When you try to compete against the Goliath that is Beat Saber, you best have something that’s not only fun to play, but should also bring something new or different to the table. Synth Riders is one of a new wave of rhythm-based titles coming to the Oculus Quest, all of which are hoping to steal a piece of Beat Saber’s crown, but does it hit the mark? Let’s find out…
Let’s first address the elephant in the room. It’s pretty easy to tell that this game has been influenced by the most consistent chart-topping game on the Oculus Quest. In each of your hands are a single red or blue neon spinning orbs. Ahead of you are a series of similar coloured orbs that float towards you. You simply have to touch these orbs with the same colour orbs in each of your hands. All of this is done in time with the beat of the music track you’ve pre-selected, with the number of orbs in the level being set by the level of difficulty. Oh, and there are also red outlined walls to dodge between and duck under.
This feels a little too familiar, doesn’t it? You would be right in thinking that, but to mix up the gameplay there are a few additional features in Synth Riders that are used in good measure to help pull itself away from being swiftly compared to the most popular beat game on the Quest. The first immediate difference that you will soon notice, is that you’re not really punching the orbs, you’re just simply placing your orb in each hand in the path of each oncoming orb of the same colour. In practice, this doesn’t feel as rewarding as slashing cubes with a lightsaber, and the pace and placement of these orbs in harder difficulty levels can feel a bit frantic too.
The second most immediate feature is the game’s rail mechanic. Here you have to hold your orbs along a similar coloured rail path. Some rails become very wavy, sometimes even twisting over each other, so to score the most off of them you have to keep your orbs in-line with the rail. This feature alone makes the game feel more unique, both visually and in its gameplay. Sadly though, it’s not used as widely as just touching the series of single floating orbs. It plays and looks good, and it could have easily separated any direct comparisons with its more popular competition. If only this was used more than just half of the time in each music track.
The last most strikingly different feature in Synth Riders is the additional coloured orbs that break up the regular matching of red and blue orbs in each music track. First, there are the yellow orbs. These require you to use both hands together whilst follow their path. Second, are the green orbs. With these, you simply chose a single hand, and as soon as you touch the first green orb your chosen hand (orb) turns green and you must follow the green orb path with the same hand before turning back to the usual red or blue colour matching. Successfully completed these short bursts of orb colour changes results in a visual effect followed by a sound sample that would be fresh from the 1990s gaming era. This is mostly to let you know you’ve successfully passed through the challenge.
In Synth Riders, rather than standing on one spot and have the orbs come to you, it’s developers have chosen to fly you through each of the seven different stages, as you hit the orbs as you fly towards them. Each stage you can play in is fairly dimly lit, and there are random objects and landscapes full of bright neon lights that pass by you. Most stages wouldn’t look out of place in some Daft Punk music video, or in a synth-pop music video from the 1980s. You don’t get much time to look around, but if you do pay attention to your surroundings it all feels a little too bland, basic even, to a point they generally feel like they are a little underdeveloped.
If you like 80s/90s synth-pop, dubstep or electro-rock (what I can only describe as death metal with a beat), then Synth Riders have your ears covered with its three volumes and a total of 31 music tracks to choose from. You have Easy, Normal, Hard, Expert and Master difficulty levels for all of the tracks you can play, each adds extra orbs along your path, increasing its difficulty with the more complexity in orb and rail placement. The game can feel too easy and a little dull in the first two difficulty modes, but it soon comes into its own in Hard and Expert difficulties. You really need to know the track well enough to really compete in the world ranking leaderboards though.
On top of the game’s Normal mode, there are two additional modes that try to mix up the gameplay in Synth Riders. The first is Force mode. This mode has you punching at the orbs that fly towards you to boost your score, the bigger the ‘force’, the more you score. This mode could have made the game more satisfying to play, but I spent the whole first play-through in this mode not really seeing anything satisfying or different with my punches. Unlike in BoxVR, if you do not punch the orbs, you only score fewer points – it doesn’t count as a failure. Also, the way the orbs are positioned in the world, it makes it very awkward (to impossible) to punch them all, especially on the rail moves. In a nut shell, this is your work-out mode.
The other mode is the Challenge mode. Selecting this mode allows you to play with the game’s modifiers and then challenge yourself to get the highest score possible with them. Turning certain modifiers on and off will vary the score you get for each of your Poor, Good and Perfect accuracy meters. Once complete, your score will be entered into the leaderboard for the chosen track with the particular modifiers set.
Both of these alternative modes don’t really offer much-added value to them, they almost feel tacked on to bulk up the game, if I am honest. Other than setting modifiers in Challenge mode, neither do they mix up the gameplay of visuals that much, so I eventually gave up on these modes and settled on the default Normal mode.
As each level ends, you’re faced with a world leaderboard as well as granular details on how well you’ve performed in the track. Unless you’re seeking perfection, a lot of this information is lost on you. You just want to get back to choosing the next track or stage to play in. To do this though you have to return to the main menu, and when doing so, there is a small loading delay that’s a bit too long to make it fun to quickly dip in and out of tracks. The screen dims, your hand-tracking freezes and the fun factor in the game is quickly lost. This delay all feels like it needs extra work in this area to become more fluid, seamless and, well, more fun.
The same can be said when browsing tracks and stages in its main menu. There are times in game development where it’s ok to ‘borrow’ another game’s menu interface (who have just done it right) and here is where Synth Riders also drops its orbs. It needs a total redesign in my opinion. It’s thin navigation buttons, also located on each end of the screen, makes it not intuitive or quick enough to browse between tracks and there is just too much information on-screen than you really need to display.
So does Synth Riders hit the mark and hold its own as a decent music-based game on the Quest? For some, it might do. This is mostly due to the different music it offers against its competitors, but they are all still indie music artists and there is nothing familiar for anyone that may be a fan of the genres that are covered. It’s visuals and gameplay just feels a little short off the mark for me.
Overall, the game feels like it was a snapshot of Beat Saber’s early development cycle before someone said: “how about we drop the orbs and use lightsabers to smash through the cubes?” Moving your hands to touch the orbs just isn’t as satisfying enough as punching or slashing something that’s coming towards you. Its rail system does look and feel great, but as I said earlier, this mechanic debuts in the track like it is an addition rather than the main event of the game.
You can pick up Synth Riders for $16.99 from the Oculus Store. Like Beat Saber, its limited range of indie artist music genres may dampen the appeal to some players. Music selection aside, though, my issue is more with its rather lack-lustre gameplay and its ability to bring something fresh or new to this genre. It wouldn’t have been a problem if this game came out first on the Quest. Sadly though, it’s competition absolutely nailed it out of the gates and Synth Riders feels more like a me-too app than something that is unique or stands out on its own two feet.