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Review: The Solus Project

"Solus" is a Latin word meaning "alone." Players will usually find themselves alone in games, though really, a full arsenal of weaponry and a horde of nasties to blast through makes for fine company. It takes a different approach, however, to truly evoke a sense of loneliness in a game; to create an environment that can move a player emotionally, pique their curiosity, or even fill them with dread. What better situation to invoke all of these than being shipwrecked on an alien world? Left to fend for oneself with the weight of humanity's future on their shoulders? So begins The Solus Project.

Title: The Solus Project
Developer: Hourences/Teotl Studios
Platform: PC/XBO
Release Date: June 8th, 2016 (PC); June 2016 (XBO)
Players: 1
MSRP: USD$19.99
Disclosure: Review copy provided by publisher

The Solus Project is the latest game from Swedish-based Teotl Studios. With development beginning in July of 2013, it entered Steam Early Access earlier this year, and has been regularly updated with content until its final release in June. The game, set in the same universe as 2010's action-puzzler The Ball, starts off in the not-too-distant future after Earth is destroyed in a sudden cataclysm. The survivors of the human race now reside in a fleet of colony ships near Pluto, and have sent several manned research vessels to distant planetary bodies in the hopes of finding a new home. The protagonist is a scientist on board one of these vessels, headed towards a promising planet named Gliese-6143-C. Upon entering orbit, the ship is struck by a projectile from the planet surface and goes down in flames. The protagonist, having reached an escape pod in the nick of time, finds themselves alone and stranded on the alien world. From here, it is up to the player to guide them in their efforts to survive the ordeal by gathering supplies, crafting tools, and make contact with the Pluto fleet. Though after a while, of course, it turns out that things are a bit more complicated than that.

Solus Project 1 The scenery has a familiar, yet distorted look to it.

The main thing you will be doing in The Solus Project is walking. A lot. Taking place on a small archipelago connected by a vast underground cavern system, it will certainly grant a new appreciation of alien beaches, as well as spelunking. There's a lot of ground to cover, with most of it being quite beautiful to look at, although sightseeing isn't the main attraction. The player will quickly come across WILSON, a smartphone-on-steroids capable of tracking their physical condition and local weather, as well as receive sub-space radio transmissions and translate alien script. The latter is quite handy, as the landscape is covered with scribbled notes from the research ship (presumably written on fire-proof paper) and stone tablets engraved with alien text, both of which offer valuable insight into the planet's history and the game's backstory. The main objective, however, is to get off this God-forsaken rock, and so the player will eventually have to gather enough scrap parts to finish constructing a communication tower to phone home. This fetch quest is the only compulsory one in the game, though for players with a more adventurous or obsessive streak, there are over two-hundred secrets and stat-boosting items strewn across the entire game to hunt down too.

These tasks are far from a walk in the park, however. From the moment you tumble out of the escape pod, life on Gliese is a fight for survival. Daytime temperatures average around the 40°C mark, and sink back down close to freezing at night. Thunderstorms are frequent, and lightning strikes threaten to toast any unwitting survivor out in the open during one. WILSON keeps track of your vitals for a reason; not only will you have to worry about your health, but also your calorie and water intake. While the planet does yield edible plant life along with fresh water and shelter in caves, a survivor that doesn't stay prepared will easily succumb to the elements. The most spectacular and pressing threat to safety, however, are anomalies. Complete with their own booming synth theme song, these are what the player will find themselves worrying about the most during their time on Gliese. Hail the size of basketballs, surprise meteor showers, tornadoes heralded by a haunting, choir-like siren - "anomaly" is a good name, because whatever is happening here, it isn't natural.

Solus Project 2 Nights are freezing, but you can't beat that night sky.

The danger doesn't abate underground, either. A source of light is essential, as is some form of heating, as the only other light is usually emanating from strange crystals that emit harsh cold or heat. Pathways are uneven and narrow, splitting off in multiple directions and converging on themselves. Crawling through these labyrinths in search of answers and supplies is a slow, claustrophobic experience. Even when these caverns give way to more structured alien passageways, the player will have to stay wary of spikes, exploding mines, sentry droids, and even a few things that would be best left unknown. Both above and below ground, players will also find their progress blocked by obtuse puzzles, and unfortunately, plenty of good old-fashioned lock-and-key moments, made all the more tiresome by the vast amount of detailed terrain to cover. While The Solus Project contains a lot of walking, it is far from being a "walking simulator."

