’re expected to predict the movements of your opponent, and plan accordingly.
You’ve given a plethora of actions you can order your soldiers can carry out, from moving and aiming to waiting for specific periods of time, and can organise them in a timeline-esque fashion to carry out over each five second turn. If these actions work in such a way that you take out enemy soldiers, great, but the AI has an unpredictable streak that makes the game hit the perfect level of challenge. The stress of the game comes from ordering your soldiers to enact a certain sequence of commands knowing that, if the enemy doesn’t do what you predict, you could lose a soldier.
Plotting out each turn amid the self-doubt and anxiety of potential failure doesn’t sound like it makes for a good game, but the overwhelming feeling of joy and relief when a plan does come together makes it all worth it – in this regard, it clearly is similar to XCOM.
This cycle of testing out plans before ‘priming’ your final decision gives weight to this decision but it also breaks up gameplay significantly – a loading screen is required before the results play out, and when battles can occasionally get up to 50 turns long, a significant portion of the game is spent waiting for loading screens.
The minimalist neon visuals and wonderful synthesised musical score are worth mentioning too, as they help create the claustrophobic futuristic aesthetic that enhances the tensions brought out by the gameplay – although the music does get a little repetitive after hours and hours of gameplay.
To frame the series of turn-based missions is Frozen Synapse 2’s secret weapon – the open city map and story. You are given control of a faction in Markov Geist, a far-future cyberpunk city full of warring factions and government agencies, with the aim of researching and understanding a series of guerrilla attacks around the city, and the entity behind them.
As the faction leader you can order squads around the city to respond to attacks, carry out contracts for extra funding, respond to requests for help from various city districts, and manage the faction itself by creating new squads, hiring soldiers, buying new properties and keeping up relationships with other various factions. Each other faction has its own motivations and desires, and these cross over with yours in intriguing and challenging ways – you can turn to them for help against the mysterious threat, or wipe them out to remove a potential future threat.
The story functions in the world as purely a sequence of missions, but it plays out as you interact with the various factions in your own way, and make your own decisions on them. This interplay can have interesting consequences both narratively and gameplay-wise. As a personal example, this reviewer was in the midst of a turf war with a faction that was starting to threaten my progress, however when this faction became embroiled in the main plot, it caused me to re-think my attitude towards them and their cause.
Far from being an excuse to bring about the turn-based missions, the city map is a novel and intriguing aspect of the game in its own right, and the narrative strands that it presents, and are presented through the random nature of the AI, are some of the most engaging aspects of the game.
However, the open world does bring a few problems to the gameplay. Firstly, any semblance of progression ends rather quickly when all unit types are unlocked – there’s no upgrade system for them, and once squads have the maximum number of soldiers there’s no way you can improve them in any way. The game is rather long, and any kind of progression once all the units are unlocked would go a long way in keeping the game feeling fresh.
The other important issue is that soldiers can’t die – if you lose them in a mission they’ll be healed when the squad returns to base, and even if your whole squad is wiped out it’ll grow back in a matter of in-game hours. This means the down-sides to losing are dramatically reduced – sure, you won’t earn the contract fee and the squad will be out of action for a while, but the emotional connection associated with permadeath in XCOM is completely absent here. Death has no weight.
These two shortcomings are rather minor given the scope of the game and the heights it manages to hit. The missions are intense and engaging; the overworld gives you cause and motivation to pursue further missions and build an emotive connection to the story and factions – the game works well both mechanically and narratively. Frozen Synapse 2 is finely crafted and written game – Mode 7 Games are truly showing their colours as game developers.