I chose Interstellar as one of the foundations of the bad pun in the subtitle because of all the stories about Earth being doomed and a space expedition searching for a new place for humankind to call home, it is the most recent. The Lost inspiration, however, The Solus Project wears on its sleeve. As astronaut Octavia or Octavius Sken, part of the eponymous Solus Project, you crash-land on a rocky and not necessarily hostile but definitely unwelcoming planet. Gliese-6143-C has extremely warm days and extremely cold nights, harsh winds and many other environmental hazards which you have to brave and endure in order to reassemble a communications array and signal back to your fleet that you’ve found a new home.
The Solus Project: Xbox One, PC [Reviewed]
Developer: Teotl Studios, Grip Digital
Publisher: Teotl Studios, Grip Digital
Release Date: 7 June 2016
Price: €18,99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
Working on The Solus Project
A spiritual successor to Teotl’s puzzle game “The Ball”, The Solus Project has moments where it ties into the predecessor’s backstory, but mechanically it’s quite different. The game has a fairly extensive options menu. In addition to the vast array of graphical options you get a lot of quality of life settings such as using the metric system instead of the silly poopy nonsense system for measurements, which is fairly useful if you’re trying to judge how far or how cold something is and you’re hardcoded to think in meters and degrees Celsius. If you’re one of those people who owns a VR headset, The Solus Project has a VR mode and allows you to tweak several other aspects of the mechanics and movement in order to avoid making you nauseous.
The game does little hand-holding in teaching you its systems aside for the most basic of crafting and inventory management before setting you on your way. It being a survival game, however, it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out that being cold means you have to find a heat source, being hot means having to find a way to cool down, being wet requires you to dry and being hungry/thirsty… well you get it. The game banks on the players knowledge of survival instincts in lieu of lengthy tutorials and most things will work as you’d expect them to: hot weather will dehydrate you faster, being wet in cold weather will lower your body temperature, while the sun will gradually dry you, having a torch out emits both light and warmth and so on. There are also a handful of tools you can carry around. Most important is a cutting tool which can be anything from a sharpened rock to a proper blade. This helps with cutting vines to make kindling or opening cans of food that are around the ship’s wreckage around the archipelago where the game takes place.
Water is plentiful for the most part, with you finding troughs or springs where you can refill your bottles and food is found in relative abundance either in cans, packs or indigenous plants. During the course of the game, the weather and the elements will be a far bigger problem, with shelter being sparse in some areas and being all but required for resting properly (and lack of sleep can also kill you if you neglect it for too long). A cold storm can kill you a lot faster than running out of food simply on account of it being next to impossible to plan for. Inventory space is another problem and this is where I’ll go a bit in how The Solus Project toyed with my expectations a bit…
During the first few stages of the game I desperately tried to collect supplies and drag them back to a cave I designated as a base like some sort of filthy trash goblin. Don’t make my mistake. The Solus Project is not an open world sandbox survival crafting experience. While there is some relative freedom as you move around the archipelago and between the islands via a series of caves and tunnels, the game is a fairly linear journey. It rewards exploration greatly, with many secrets and alien relics to find which boost your resistances to your bodily needs and the elements, but you’ll pretty much find what you need to survive as you go along. Additionally, some of the ruins and caves have optional gauntlets to run that also contain rewards at the end.
At its core The Solus Project is a solidly put-together experience but it does a terrible job of conveying its identity to the player. It starts off like an open-world survival crafting game, follows through with a bit of walking simulator and then delves into environmental puzzles soon after that. Due to this I had some of a problem with hoarding items in my very limited inventory for the better part of the early game. Luckily, the game does provide you with inventory upgrades and allows you to pick up vital items without their taking up space. Perhaps the most interesting item is also the key of most puzzles: the teleporter. This device throws a disc a short distance in front of you and then, on demand, teleports you to it. This can get you through narrow gaps or on high ledges, but it can also be used creatively to get to places where I assume the developers didn’t mean for me to go (or rather not in the same way). See, throwing the disc also takes into account your player character’s momentum at the time of launch. Due to this, you can use running and jumping to land some pretty sick trick shots?
