Every enemy you face looks like a golem made of broken glass, neon lighting from the imagined 80s still trapped inside the shards and thrumming with life. Your weapons are jagged things that burst with unnatural color, and the soundtrack’s beats and synths sound like they’ve just crawled out of a nightclub on electronica night. The world is oddly shaped, and dark everywhere it isn’t glowing, like it isn’t sure how to be. Everything wants you to die. Welcome to Desync.
What Desync wants to do, it does well. It’s a challenging single player shooter that has as good as zero narrative context, with the focus instead on a procession of weapons and items that you can use in arena-like areas against an increasing variety of enemies. It calls to mind early first-person shooters that proliferated on the PC like Doom and Quake, back before shooters took a turn for ostensible realism with cover shooting, realistic settings, and less effects-heavy weapons.
The combat is definitely challenging, which is a bit surprising at first since many of the enemies rely primarily on melee attacks, giving the player what appears to be a huge range advantage. After the initial learning experience, though, it quickly becomes clear that the key factor in the game isn’t shooting so much as movement. Most early deaths are due to not moving fast enough, or not paying enough attention to the level design, such as by getting stuck in dead ends or trying to back into walls. Once you get into the rhythm of the combat systems, it ends up feeling like a strange sort of dance requiring you to run, jump, and pirouette through the air while timing your shots carefully to achieve success, and proving quite satisfying when you manage those.
The game forces you to learn its fighting style through weapon design — you really can’t deal with more than one or two simple enemies from a standing position with them before being overrun and killed, mostly because the guns tend to fire very slowly. They can be improved later on, but by the time that happens the lesson has been absorbed: winning requires active architectural awareness and constant running and gunning. It’s a simple and effective way to coax players into the right mindset to achieve success.
Visually, everything in Desync works towards the same goal, from the font and the glitchy UI to the colors and the architecture and art style. The retro gameplay style is reflected in electronic beats and low-poly art that both harkens back to earlier periods of geek culture — everything in the game is effectively chosen to create an overall impression. It’s not especially original or vibrant, but it’s solid and feels cohesive. This aesthetic cohesion doesn’t always make for the best experience, though. The UI in particular suffers when it glitches out and every button breaks into two or three technicolor variants only partially superimposed on one another. It’s an aesthetically impactful effect, but it also makes the UI hard to read — one of several instance where the game favors aesthetics to the detriment of functionality.
These problems extend to the levels as well — the fairly stark difference between dark and glowing areas, or lit and unlit areas, act as a sort of disruptive camouflage that makes it hard to see where level geometry bends, ends, or extends. More than a few times I found myself running into walls that looked from another angle like doorways or alcoves; turned around in levels that are largely symmetrical along multiple axes; or falling off ledges into death pits that just looked like unlit flooring. In a way, this may be the point — the frantic combat and the jarring shapes and colors are certainly disorienting, and the levels play into that. But in the process, the game occasionally overstepped my tolerance for being disoriented.
Of course, Desync has a complex set of progression systems as well, where you can not only add generic boosts to your weapons but can also unlock and equip specific sidearms and other usable items called cores. These seem very useful at first glance, like an incredibly strong shield or a healing tool, but they can only rarely be used. Some of them require finding an item spawn in the map itself, and they don’t seem to respawn in these spots twice; other items require you to fight in certain ways, racking up points and collecting drops from dead enemies, but these come so infrequently that I often forget I even have a healing device in the first place. This isn’t to say they aren’t critical to advancing through the game, but they feel like something you have to work for even after acquiring them; as such, they aren’t a very salient part of the moment-to-moment experience.
Overall, Desync has a clear gameplay identity that’s well-supported by art and sound design. It’s fast, frantic, disorienting, and a throwback to earlier members of the shooter family tree. It’s not a very welcoming experience, but it doesn’t exactly need to be either, since it’s making an appeal to a very particular set of tastes and preferences. If you’re looking for story or innovative mechanics or an engrossing world, you should look elsewhere, but if you’re ready to dive in purely for the sake of a retro first-person shooting challenge, this game may well be for you.