Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Frozen Synapse 2 is a sequel to 2011's Frozen Synapse, and takes the same core turn-based gunplay strategy and adds layers of complication and depth on top of it. This new game plays a lot like the old one at its heart, but the expanded world and exponentially more complex decision making required before and after bullets start flying makes this a sequel that really feels like an evolution of the original.
And I guess that makes Frozen Cortex, the sports-themed franchise spin-off, a related species, or a missing link. Something like that.
Simultaneous turn-based tactics
In contrast to most turn-based strategy games, like XCOM or basically anything with the word Tactics in the title, in Frozen Synapse 2 the two sides of a conflict plan their turns at the same time, submit their moves, then watch their orders play out simultaneously. Battles alternate between planning phases, where you have all the time in the world to deliberate, simulate, and second-guess yourself, and action phases, where you watch and see if your plans survive contact with the enemy.
Commanding your troops involves setting waypoints and getting as granular as you like with the programming-style instructions the game provides. Rather than targeting specific enemies, you direct your units to aim in certain directions, or to fire area-of-effect weapons at target areas. If you've predicted the movements of your opposition correctly, you'll have a good chance of taking them out. If not, you'll leave yourself open, directing the attention of your troops towards empty space while the real threat moves in for the kill.
Soldiers on opposing sides are armed with pistols, shotguns, machine guns, and heavier weapons like grenade launchers and flamethrowers as the game goes on. The type of weapon really matters, because short-range weapons will essentially always lose-out to longer-range ones at a distance, while it's hard to beat a shotgun up close. Factors like these, along with whether a soldier is stationary or moving and whether you've directed their aim to the exact right spot or just the right general direction, determine who survives when the bullets start flying.
The deeper you get into the single-player campaign of Frozen Synapse 2, the more you'll see curveballs thrown your way in the form of mission variables. On Light missions you can see your opponents on the map no matter what, while in Dark missions you can only see them when your units have line-of-sight on them, which makes everything tenser and more risky. Sometimes you'll need to incapacitate enemies, rather than kill them, which might require the use of gas grenades. Other times you'll have to defend innocents for a number of turns until help arrives.
Most missions play out on maps that are to some degree procedurally generated, and many of the mission goals themselves are semi-randomized (aside from the core story missions), so you can play Frozen Synapse 2 for a long time before feeling like you've mastered any of its particular tactical wrinkles.
The City Game and Cyberpunk Style
The big difference between Frozen Synapse 2 and the original game is the addition of the city layer to the single-player experience. The world of Frozen Synapse is a sprawling sci-fi city populated by rival factions, mysterious terrorists, and self-aware AI. You take on the role of the tactical head of a secruity agency tasked, essentially, with keeping the peace. In practice that means recruiting artificial soldiers to fight your battles, and performing jobs for pay for the city's various factions in order to pay the bills.
As the game progresses your forces will grow larger and their weapons will be more destructive, but you'll also need to be putting out fires all over the city, against increasingly challenging foes. You'll also need to balance the favor of the game's factions, or you'll risk outright war against multiple forces.
None of this diplomacy and economic management is revolutionary in the genre, and though it makes Frozen Synapse 2 a more complete, deeper, and more varied experience than its predecessor, none of the new elements added by the city layer work as well as the tactical core of the game. It's fun to choose the soldiers you recruit, to expand to new
Since all of the story and lore in Frozen Synapse 2 is delivered by dense text and static images of NPCs, you might not always have a perfect grasp on the subtleties of the story unless you're a patient reader and you have a good memory for details. You'll be dealing with around a dozen factions of varying levels of importance in the game, from academics to anarchists to churches, all with their own goals and with fun - and often funny - flavor in the way they speak to you.
With Frozen Synapse 2 the small development team at Mode 7 has served up what might be the most Cyberpunk-y game in the post-Deus Ex, pre-Cyberpunk 2077 era. The game's unique look and richly developed setting are complemented by a fantastic, echoey, orchestral electronic soundtrack from Nervous Testpilot, one of the game's developers. Few games have ever captured this particular view of cyberpunk before, placing you in the role of a detached corporate entity cooly directing violence from far above, and none have ever done it as well.
Tough, deep, and not always clear
The increasing complexity of Frozen Synapse 2's city game adds a lot of challenge and potential frustration to the overall experience, and the limited tutorial falls far short of what's needed to really give you the tools you need to suceed. It's too easy to dead-end in the campaign due to bad luck or bad choices that you weren't equipped to make properly. In the early stages, when money is really tight and your forces are limited, losing a single soldier can put you in a hole that's almost impossible to climb out of. When coupled with the game's often opaque systems and lack of in-game explanations, you're likely to find yourself unsure of where you went wrong at times, which isn't a good feeling in a punishing tactical game like this.
Some of the clarity issues that I ran into during my first week with the game turned out to be bugs, which were fortunately resolved by timely patches. But there was nothing in the game that explained, for example, if one of my squads was unavailable because of a bug or because of some actual in-game reason, and that's a problem that persists in Frozen Synapse 2 even now that it's been out for a few weeks, and it has seen several patches. Frozen Synapse 2 is a deep and ambitious game, but I was left wishing it were easier to learn its mechanics and systems through some method other than time-consuming trial and error.
Save scumming of various sorts feels like a necessity in Frozen Synapse 2, even with the game's built-in turn simulation mechanics. Fortunately the save/load mechanics seem built for this reality, allowing you to re-load from a previous turn, or fall back to an autosave at the start of the current mission. Unfortunately, when combined with the short loading screens that already pop up in between each individual turn of a battle, this can leave the action in Frozen Synapse 2 feeling choppy and aimless.
Many players felt that multiplayer was the best part of the first Frozen Synapse, since its bite-sized matches and asynchronous play made it more well-suited for PvP than the vast majority of other games in the genre. And everything that appealed to players of the first game is back and made better here in the sequel, so we could very well see the game develop the same cult fandom as the original.
Multiplayer - and the self-contained trials you can undertake against the AI as you attempt to rack up high scores - might be the very best way to play Frozen Synapse 2. The ambitious and elaborate campaign will appeal to some players, sure, and there's fun to be had recruiting new soldiers, naming squads, and extending your dominance across the cyberpunk landscape. But Frozen Synapse 2 is at its best when it doesn't stray too far from what made the first game great.