by Travis Fahs4
Frozen Synapse Review
More Than a Brain Freeze
Mode 7’s Frozen Synapse was the darling of the indie scene when it premiered on PC less than two years ago. Taking a page from the modern indie gaming scene’s godfathers, Introversion Software, it offered a compelling, deep, and unique spin on the turn-based strategy genre, combined with a stark minimalism that manages to pass for style. After quite a bit of success with the Humble Indie Bundle in 2011, Frozen Synapse returns for the latest Android bundle with a brand new mobile port, and anyone who has already cut their teeth on the PC game will feel right at home.
In fact, that might be a bit of an understatement. While mobile “ports” are usually somewhat looser adaptations, Frozen Synapse is virtually identical to its PC counterpart. Not only is the content untouched, but the menus and interface are mostly the same as well. This works well enough on tablets – clearly the target of this port – but it can be very cramped, even on larger phones. In-game, however, it seems playable regardless of screen size, and the core gameplay works just as well here as it ever has.
Frozen Synapse is essentially a 1-on-1 turn-based tactics game, but it’s a far cry from the chess-like strategy of most games in the genre. Instead of moving one piece at a time, and then letting your opponent do the same, Frozen Synapse allows players to plan movements for all of their units, and then watch them play out in real-time. Each “turn” represents a few seconds of action, during which players spectate and see if their strategy goes according to plan.
There’s a good deal of depth to the combat. You don’t just move units in a straight line. You can set waypoints and complex paths, and control their aim, strafing, ducking, and use cover to protect them as they move. You can watch a preview of your turn without having to commit, but it won’t reflect the enemy’s movements, which can be tough to accurately predict. Watching your moves play out feels a lot like playmaking in a game of football, and it’s appropriate that Mode 7’s follow-up, Frozen Endzone follows that theme. There’s an almost puzzle-like component to finding the right strategy, but the game’s levels are semi-random, so you always have to rely on your cunning rather than trial and error.
All of this is presented with minimalist style that evokes Introversion Software’s games like DEFCON and Darwinia. While this style may be born out of a lack of resources, the semi-abstract style suits the game nicely, and it manages to be clean, readable, and stylish. This especially helps on a mobile platform where being able to make out the action clearly is often more of a challenge. While the graphics and production values may be barebones, Mode 7 has gone to lengths to actually flesh out the game’s campaign with a plot and back story that lends some (unnecessary) context to the game’s events. Mode 7 has ultimately embraced the limited resources they had and used them to create a compelling and likeable style of presentation.
Ultimately, though, the joy of Frozen Synapse lies is its strategic gameplay, and it’s at its very best in multiplayer, when you’re trying to outwit a human opponent. The Android port even uses the same accounts and network as the PC version, and hopping into 1-on-1 play is a snap, with lots of games available. Unfortunately, this is strictly a two-player competitive affair for the time being, with co-op and higher play counts left as possibilities for future updates or sequels.
While it may look barebones on the surface, you’d be hard-pressed to find another strategy game that has the depth and staying power of Frozen Synapse. There’s a reason the PC version’s online community remains so active, even two years later. There’s a practically infinite replayability to the game’s multiplayer, and even in single player, it’s tough to truly burn out the campaign. While a more phone-friendly version would be a big plus, this is a must-have for anyone looking for strategy on their tablet.
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Summary: Frozen Synapse is an almost exact port of the PC hit. It packs all of the gameplay and content of its big brother, but it clearly isn’t meant for smaller phone screens.