Available now on: Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift, Steam & Viveport (Quest 2 version tested) – Official website here

Synthwave has absolutely exploded in popularity in the last few years, with the music genre notable for its retro-futurism and a keen sense of style; a wide number of disparate artists have tapped into the vogue for idealised 80s VHS-case designs and sci-fi themes, with synthwave’s general aesthetic as well as its sound becoming ever more ubiquitous. VR rhythm action game Synth Riders, while not composed entirely of synthwave songs (featuring other genres too, with specific DLC packs tailored to punkier 90s artists such as The Offspring and Rancid, as well as other electronic genres such as dubstep and electroswing), leans heavily on the neon sunset style of the genre – and it’s glorious. 

Though there are several modes of play, the most popular and accessible is Normal mode, in which different coloured spheres must be touched in sync with the music as they head towards you; default colours being blue for your left hand and pink for your right. To add a slight layer of complexity, there are ‘rails’ in each colour which must be followed in order to keep your combo meter and points rising, as well as green spheres (basically, pick your left or right hand and stick with that choice) and orange, which must be hit with both hands at the same time. There are numerous levels of difficulty and honestly, I struggle past the ‘Normal’ level – which is in itself quite a challenge – as things get incredibly intense and the sphere patterns increase in number as well as the difficulty of their layout (including obstacles that need to be dodged, for example). 

There’s Force mode too, in which players must hit each note as physically hard as possible, if you want a serious workout (and believe me, it really does give you a good amount of exercise), as well as a Challenge mode. You can add all kinds of modifiers to the experience, including disappearing notes, No Fail Mode and even a full 360° mode. 

There’s also the option to add your own songs to the game or play in multiplayer, which are both excellent additions to the base experience – though with 55 songs included in the base game, along with 20 available as paid DLC (at a reasonable price point), it’s not as if players are starved of content for the game in any case.

Though it doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of rhythm action games, what Synth Riders excels at is the overall experience, which is an absolutely amazing audiovisual overload. It’s glorious; the moving stages, some with heads that mimic your movement, are absolutely stunning and drenched in the aforementioned 80s neon and chrome cyberpunk style. I’ve never felt more like I’m travelling through a William Gibson-inspired cyberspace environment than I did when in Synth Riders – and that means a great deal coming from me, having been a Neuromancer fan since the 80s. 

The backdrops are so heavily synthwave inspired that the extra songs in different genres don’t quite fit for me (though there’s the option for backdrops that are more genre appropriate), but that also may just be down to the fact that I’m already a huge fan of the 80-inspired genre – so I’m predisposed to enjoy that style even more (I recognise the commercial necessity of including more genres, however – if synthwave was all that was on offer and players didn’t click with it in general, the game would have a much more limited appeal to them). 

That said, there are moments of such unbridled joy in the included songs – the collection of which is absolutely fantastic, even before you consider the DLC that’s available – that I have rarely felt more in the zone with a game than I do here. Everything – beat maps, haptic feedback in the controllers and the synergy between audio and visuals – works in such perfect harmony to create a wonderfully synaesthetic experience that’s rarely been equalled, in my opinion. Trying to beat your own scores – or those of other players on the comprehensive global leaderboards – is hugely addictive and compelling too. Like many rhythm action games before it, Synth Riders has introduced me to artists I haven’t previously heard of and features tracks that I both adore and will forever associate with the game. 

For me, Synth Riders has revealed itself to be an absolutely unmissable title – whenever I tell myself I’m going to have a quick go on a song or two, I find myself still hurtling through the selection of beautiful synthwave cityscapes half an hour later, having inadvertently given myself a workout – with the beautiful washes of synthesisers and elongated electric guitar solos still ringing in my ears. Though VR rhythm action games aren’t exactly uncommon, Synth Riders leans heavily into an aesthetic that is hugely appealing and features gameplay that can suit many different playstyles and experience levels, with the opportunity to seriously put your reactions and rhythm to the test at the higher difficulty levels. As with many VR games, it’s tough to truly get a sense of how immersive the game is from screenshots and even video; the appeal does become readily and rapidly apparent when you play the game for yourself.

If you’re already a synthwave fan – as I am – you absolutely cannot go wrong with it. If you’re not already a fan of that particular musical genre or rhythm action games in general, the chances are that you will be once you’ve experienced Synth Riders. It’s one hell of a trip.

Disclaimer: I was given a copy of Synth Riders for review purposes.

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