A spiral is one of the simplest repeating patterns, emanating outward from a central point. Or perhaps everything converges into that central point. It all depends on your perspective. Viewed from the outside, a spiral is in constant motion, yet ultimately nothing changes. This is the central image of SYNESTHESIA, a character-driven sci-fi mystery visual novel from developer Spire Games. Are we doomed to spin eternally in place, or is there an escape to the endless spiral?
Welcome to the Institute
SYNESTHESIA takes place in a near future where, for reasons that are not fully understood, humans have begun to develop unusual powers called Extrasensory Perceptions (ESPs). The protagonist, Ziek, has an ESP called “synesthesia” that causes flashes of color to highlight people, objects, and places in his vision. There’s no clear pattern as to when and why his synesthesia activates, but upon further inspection, the things highlighted always turn out to be significant in some way. Ziek, along with many others possessing ESPs, attends the Huntley Scientific Research Institute, an organization that both educates those with ESPs and investigates the origins of these unusual abilities. After experiencing great loss early in life, Ziek lives carefree in the moment, treasuring the time he spends with his friends. But as it becomes increasingly apparent that there’s more to ESPs and the mysterious institute than meets the eye, Ziek finds himself swept up in a conspiracy with implications far greater than he could have imagined.
The story of SYNESTHESIA is a multiple-route mystery with a semi-enforced route order building up to a true route that resolves the central mysteries. After a brief common route, you start with a route for Ms. Keller, Ziek’s instructor at the institute. While Ms. Keller does get more scenes in this route compared to the others, she’s never as important a character or as close to Ziek as his friends Jase, Isla, and Eris. Consequently, her route felt like an extension of the common route; its primary purpose is to scatter enough hints and clues to draw you into the mystery. Overall I had no problem with this, though I did find Ms. Keller’s occasional teasing/flirting in a route that (thankfully) didn’t feature any romance a bit out of place.
Following Ms. Keller’s route, you can play Isla’s and Eris’ routes in either order. In addition to advancing the main plot, these routes explore the heroines’ backstories and personalities and even feature a splash of romance. Interestingly, neither of them resolve their main conflict–a choice that feels unsettled in the moment, but pays off in the true route and subsequent epilogues. And naturally the true route that wraps things up takes you to the heart of it all–the real nature of ESPs and the institute. I can’t say more than that without spoilers. You’ll have to play for yourself to find out.
In Search of Answers
Big picture, SYNESTHESIA has a compelling and well-told story. The first hour or so is a bit slow, focusing on introducing the cast and slice-of-life scenes, but once things get going the narrative is exciting and nicely paced. Like with a good page-turner, I was consistently eager to see what happened next and found SYNESTHESIA hard to put down. And once SYNESTHESIA starts delving into its hidden truths, it gives you interesting ideas that coalesce and crescendo into one of several thoughtful and thematically fitting conclusions, depending on the choices you make.
Likewise, the main characters, despite some tropey introductions, have depth and personality. Ziek starts out goofy and carefree but is sharper and more thoughtful than he appears. His friends have their own agendas, informed by their experience, and the group has a realistic dynamic. There’s conflict, but deep down they support each other and learn to open up about their vulnerabilities. And while the gang is at first excited by the mystery thrust into their hands, as the scope of what they are dealing with becomes increasingly clear, fear and uncertainty start to creep in. It’s fitting for what is not a group of childish heroes with dreams of saving the world, but a group of intimate friends who know what it feels like to lose something important and want to do everything they can to hold on to what they have left.
The one character who I did feel got somewhat shafted was Jase. He holds his own in his scenes and there’s clearly space within the world and narrative of SYNESTHESIA to explore his character and motivations. Unfortunately this never happens. Perhaps it’s a consequence of Jase not having a route, but he can disappear for long stretches when the story focuses on other characters and ends up feeling like, if not quite the afterthought male friend, then a missed opportunity to be something more than the afterthought male friend.
