Narrowly missing my games-of-the-year shortlist, Synthetik: Legion Rising was one of my more pleasant surprises of 2018. A sci-fi roguelike shooter with an unusual focus on semi-realistic weapon handling. A bit like Nuclear Throne by way of Vanquish, it's loud, fast, hard and great in co-op. Now you can try it free, as developers FlowFire Games have intriguingly made their wave-survival expansion - Synthetik: Arena - free and standalone. The dungeons may be gone, but the frantic combat and fumbling to reload mid-firefight are unchanged. Grab it here on Steam, and see the trailer below.
Most of what I said about the original Synthetik still stands for Arena. It's a fast, twitchy and intentionally fiddly game. Reloading requires manually hitting an 'eject magazine' button (losing whatever rounds were left in there), then an active reload similar to Gears Of War. When you're doing that while juggling three guns and half a dozen manually activated powers, the entire game is a frenzied flurry of activity. Despite this sounding like a chore, it somehow works. There's a real satisfaction to timing a reload just as the enemy rounds the corner and you plug a round into their robot head with a satisfying CLANG. Despite its stark, spartan environments it's a surprisingly noisy and messy game.
Rather than take place over a randomly generated dungeon with the occasional boss battle, Arena is a series of wave-based fights in five different play-modes. Defend an objective from enemies, hunt priority targets around a larger map, chase down cash pickups for upgrades or just hold out as long as possible. It's a bit more controlled and less random than the main game, which some may consider an improvement, but almost everything else is there. There's still a large range of character classes with unlockable perks, tons of moddable guns and an endless swarm of babbling robots to shoot. It's more of a good game, and doesn't cost a penny. If you've got a buddy, rope them in - this one's great with a pal.
Synthetik: Arena is free here on Steam, but owners of the original Synthetik: Legion Rising can pay £5/€5/$5 (that's not how exchange rates work) to enable the Arena modes in the base game, along with some new weapons and modes here. If you don't have the main game, that pack gets you all the perks, minus use in the original.