Considering that novels – the paper kind – span hundreds of genres and sub-genres, I’ve always found it odd that visual novels – the ‘tap-A-to-progress’ kind – are afraid of straying out of a few select genres. Checking a list of all of the Xbox visual novels that I’ve played in the past year, and there are a lot of them, roughly 80% are romantic dramas or comedies. The remaining 20% are horror.
That’s not a great deal of diversity, and it creates several problems. It keeps a narrow sub-genre even narrower, requiring a potential audience to be in a venn diagram of ‘likes reading’ and ‘likes wooing imaginary characters’. And, on a personal note, it creates a kind of ennui: that I have played in so many situations like them before. There’s a sub-problem, which is that a lot of visual novels err towards sleaziness, but we won’t go down that particular rabbit-hole today.
Praise be, then, for Synergia: A Cyberpunk Thriller Visual Novel. You get the sense that it knows how unusual its choice of genres are in visual novel terms. There they are, right in the title of the game. And while it still has some Yuri elements (visual-novel romancing between women), it’s far more interested in the science-fiction stuff. It may not be fantastic, but at least it’s different.
The plot summary should give you a good idea where Synergia: A Cyberpunk Thriller Visual Novel’s influences lie. The main character is Cila, a police negotiator who specialises in talking down (and occasionally taking down) synthetic perps, from robots to androids to bioroids. But from the various conversations she has with other cops, she has a dark history: one that may include a forbidden relationship with a robot.
Things go off the rails when Cila is gifted a housedroid called Mara. Her feelings resurface and, as much as Cila tries to repress them so that they don’t bubble up in front of her workmates, they cause compounding issues. Meanwhile, a hacker called Sal keeps hijacking robots to chat to Cila when she’s in the middle of cases, which is particularly bad form.
If you haven’t guessed from the synopsis, the shadow of Blade Runner looms large over Synergia: A Cyberpunk Thriller Visual Novel. It’s not hard to see the echoes of Deckard’s relationship with Rachael in Cila and Mara, while Cila’s job is only one step removed from an actual Blade Runner. The cityscapes are dark and neon-lit, while synth music throbs along with it all.
It bothered us a little, if we’re honest. If it was a superficial likeness, it wouldn’t have been a problem. Countless films and games have leaned on Blade Runner’s aesthetic, and done something new with it. But the themes that Synergia: A Cyberpunk Thriller Visual Novel wants us to care about are all too familiar. Can synthetics love? Should they? What happens to society when robots look unmistakably like us? What is the difference if they act the same? Blade Runner did it all, but with style, gunfights and Rutger Hauer holding a dove.
It’s the old Turing Test chestnut, or Asimov’s Three Rules of Robotics. As a topic, it’s so well-trodden that we’re practically walking around in trenches. But Synergia: A Cyberpunk Thriller Visual Novel loves the topic, and spends paragraph after paragraph on whether a robot that looks, smells, tastes and thinks like a human could or should be treated like one. It might just be us, but we started zoning out.
What doesn’t help is the lack of va-va-voom: anything that would pep up the chin-stroking. Synergia: A Cyberpunk Thriller Visual Novel’s next problem is that it has only two modes: exposition and hand-wringing.
The exposition is numbing. Every single character, outside of Cila and – to a degree – Mara, is there to deliver explanations or to talk about a development that happened elsewhere. Synergia: A Cyberpunk Thriller Visual Novel will rarely if ever show you something happening, and the vast majority of interesting developments happen off camera. War rages in a far-flung corner of the world, and it’s absolutely pivotal to the plot, but you never get to see it. So, you are told about it, ad nauseum, by characters who don’t have room for subtleties like humour, character development or just plain chatting about the weather.
The hand-wringing is a lot of people telling each other how they’re feeling. Most of it is unearned, with characters falling in love or falling out with each other and, because everything is ‘tell, don’t show’, these emotional pivots come across as a bit wet. That’s when they’re not downright confusing: I still don’t know whether Cila’s workmates consider her to be good or bad at her job. They seem to swing wildly from one to the other, with her boss in particular telling her she’s the worst and best negotiator he’s ever seen.
But the kicker is the lack of anything really happening. This is a thoughtful, well-constructed world that is seen almost entirely from a single apartment. People seem to wait for things to happen, but they tend to fizzle out, leaving room only for exposition and chinwagging. Even Synergia: A Cyberpunk Thriller Visual Novel gets a bit bored with its countdown structure (the story is split into days, building up to a ‘Synergia’ moment), and blasts through dozens of days in one particular montage.
There’s some choice to zhuzh things up, which is welcome. There are five or six branching points, and a couple of them branch dramatically. It comes at a cost: one of the two endings is a whimper, while the other clearly feels like the ‘right’ one. You’ll know when you get there. Synergia: A Cyberpunk Thriller Visual Novel has a reasonably decent skipping function, so returning to the fork in the road is relatively easy.
A strong indication of whether I’ve liked a visual novel is whether I am eager to actually see what happened on those different branches. But I had none of that urge with Synergia: A Cyberpunk Thriller Visual Novel. The prospect of doubling my time with this humdrum, navel-gazing cyberpunk visual novel filled me with a slight sense of dread. I wanted to make my excuses, drop down an origami unicorn, and pop out to watch Blade Runner instead.
You can buy Synergia: A Cyberpunk Thriller Visual Novel from the Xbox Store