In the midst of all this survivalist gameplay, though, it quickly becomes apparently that the game's main strength is its plot. The Solus Project excels at environmental storytelling, though at the same time it does rely quite heavily on "log book"-style delivery to flesh out things in more detail. The aforementioned notes and tablets spread out across the archipelago are well-written, offering insight into the events leading to the apparent abandoning of Gliese, as well as the increasingly dire situation back on the Pluto fleet. Voice acting is present, but limited; aside from minor utterances while trekking, the main character has a handful of monologues that summarize the plot at key points that are well-delivered, and sound surprisingly natural, at least when selecting the female protagonist. Occasional broadcasts received through WILSON are equally fitting, and match the game's increasingly dark and dire tone as it progresses. Most impressive, however, is how the game can say quite a bit with its environments alone. A particular moment about halfway through the game - a brief venture into a school-like area for a key - manages to invoke feelings of dread, sadness, and disgust in quick succession through a simple, yet moving placement of assets. The Solus Project has a lot to say, but some of the most important moments are never put into words.

Solus Project 3 Meteor showers are a common and sudden occurrence.

Despite the danger and gloom, Gliese is a beautiful place to walk around. By day, the sun casts its searing light across the landscape, which varies from grass-swept plains to rocky mountainous regions. Nearby moons and planets move slowly across the sky, accompanied by hints of distant stars. Gazing out to sea, the silhouettes of other islands sit neatly upon the horizon while unnatural formations poke up from below the waves. Details below the ground are somewhat less inspiring, though the moments when jagged rock and aging ruins give way to strange machinery and fauna make for a nice change. Running on Unreal Engine 4, The Solus Project is a treat to see in motion, and it's clear a lot of effort was put into crafting this alien world.

The screen is kept clear for the most part to allow for better appreciation of the lovely visuals, with most important information appearing on WILSON's screen. All it takes is a slight gaze downward to bring the gadget into view, which is quite a intuitive design choice. Minimal HUD elements also appear via the protagonist's visor, these being limited to destination and item markers as well as a danger indicator whenever a tornado is wreaking havoc nearby. A rather questionable choice is the visual indicator for damage, as the game forgoes the "strawberry jam" approach in favour of nearly completely obscuring the player's view with cracked glass textures. These textures stay on screen for a good ten to fifteen seconds, and while the game is admittedly slow-paced, it was irritating to be practically blind after a minor mistake, and doubly so in low lighting.

Solus Project 4 Ancient mysteries lie below the planet surface.

It's hard to hold it against The Solus Project, however, given its lovely sound design. With a mostly minimal score proving eerie ambience during exploration, it segues into tense and ominous synthesizer-heavy walls of sound where appropriate. A personal favourite of this reviewer was the theme of the anomalies - a pounding, swelling piece that really helped given a sense of power to the sudden danger, and made for a nice early warning system as well. Minor cues are also present for events such as picking up key items and plot revelations, and these too are well thought out. Occasional hiccups were present on the reviewer's playthrough, the most bizarre of which was a tendency for a near-deafening waterfall sound effect to play near the mouths of caves, with not a drop of falling water in sight. Despite this, the audio overall is quite superb, and made exploring Gliese feel all the more moving.

The Solus Project offers a window into a beautiful, threatening, and tragic world. The survivalist elements will keep players on their toes whilst they brave the inhospitable terrain, and unearth terrible truths. Minor mis-steps and other issues hold it back in places, however it remains an intriguing ten to twelve hour experience. The slow pace and sparing approach to action will likely bore players more interested in gunplay and acrobatics, though players with a love for lore and world-building will find plenty to appreciate in the game's sunburnt fields and pitch-black caverns. Without revealing much, it turns out that making the leap towards life on other worlds is not the bright, glowing future it's often made out to be, whether you're human or not.

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Audio engineer, sound designer, composer, writer. Hosts a burning passion for the games and audio circuitry of old. Die-hard shmup/STG addict.
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