A Closer Look
Where SYNESTHESIA falters is in the attention to detail. The quality of the writing is uneven. Some passages elegantly evoke powerful ideas. Others are filled with grandiloquent purple prose. Characters’ speech patterns can be inconsistent, sometimes varying in formality and use of contractions and slang without much rhyme or reason. Add to this variability in the care taken to set the scene, and the dialogue ranges from smooth and natural to the kind of mechanical speech you see when a story simply wants to use whoever is present to push the plot along. Occasionally minor plot threads are dropped without explanation, although nothing big enough that I would call it a plot hole.
I suspect SYNESTHESIA could have benefited from better high-level editing. The writer is clearly capable of excellent writing, and the script is mechanically polished; grammatical errors and typos are almost nonexistent. But simply having someone go through and help smooth everything out for consistency of style and voice would have made the moment-to-moment reading more enjoyable for me.
The Golden Spiral
The story and characters complement SYNESTHESIA’s themes of interconnectedness and cycles. The characters and their collective struggles show how even the smallest of decisions can ripple outward to the people and world around us. In one sense, it might be terrifying to admit we are adrift, endlessly battered by waves of cause and effect. But in another sense it might also be comforting–we are never truly alone, and those closest to us carry on through the effect they had on our lives even after they are gone.
SYNESTHESIA posits a cyclical view of the world. Why do we keep making the same mistakes? Can we ever escape from the forces that shaped us, especially when they encourage us to be our ugliest and most shameful selves? This is readily apparent in the central image of a spiral–descending infinitely in a repeating pattern. While SYNESTHESIA’s themes suffuse the story and characters in subtle ways, they are also highlighted explicitly in Ziek’s nightly musings. It’s almost impossible not to engage, and SYNESTHESIA manages to make it so without becoming overbearing.
Exploration and Puzzles
SYNESTHESIA features light gameplay in the form of map movement and a few puzzles. I didn’t find the puzzles especially interesting. They lack either the depth to really get the cogs turning or the presentation and momentum to drive excitement (like in Zero Escape). One puzzle also seemed to me to have issues with the uniqueness of the solution, but perhaps I didn’t fully understand the parameters. Fortunately, SYNESTHESIA lets you opt out of the puzzles if you choose. The map movement is simple, but I actually enjoyed it more. I thought the locations and clickable points of interest helped to characterize the setting and provide a bit of flavor.
The other gameplay aspect is choices and branching. The choices needed to get on a particular route are fairly obvious. The choices that lead to bad endings can be less so, but SYNESTHESIA allows you to jump back and try again after hitting a bad ending. It also includes a flowchart that lets you easily jump to a selection of scenes throughout and makes progressing through the routes pleasantly convenient mechanically.
Art, Sound, and Extras
I feel the same way about the rest of SYNESTHESIA as I do about the story and characters. The main pieces are all solid but the details can be sloppy. For instance, the art is overall good and the CGs are particularly nice. However, look more closely and you can see that designs of the female characters are much more detailed than those of the male characters. It’s such a stark contrast that it feels like the male and female characters might have come from different games!
SYNESTHESIA is fully voiced (excepting Ziek) using a combination of voice acting and speech synthesis. I imagine this choice was necessitated by the financial realities of developing a visual novel as a small independent studio, but I found everything felt quite flat, to the point where I eventually decided I preferred no voicing. Still, I don’t fault SYNESTHESIA for at least including something when these types of visual novels usually don’t have full voicing. One other thing I found odd about the voicing is that the script appears to be written in British English, but the characters all have American accents.
The suite of extras and convenience features SYNESTHESIA boasts is impressive. The aforementioned flowchart along with an in-game encyclopedia make navigating the routes and keeping track of all the jargon a breeze. There are also opening and ending videos as well as short epilogues for the three main heroines, all of which are a nice finishing touch to the story’s impactful conclusion.
SYNESTHESIA offers a compelling story with interesting ideas and well-written characters, and I’d recommend it to fans of science fiction and mystery. I can’t help but think it could have been better with more attention to detail, but I still enjoyed my time with SYNESTHESIA.
SYNESTHESIA IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to the publisher Spire Games for a PC review code for this title.
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A veteran of Oregon Trail and Battletoads, Wes has been playing and talking about games for as long as he can remember. He’s down to try almost anything, and he especially enjoys games with gripping narrative experiences.