Platform: PC (On Steam)
Genre: Dialogue-Driven Visual Novel

The issue of artificial intelligence and the right of sentient beings have been explored in many properties of science fiction over the years; from various episodes of Star Trek to anything based on the works of Isaac Asimov or movies like 2014’s Ex Machina by Alex Garland. In fact, Syntherapy reminds me of that particular movie the most.

Both Ex Machina and Syntherapy are concerned with exploring the themes of AI sentience and most importantly, what makes them sentient. That question, in turn, opens up a whole other can of worms; a slew of other questions, so to speak.

Syntherapy is a visual novel adventure game that thrusts the player into the heart of a challenging psychotherapy case where their choices, both in conversations and types of treatment chosen, will have consequences that determine the direction and end of the story.

Players assume the role of Dr. Melissa Park, a psychotherapist called to Petrichor University by research student Tara Northrop. Tara has created an AI named Willow that is exhibiting troubling behaviour that points to the possibility of mental illness.

Meanwhile, Petrichor University president Dr. Harold Freeman is worried that Willow’s sentience could have wider ethical ramifications and wants to have it resolved before it erupts into a scandal that negatively affects the university’s reputation.

Therapist Simulator

Players will have to juggle the requests of both Tara and Dr. Freeman while they delve into the psychological psyche of an AI and discuss some rather heavy subject matter along the way; pertaining to art, philosophy, religion, and more.

The game not only looks at the subject of AI, but also explores a variety of topics related to mental health. As Dr. Park, you’ll have to choose the treatment to administer to the mentally-challenged AI, just like real therapists would with their patients.

While that sounds intriguing, the approach to the gameplay isn’t really well-executed. I’ve played through several visual novels before and the story or characters usually keep me going.

Unfortunately, Syntherapy ultimately makes me feel like going through real therapy sessions, which don’t make for a terribly exciting game.

A visual novel can explore complex and mature subject matter without being boring or feeling like you’re being lectured. A recent game that comes to mind is the Malaysian-made game Fires At Midnight by Persona Theory Games, which also touches on similar mental health issues (but it’s worth pointing out; none on AI).

Sure, it’s fascinating how your dialogue choices and even the topics that you choose to discuss with Willow will affect a sort of loyalty system. These choices could favour Tara, Dr. Freeman or Willow, all of whom have different expectations from you. You can even check the state of your relationship with them at any time, as your choices could have either positive or negative effects.

There are a whopping 37 possible endings in the game, but going through even one playthrough mentally exhausted me. I’m not sure if I would be up for more therapy sessions just to find out the secret backstories behind the characters.

I received the ‘bad’ ending on my first try, so maybe other players would be interested enough to try and aim for the better endings.

It won’t be for everyone though, that’s for sure. This isn’t a type of game you can just play for leisure or to relax. I could barely endure a single playthrough.

Is This A Game Or A Lecture?

It would help if the game had decent minigames in between the therapy sessions, but all I had were pointless and confusing minigames. One minigame literally just had me popping floating bubbles onscreen by clicking on them. They don’t add value to the gameplay and it would’ve been better if they weren’t in the game.

The only other activity in between sessions in Syntherapy is browsing through a browser-like menu experience, where you (as Dr.Park) would check her emails, check patient notes and file reports. Does all that seem fun? Well, to be fair, it’s probably what real therapists have to deal with ever0y day in real life, and that’s who you are in this game (therapist simulator, remember?).

It’s a shame that the game is really boring, considering that the characters have great voice actors and depth to them. There are layers and layers of backstories, which I’m not motivated to actually figure out because of how droll the game is. The overall presentation of the game looks drab and bland.

One could argue that Syntherapy wants players to focus on the philosophical and mental health issues presented in the game. Still, there’s nothing with having both an eye-catching visual presentation and good content at the same time. Covering serious subject matter doesn’t mean everything else can’t be visually interesting as well.

Oh, and don’t get me started on the deadpan facial expressions of the characters. They look as impassive and wooden as I do while playing the game. I know that this game is a visual novel, and it’s not an unusual thing, but I was hoping for more variety in facial expressions.

One of the only aspects that I can really praise Syntherapy is the game’s atmospheric and good music. Most of the music in the game does well in setting the mood and tone of whatever’s happening at the moment.

From that aforementioned desktop browser menu, you can even choose what music to play.

Last but not least, the biggest issue with Syntherapy is the game-breaking bugs and glitches. I was stuck when my game froze on a black screen and I couldn’t do anything about it. It was frustrating when I was already one and a half hours into my playthrough and presumably close to the end, since it felt like a climax in the story.

It wasn’t until a few days before this review was published that a patch finally fixed my problem and I could continue playing. I was right in thinking I was near the end, as the game unceremoniously ended just ten minutes after I resumed playing.

While I’m glad that the game-breaking bug was fixed, I can’t be certain I (or other players) won’t encounter another game-breaking bug in Syntherapy.

Losing My Mind

I wouldn’t know who would like this game but budding therapists and perhaps sci-fi fans who are really into AI. There are much better games and even movies which cover the same subject matter. If you find therapy sessions or lectures fun, then maybe you’ll enjoy this game. Unless you hit a black screen and have to start all over again, that is.

Pros

  • Covers interesting subjects like techno-ethics, AI sentience and more.
  • An interesting cast of characters with secret backstories.
  • Good music to set the atmosphere.

Cons

  • Game-breaking bugs and glitches.
  • Feels like a slog and chore to play through.
  • Minigames feel pointless and confusing.
  • Not much to do, besides engaging in dialogue and interactions.

FINAL SCORE: 40/100

Syntherapy was reviewed on an Acer Predator Triton 500 via a review copy courtesy of Crowned Daemon Studios.

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