America - Front
America - Back
By Adam Cartwright 13th Apr 2021 | 1,096 views
It's hard to overstate what a huge impact Blade Runner had on media; despite it being something of a flop at the box office, its vision of a neon-drenched, oppressed, cyberpunk futuristic world has influenced everything from anime like Ghost in the Shell, to movies like The Matrix, and videogames like Snatcher. With Synergia, indie developer Radi Art takes a stab at the aesthetic in the form of a yuri visual novel. Despite being the work of a tiny team, Synergia manages to come as close to a Blade Runner experience as I've ever seen in video games, and I absolutely love it for that.
Of course, as a visual novel, it's nowhere near the scope of Ridley Scott's masterpiece, opting for static backgrounds which don't animate (as is common for the genre), save for the occasionally different lighting effects or colours. With that said, the palette used here is absolutely sublime - a constant mix of reds and purples that create a dusk-like feeling throughout the city. This is supplemented by the constant glare of neon lights and static screens which help to create a technology-centric vision of the future. Even the UI adopts a cyberpunk design, curving at the edges of the text box in a way that you'd think would be counter-intuitive, but which actually just feeds in to a feeling of wonderment that I'd equate to the first time I saw WipEout and its crazy futuristic menus.
Even the soundtrack is something Vangelis would be proud of, a hypnotic mix of electronic beats and drawn-out synthwave that absolutely encapsulates the aesthetic of a grimy, oppressive city. Perhaps the weakest element of the visual package is the character art. While I love the designs, which vary from a service android wearing a face mask with a little love heart on it to the main character Cila and her chopped black bob and gothic dress sense, they're drawn with thick edging and go for what I'd describe as something of a sketch look. This is all fine, and might be right up your alley, but compared to other visual novels I've enjoyed I found the character art a little lacking.
All of this audiovisual work feeds into creating a stunning world that is thankfully fully realised through the story, which spends a good amount of time crafting its identity. The game takes place in a city controlled by The Empire, a powerful force whose history is only ever hinted at throughout the plot. The city's inhabitants use androids as robotic companions to take care of menial tasks for them, and the androids have no sentience of their own. Humans augment their bodies with robotic implants to assist with modern life and communicate via HoloNet, a virtual network with avatars activated through implants in individuals' brains. It's all a little par-for-the-course (I've seen similar in games like 2064: Read Only Memories), and yet still very effective.
Synergia begins with an android carrier crashing and we're informed that all but two of the androids being transported have been captured, after which we're introduced to Cila - a 'negotiator' who works for HoplonSec, whose job it is to track down rogue androids and fix them. Cila is a young woman who I wouldn't quite describe as world-weary, but someone who definitely feels jaded by her experiences and frequently clashes with her (work) partner Vega. She equally dislikes the new power structure that's quickly introduced which sees her assigned to two Velta (a robotics company) agents named Darla and Kyle, who assist her in carrying out her job.
At home, Cila lives with a polite service android named Elaine, who is tasked with keeping the house tidy while Cila goes to work. You'll immediately notice that something isn't quite right though - Elaine has been slowly stripped of features by Cila until all that remains is an empty husk of machinery and, when she eventually breaks, Cila's friend Yoko provides her with a new android named Mara (free of charge, which should have been an immediate red flag to her and the player). Mara is the polar opposite of Elaine, showing sentience well beyond that which androids should usually demonstrate and this takes Cila on a journey to uncover the truth behind Mara's origins.
If you couldn't tell already from that description above, Synergia is very happy to dive right in to the philosophical musings of human & robotic life and the idea of what it truly means to be alive, topics that are regularly dealt with in science fiction but often fumbled in the process. The developers here pose some very interesting questions, such as whether the transfer of memories into a machine is really living, and whether artificial life can ever truly have the human experience. Central to everything is also an exploration of whether relationships between humans and androids are moral.
This latter idea is where the game's yuri themes come in, as Cila finds herself attracted to Mara but fights those feelings based on a traumatic experience in her past. I've never been particularly big on romance in visual novels, but often find the experience underneath that more than worthwhile. That's been the case for me with everything from Steins;Gate to more overt visual novels like Collar x Malice. It's also the case here, although I did note that the romance was somewhat dulled by some of the main plot ideas, which give it far less impact when you take a step back. That said, if you're into yuri elements there's still plenty to love here.
Cila's journey takes her across the city dealing with rogue androids, all of which seem to be under the influence of a hacker named Sal, a character who makes her question her allegiances and purpose. It all ties into Mara's appearance in her life too, and I did enjoy unravelling the web that runs through everything, although Synergia has a habit of taking things slowly and character building for a while before dumping loads of exposition to drive the plot forward. It culminates in two different endings that can feel a little abrupt, although an epilogue unlocked for clearing both is a nice little bonus.
As a visual novel there's little in the way of interactive elements (as you'd expect), although at various points you are allowed to browse different tabs on websites to find out more about the world, which is a nice authentic-feeling touch. There are also three choices you can make that decide which path you take. This isn't particularly groundbreaking for the genre, but they're interesting questions with answers that aren't obvious on your first playthrough. Unfortunately, the UI around them (at least on PS4) is messy and one of the few troublesome elements of Synergia.
When making these decisions you'll see a red box around one of the options, but this isn't actually the one that's selected (that's the one that looks greyed out), which is an instance of terrible visual design. You can at least change the colour scheme to white, which makes it slightly easier to see and understand the selections, but this looks far less impressive next to Synergia's neon cyberpunk aesthetic. I also had problems with the text history not scrolling and looking quite messy at times, which made it difficult to rewind through conversations without re-loading a save.
Overall I came away hugely impressed with Synergia. It offers a lot of unique thoughts on its vision of the future and is backed up by some stellar audiovisual design, meaning it's a joy to experience. While it can sometimes get caught up in its own storytelling exposition - something the team could perhaps have fleshed out better with more time and a larger budget - that doesn't detract from an otherwise outstanding visual novel.