It’s hard to criticise a difficult game, because the assumption usually made is that you’re only frustrated because you’re bad at it. And to be clear: I am bad at Desync. It’s an abstract, neon FPS about creative killing—with a focus on movement and positioning. I’ve died loads, and haven’t progressed very far. This isn’t, however, why I’m not smitten with Desync. Or, at least, it’s only part of the reason.
Levels in Desync are a series of arenas in which you fight waves of polygonal enemies. You earn points for killing in interesting ways—by avoiding damage and counterattacking, or doing a 180 spin before firing off the killing blow. Such style is only possible when you’re alive, and in Desync you’re quickly overrun. Survival, then, requires dashing—a short burst of rapid movement that you can use to dodge projectiles and melee strikes, or to put distance between you and the things trying to kill you.
It’s the basis for a solid twitch shooter, but it doesn’t feel good. There’s no fanfare or feedback, just the act of moving a set distance. It isn’t just the dash. For everything that Desync does competently, it’s undersold by its lifelessness. Even the aesthetic feels drab. This is the murkiest Tron-like neon playspace I’ve ever inhabited.
Good feedback is essential, but too many of Desync’s systems are revealed through abstraction or UI elements. You gain ammo from enemy drops that are drawn towards you as you get near them. But the visual markers for receiving a pickup are lost amid the general business of Desync’s presentation. It’s easy to lose track of these resources, and even the ammo counter is abstracted to the point of being overly difficult to read. Ammo management and weapon switching are crucial systems, but doing it effectively here requires a level of mental processing that distracts from the on-screen action.
The visual style also means it’s possible to lose track of your location within each arena. I died a number of times because I dashed too close to the traps placed around each space. Arguably this is my own stupid fault, but also something that never happened in Bulletstorm—a more vibrant, detailed FPS with a similar focus on trickshots and style. While Desync has a slightly different goal, it’s nonetheless a useful comparison in regards to the difference that great audio and visual effects can make to the feel of a shooter with an emphasis on style and skill.
Desync is deliberately positioning itself as a hardcore FPS about mastery of its systems and spaces. In this, it arguably succeeds. Desync is difficult, and its highest ratings require a level of prowess that could well be beyond me. But its successes are all on a theoretical level. It is, technically, a challenging shooter with some clever upgrade systems that allow for a loadout variety that could make for some interesting leaderboard challenges. And yet, there’s no heart or soul. By not accentuating the speed, thrill and feedback of a great twitch shooter, Desync feels sterile.