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For us, strategy games tend to be never-ending spirals of regret and woe. Don’t get us wrong—we love the genre. But our approach to tactics usually goes something like this: “OK, now you go here and... oops. Everything we love is on fire.” Put simply, mistakes happen. Frozen Synapse, however, allows us to make informed mistakes. In a nutshell, the game lets you see the outcome of your moves before you make them. It’s an absolutely brilliant tweak, and—if you’re a perfectionist—both a dream come true and your greatest nightmare.
The not-quite-turn-based, not-quite-real-time strategy encourages you to shove your every move under the microscope, painstakingly playing out every situation you can dream up. Your opponent, however, can do the same. Obsess, tweak, rethink, rewatch—sometimes for hours. Then give your stamp of approval to a plan, hit the “f’reals this time” button, and watch it fall to pieces in mere seconds. And it’s amazing.
Lesson one of cover-taking. Incidentally, this is the only lesson.
To ensure that your poor brain doesn’t overheat, Frozen Synapse’s basic mechanics are actually incredibly simple. There are no tech trees, hero units, or supply lines to micromanage here. Typically, you’re given a tiny squad of glowy green men, and that’s it. Combat, then, is a piece of neon-colored cake. Using nothing but clicks and one drop-down menu, you tell your men where and when to move, aim, take cover, fire, and even ignore enemies. It’s not brain surgery on a rocket scientist while aboard an actual rocket. Hell, your kids probably wouldn’t have a problem picking it up. Mastering the game, however, is another story entirely.
Staying a step ahead of your opponent is absolutely crucial, but it never ceases to feel like you’re about to step off a cliff. Committing to a plan is downright nerve-wracking. After all, you’ve run yourself ragged testing it. Thanks to your hard work, it’s airtight. Foolproof. But most of all, it’s yours. Then your opponent bulldozes it with brilliant strategy, dumb luck, or (usually) some combination of the two, and you’re back at square one. For reference, square one is “Oh goodness, there are a million knives against my throat, and I’m going to lose in one turn.” But you find a way to survive, and it’s so damn satisfying.
Campaign missions throw in extra wrinkles—like civilians caught in the crossfire.
That balance of psychological posturing and swift, brutal chaos holds up quite well in both the single-player campaign and multiplayer. Single-player, while a bit confusing on the story side, does a great job of gradually easing you into deeper tactical waters, and multiplayer makes use of a Words With Friends–style “take as long as you want per turn” approach.
Really, Frozen Synapse only thaws into ugly gray mush when its random level generator decides to commit horrific crimes against balance. Occasionally, you may find yourself in an unwinnable uphill battle because the gods of wall placement didn’t smile in your favor. It’s frustrating, sure, but hardly a deal-breaker. That aside, Frozen Synapse is a fantastic step outside strategy gaming’s typical box—not to mention an absolute steal at $25. There’s no need to test and tweak the outcome of this one: Buy it and don’t look back.
$25, www.frozensynapse.com, ESRB: not rated
Excellent mix of turn-based and real-time strategy; easy-to-learn mechanics; incredibly satisfying multiplayer.
Randomized levels can throw off balance; a few less-than-stellar campaign missions.