The black sheep of Psikyo’s shoot ’em ups comes to Xbox, thanks to a reissue from City Connection. If you’ve ever wondered what might happen if a horizontal shooter was pushed into a vat of Golden Axe, then look no further. There’s an endearing charm to how nothing in Sol Divide blends together well.
Being a 1997 Arcade release, Psikyo were clearly in thrall of Mortal Kombat, and wanted some of its realistic, motion captured sprites. You can imagine animators posing in their pyjamas as wizards, samurai and angels. The result is not quite at Mortal Kombat level – the sprites are slightly too small to achieve that, so think more Pit Fighter – but it has the ramshackle and nostalgic charm of something that could only have come from that period.
Then there’s the story, which might have been epic in someone’s notebook, but is a bit garbled here. It has an evil warlock stealing crystals from kings and queens of the realm, in an effort to summon a demon dragon. But the translation is way, way off the mark and has been happily preserved here. I’ve never been called ‘week’ so often.
There’s a point at the start of the game where it looks like the story might skirt Game of Thrones-esque levels of world-building and political intrigue, as you are given a branching choice to petition for reinforcements or attack the enemy forces head-on. But this is the sole choice of the game, moved to the opening moments. Largely, you are moving from ravaged city to ravaged city on tracks, chasing the warlock and finally facing them. And then, oddly, fighting their general as the last battle of the game.
Combat eschews the Psikyo template completely. It’s the only one of the Psikyo re-releases that does. Its foundations are as a horizontal shooter, as you auto-fire at enemies, so that is the same, but then Sol Divide layers on some hand-to-hand combat. You can tap B to unsheathe your sword or spear and start jabbing enemies in the throat.
It’s a bold addition that doesn’t work. At least not in the way you hope it would. For one, Sol Divide lacks anything approximating flow, as it won’t let you fire and fight at the same time. It takes a while to switch between the two, and that delay in a game of this type is critical.
Equally, Sol Divide shoves melee enemies down your gullet, locking them to your character so that they follow you round the screen. These barnacle enemies are an utter pain, and it’s sometimes hard to know what Psikyo wants you to do. The melee combat isn’t complete enough to offer blocks, dashes or parries, so you can’t stay and fight, for risk of having your life points lopped off. All you can do is perform figure-eight movements around the arena, firing as you go, hoping they fall off. It’s not the best melee system we’ve ever grappled with.
It’s the shooting, though, that’s the most interesting. Gone are the usual power-ups that stack to make you a force to be reckoned with. Instead, you get spells, delivered as power-ups and shown in sequence across the top of the screen. Gather enough Mana Points (again, delivered as drops), and the Mana bar fills up to make certain spells available. With an LB or RB you can tab through those spells and cast the ones you want.
In typical, hokey Sol Divide style it doesn’t work perfectly. You don’t want to be cycling through spells in the midst of battle, so you are often locking onto the one you like (Freeze in our case). And the mana bar fills up so slowly that the spells at the tail-end of the bar are rarely, if ever, used – mostly because it’s not worth waiting for them.
But for all the rough edges, the system is a lot of fun. The spells are completely overpowered, for one. You can save up a Time Stop for a boss, for example, and just sit there leathering them with your sword as they’re frozen in place. Lightning wipes most of the enemies. Finding the three or four spells you like and then mastering those LB/RB selections becomes something of an art, and a fun art at that.
Sol Divide also loves an item drop. Virtually every enemy slips one out as they die. Herbs that increase max life, life potions, mana potions, spells and others gush forth, and it’s satisfying to hoover them up and see your character improve. At the higher difficulties, Sol Divide has an ebb and flow, where you just about survive a battle and then sweep up enough life potions to make you ready for the next one.
Enemies and bosses are an odd old mix, with life-like humans mixing it up with wacky cartoon jellyfish and griffins, but that only adds to Sol Divide’s appeal. The bosses tend to be mythical creatures writ large, as you fight minotaurs, hydras, mummies, small dragons and big dragons. They don’t feel quite as impressive as the best of Psikyo’s bosses (largely because the player character is so chunky and big that large waves of attacks would be impossible to avoid), but it’s a ride watching to see what comes up next.
By the end, there wasn’t as much pull to replay as the average Psikyo. There are only three characters in Sol Divide, with one ending each. The branching levels only really happen at the start of the game, so there’s less variation to a runthrough. And the difficulty is skewed reasonably high, mostly thanks to a lack of checkpointing. The last level in particular has four bosses in sequence, and failing at one means that your continue takes you way back to the start. Through attrition alone, this sequence is challenging. We played three times over and felt like we were done.
The result means Sol Divide is clearly below-par for Psikyo, but it’s a wilfully bonkers below-par. Nobody should be smooshing R-Type into Golden Axe, but Psikyo tried anyway, and we’re glad we were there to watch the experiment. One for the curious.
You can buy Sol Divide from the Xbox Store