The Vita has had a hard time of it recently. Sony seemed to be struggling to find the hand-held console’s selling point, on top of that the big developers and publishers have let the little black bundle of joy fall by the wayside. This left a power vacuum. For a short while no games were really being released and everyone lost hope for this super powerful machine. Thankfully a sect of the game developer community came in and took ownership, the indies. With titles like Hotline Miami, Spelunky and Stealth Inc doing big numbers on the handheld others have looked to taking their PC properties and moving them across to the Sony handheld. Last week another joined the cause in the form of Frozen Synapse Prime.
Originally released as Frozen Synapse on the PC, the game has come a long way with its current iteration on Vita. The original Frozen Synapse and Prime clearly share the same basic core but there’s something about Prime that has made it wonderfully more impressive and accessible than its PC counterpart.
You control a team of avatars, each with their own weapon of choice. The core game boils down to ‘Kill the other team’, but to say this is just a team shooter would be a great disservice to the depth of tactics and combat held within. Turn based combat is usually something held for RPGs, but in this combat rather than waiting a few minutes between attacks you and your opponents spend a few minutes setting up intricate waypoints and attack plans in preparation for both move sets to play out at the same time.
What this leads to is you looking at the placement of your opponents squad members and spending a long time saying which direction you will send people, which corridors they will look down as they pass, which areas they will crouch past or aim at. Finally you’re set, you’re ready to watch your team precisely take down your opponent with cold accuracy and skill. You hit the Prime button, locking in your tactics. The screen loads before showing you both team’s actions play out at the same time, quickly you realise that your opponent is smarter than you and half your team drop. The matches play out over a set number of turns, usually between 5 and 10. If you fail to complete your objective or kill your adversary, then it’s game over.
The game has various modes to take away a number of hours of your life. Skirmishes was my main go to when playing this game, you’re dumped in a randomly created area and just told to kill your opponent in X turns. As well as the Skirmishes you can also tackle the online world in Multiplayer, or alternatively take on corrupt corporations in the single player campaign. The single player campaign is a solid alternative to the other modes, giving you different objectives to your standard kill all affair. Whether it’s ‘protect this hacker’ or ‘escort this person from A-B’ you’ll see something different. You are still controlling guys with guns and just trying to take out the red guys, but at least these objectives give you a different play style to experiment with, for example rather than chasing down the enemies and going for the kills you learn through the single player that often finding a spot and holding it actually makes more tactical sense in this game.
To aid you in taking down the enemy AI you have numerous available skills to take advantage of. Aiming, looking, glancing are all essential skills to implement when you’ve reached the end of your waypoint run, perching in the corner of a room and looking out through as many doors as possible is a key skill to use, especially with machine gunners and snipers on the team. Whilst playing you have the choice of using the buttons on the Vita or taking advantage of the touch screen controls, both work wonderfully and in my case using both in conjunction with each other made for a great immersive experience. Using the buttons for general unit selecting and menu operating worked great, but for the waypoint setting and the command wheel touch screen was responsive and accurate enough to make all the difference.
It’s hard for me to admit my biggest problem with the PC original Frozen Synapse because it makes me look petty, but if I’m completely honest I couldn’t get over the neon graphical style the game had. It all just looked a bit nasty to me and I couldn’t get past it. Frozen Synapse Prime has made me realise that if I had given it a real chance I would have seen an amazing game underneath it all. Thankfully Double11, the developer of this pseudo-port, has made some changes to the game that the original really needed, namely a graphical overhaul. Now you’re playing your games on top of a virtual reality sky scraper and the husks on each team are neon mannequins who spew brightly colour gloop instead of blood. One element that deserves huge praise is the soundtrack. Cyber-punk enthused electronica tunes just work perfectly with the world that has been built, prominent but not over powering this music fits the game play like a glove. The rounds can take many minutes each time when you end up trying to lay down huge tactics, having music that seamlessly mixes and doesn’t have annoying catches means you are never reminded of how long you’ve been playing and how long this turn is taking you.
Frozen Synapse Prime is not an easy game, whether in multiplayer or single player you’ll struggle at first. The tutorials do a good job of making you think you’ll own this game and show every husk you’re up against you’re boss, but in reality you’ll probably spend the first handful of matches screwing up turn 1 and then spending the next few turns on the back heel and working against odds. Difficulty isn’t really an issue with this game, the enemy is always follows rules and if anything the amount of squad members I’ve lost is a testament to the AI. A number of people may claim this game is too difficult as a negative, but what I think a number of people will actually be saying is that the game is too deep, and this is a view I could see. When you first start playing, you’ll be shown various play styles, different tactics and different abilities, when it comes down to it you could use the basic moves but later on that won’t get you far.
The Vita is great for a certain type of game, games where you’ll play for an hour or so and then think “ok, just one more round/level/attempt, and then I’ll stop”, it’s at this point you realise it’s half 1 in the morning and you had gone to bed 3 hours earlier. Frozen Synapse Prime is deep, rewarding and enjoyably challenging. It’s difficulty is there to make you realise you suck, and then to help you improve. Prime doesn’t hold your hand, it beats it to a pulp and then offers you a splint. You’ll struggle with this but when it finally clicks in your head, you’ll be taking out a whole team in 2 turns and making it look damn good.