Just on its aesthetic alone, Desync had me hooked. It drops you into its neon-cyberspace with nary a clue as to where you are or what your purpose here is. Static and interlace effects dance across the screen as you make your way through the hub, grungy synth scoring the scene. It’s a very striking look that lends Desync its sense of style.
If only the actual act of play were as good.
Desync is a score-based first-person shooter that urges you to kill with style. By using the environment or combining certain attacks together, you perform “attack sequences.” Attack sequences are essentially unique kills that involve doing something more than simply unloading into foes until they vanish. Maybe that involves knocking an enemy into a pool of lava, or combing weapon shots in some fashion. Desync rewards you for pulling them off with increased movement speed, health pickups, additional points, etc. It’s worth your while to perform them as much as possible.
Because the majority of them revolve around using your weapons’ primary and secondary fire in concert, however, you end up stumbling into them unwittingly. Desync merely informs you of the concept, but never goes out of its way to demonstrate what one looks like or how to perform one. First couple I found happened entirely by chance, as such. By finishing targets off with a charged shot from your pistol, you get an “energized” sequence, for instance, whereas knocking an enemy into the air with your shotgun then following up by deploying a shuriken into the air for them to slam into nets you the “entrapment” sequence. Some of them are easier to pull off than others – such as anything that involves throwing foes into environmental hazards – but once I pulled off a few, I started to understand how to find them.
What I never understood was how best to use them. For as much as Desync encourages stylish and skillful kills, it provides little in the way opportunity to do so. Setting up attack sequences takes time and precision. Your target often has to be in just the right spot, which proves challenging when you’re also trying to avoid volleys of gunfire, axe wielding knights, spiders, and so on. Desync expects you to be able to pull them off in the heat of combat with ease, but the very nature of its encounters make that difficult.
The problem is that it’s impossible to settle into any sort of rhythm. Combat just doesn’t flow. It’s a series of fits and starts. Cramped level design and enemies that move faster than you and can kill you in one or two hits constantly disrupt, with deaths that come out of nowhere and geometry that greatly impedes your ability to dash or jump out of the way of enemy fire. It’s less a game of improvisation as it is one of rote memorization. As each wave is so heavily scripted (enemies always spawn in the same locations, often following the same few paths), battle boils down to figuring out the correct order to kill foes in. I quickly stopped trying to figure out how to use my weapons and environment effectively and fell back on relying on the safest, most reliable means of gunning down foes while keeping myself alive.
For a game that wants you to play aggressively, to be creative with your kills, and to find the best possible approach to maximize your score, Desync’s minute-to-minute play goes out of its way to make that as difficult as possible. The only times I felt like the game was getting anywhere close to delivering on its premise was when I was replaying early stages on a whim. Where before I’d struggled to get the hang of things, I was now running circles around my targets, destroying everything in my path with ease. The game felt pretty darn cool in that moment, like it had finally realized the potential its sense of style had set up for it. The difference wasn’t so much that I got better, however, as it was that I simply had a better, powered-up arsenal.
With a proper variety of guns to wield, each of them upgraded in various ways to increase damage and rate of fire, those early-game levels felt like a fairer, more balanced challenge. Deaths came about as a result of poor awareness or execution rather than being overwhelmed and outgunned. It allowed me to be a little creative, to pull off attack sequences with ease. Those moments made Desync feel like it had something going for it. But then I went right back to trying to move forward brushed up against the same problems, the same frustrations all over again. As satisfying as those fleeting moments of fun were, it’s tough to keep going when the majority of the game is so infuriating to play.