At any rate, there were very few times during The Solus Project where it was not 100% obvious to me where I was supposed to go. It usually does a good job of telegraphing directions to the player via level design and environmental cues. While there isn’t any combat in the game there are some hostile creatures (and some harmless ones that just look hostile) and a lot of environmental hazards to look out for as you try to simultaneously solve the mystery of the alien races that once inhabited this planet and find a way to contact your increasingly desperate fleet and tell them to come on down. I have to give props to the developers for managing to completely strip combat out of the game but managing to replace the missing adversity to something else. I do appreciate a good break from the killing every now and again, provided it’s executed well.
Among the stars (and several moons)
That the barren and rocky Gliese looks as gorgeous as it does is testament to the fantastic dynamic lighting system in The Solus Project. Of course, that most of the planet’s vegetation is red only serves to enhance the excellent sunsets and contrast with the cold blue blizzards. And while the water looks amazingly inviting, and the droplets on your helmet’s visor that indicate when you’re drenched are masterfully done, these are definitely things to avoid for the most part. Sadly, a good chunk of the game takes part indoors and underground and while the dynamic lighting makes even these sections look good, they pale in comparison to the merciless outdoors.
In terms of sound design The Solus Project uses a wide array of crisp effects, especially for the weather, that you can really feel the whipping winds or the heavy rains. The constant beeping and robotic voice from your PDA can get annoying at times, especially since it queues several messages to slowly get through and it doesn’t cancel them out if you’ve addressed the issue in the meantime. Thus, it’s possible to receive several prompts that you’re getting dehydrated long after you’ve drank your fill of water. The voice-acting, where present, is decent, such as the occasional transmission from the fleet desperately broadcasting their situation, hoping that you’re still alive to hear them.
The protagonist chimes in at key points during the story but it often seems to only be there to fill some space, as they just recount the events of the most recent chapter, such as waiting for a full half hour to address the bizarre events they just experienced, rather than reacting to them on the spot. Another problem is that while there are a lot (and I mean a LOT) of log pages and stone tablets telling stories in the game, none are voiced over and the game doesn’t even as much as pause while you’re reading them. Thankfully, the dynamic soundtrack somewhat redeems all of this. The tracks fit the situation and environment each time and are adequately whimsical or sinister depending on where you are.
Some of The Solus Project’s greatest failings, as far as I’m concerned, are first how poorly it communicates what sort of game it is from the get go as I mentioned earlier. I spent a lot of the game hoarding items I rarely (or in some cases never) used, thinking that they’re vital. In fact the game leaves you with no occasions to trap yourself or become unable to progress which is, of course, at the end of the day a good thing. Better telegraphing of the game’s intentions would have gone a long way. Secondly, because of how the story system is implemented I found reading most of the (sometimes lengthy logs) a chore, especially while freezing or starving to death, and thus it was difficult for me to get into the backstory of the alien races and my fellow crew members.
That your main objective is revealed at the beginning of the game (find pieces for your communications array) and that’s most of what you’ll do for the remainder of the game ruins a bit of the experience. Sure, you’re uncovering very interesting details about alien civilizations and witnessing strange and sometimes extremely disturbing events, but it’s all framed by the mundane task of “find 17 of this thing”. The ending is an open one and while definitely serviceable I wouldn’t call it satisfying. I couldn’t tell you if it’s setting up a sequel or is intentionally bleak but I definitely expected more after my time with the game.
I initially found The Solus Project to be visually enticing but difficult to get into. Interestingly enough, I approached each session of playing it with the same attitude. I sighed at the prospect of starting it up, but once I was in I found myself sufficiently immersed to keep on going until it was finally done. I felt the same about writing this review as well: unsure as to what I was going to write, but found plenty to write about once I started. Its level design and world building are great, its audiovisual style stellar, but it fails in making for a consistently solid gameplay experience. Don’t take that as a too harsh indictment of the game. If anything, The Solus Project is at its worst decent and a mark of wasted potential more than anything resembling a failure. It’s definitely one of the better survival experiences out there and others would do well to take a few pages from its book.