Double Eleven have carved something of a niche for themselves in bringing the beloved PixelJunk series to PlayStation Vita and PS4; well they’ve been at it again, but this time they’ve taken Mode 7’s Frozen Synapse and reimagined it for Sony’s portable console.
Frozen Synapse Prime starts by ticking off a few classic gaming clichés… It’s a turn-based strategy game set in a dystopian cyberpunk future, where you lead a small rebel faction in overthrowing a powerful corporation that controls the city of Markov Geist. To give you full disclosure, I have loved turn-based strategy games since before Firaxis made it cool to with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I spent countless hours playing that on the PS3, going to the lengths of renaming my soldiers after friends; an act that would dictate the way I played the game and lead to some awkward conversations as I would provide pals with status updates as to the progress of their XCOM avatars. What makes Frozen Synapse Prime stand out though is how it does turn-based strategy.
Forgoing the traditional alternate turn-based model, Frozen Synapse Prime has both you and your opponent plan your moves and then execute them simultaneously. This leads to a tense game of cat and mouse as you and your foe go toe-to-toe, trying to second guess each others next move; it makes for exciting gameplay and is certainly more mentally challenging than some of the scenarios that can be presented by XCOM, where surviving an encounter becomes a game of numbers or chance.
There are various units you will use throughout the game equipped with machine guns, shotguns, grenades, sniper rifles or even rocket launchers; each has their own unique role to play from long range support, to up-close firepower, via wall destroying demolition to make the most of the procedurally generated, destructible 3D environments. The fog of war, ever present in turn-based strategy games, has been removed for the majority of the game (though ‘dark mode’ is a challenging option in multiplayer); but the ability to see your opponents hand from the get go does not make the game a walk in the park, they move as you do you at the end of your planning phase and the best laid plans of mice and vatforms can quickly go pear shaped. A careless move, allowing the enemy to get the drop on you, will soon tip the balance in their favour. However, the game is fair, so cautious and precise planning will enable you to dominate the opposition.
There are many tools in your strategic arsenal and the two tutorials will help you to grasp the basics of the game. To really excel will take practice, and the trial and error nature of the encounters as you begin really allow you to do that. During the planning phase you will plot waypoints for your soldiers and they will move along these paths, you can also assign actions such as telling them to aim in a particular direction or cover a narrow corridor as they pass it. A blue cone of light will tell you what your vatform’s field of vision is (the same is true when you select an enemy soldier, though they are a baddie so obviously they have red cones), and unless you tell them otherwise, any enemy that steps into that blue cone is in the killzone. Plowing forward through a doorway and turning towards your enemy is not enough to win an encounter in Frozen Synapse Prime; as you both move simultaneously at the end of the planning stage, if your enemy is already covering that doorway it’s goodnight Vienna.
The differences between the aim, sweep, cover and target modes are subtle, but it’s essential that you work out the right time to employ each tactic, or more importantly, to avoid employing certain tactics that will get you killed. Being able to duck, dash, set wait points, take out walls with heavy weapons and get your vatforms to sweep for targets on the move, means that there are many viable play-styles at your fingertips, from stealth to all out action dependent on the troops at your disposal. As you plan your turn, you can preview the predicted outcomes of your moves, albeit against a stationary opposition, to see if you’ve unwittingly plotted a suicide mission for any of your troops. After several hours of playing the game, I even realised that you can also plot preview waypoints for enemy troops and have a stab at predicting their movements during the next turn; the enemy AI is surprisingly competent though so don’t expect them to follow your whims blindly. When you’re happy with the planning and the preview, you prime your turn to lock it in and begin the outcome phase. This only lasts a few seconds as moves are made, but any kills are viewed with an exciting and cinematic killcam before you are ready to plan your next turn.
Smooth touchscreen controls alongside the ability to use the Vita controls make for an easy and intuitive interface. Technically, the game’s isometric 3D environments look good although the colour palette has a heavy grey bias, but it’s the soundtrack that really stands out, as was the case with the original Frozen Synapse OST. The game features campaign, skirmish modes and multiplayer modes, with the latter featuring procedurally generated levels and allocation of troop types. If that seems a bit haphazard for your liking, you can also create custom matches by tailoring the maps, troops and scenarios to your tastes. Multiplayer is billed as simultaneously synchronous and asynchronous, which means that you play immediately with friends if they happen to be online, or you can both take turns at your leisure if you can’t coordinate your calendars. This also gives the added benefit of being able to play multiple multiplayer games at any time for all you social butterflies.
Frozen Synapse Prime is an engaging and refreshing take on the turn-based strategy game, and you really need to learn the mechanics of it beyond what the (optional) tutorials will teach you. If you enjoy the genre and want to invest the time then it’s a rewarding experience, but I could see it frustrating some more twitchy gamers. The skirmish and asynchronous multiplayer modes are great for a quick fix on the go, making Frozen Synapse Prime exactly the kind of game the Vita was made for.
Two review copies of Frozen Synapse Prime for PlayStation Vita were provided by the Double Eleven PR team for single and multiplayer evaluation, and the game is available now on the PlayStation Network.