What is love? Have you ever been in love? If you have, why did your last relationship come to an end? Don’t worry, this isn’t some dating questionnaire; just merely a brief idea of what’ll be running through your mind when the Solo: Islands of the Heart experience puts a myriad of thought-provoking questions to you. And don’t be fooled into thinking that’s all there is to Solo either, as essentially it’s a puzzle game by trade. But is it worthy of pouring your heart into?
Solo: Islands of the Heart begins like very few others I’ve ever played, with questions about gender and sexual preference, and that’s only the start as the questions posed as you advance through the game get more and more intrusive into your love life. There’s a rather philosophical vibe to the ‘story’, with the game offering countless things to ponder via text dialogue from spiritual totems and ghostly characters. However, its success relies completely upon the player throwing themselves into the narrative head-first and embracing all the talk about love – even the importance of sex. In essence, Solo possesses the outline and you’ll be filling in the rest.
The point is, the story is nothing without your input and whether it actually delivers or not is going to be different for everyone. Therefore, the gameplay needs to ensure that the puzzling side at least does the job for the masses. Initially, you’re dropped onto a tiny idyllic island and left to your own devices as to what exactly is required. Through a bit of exploration and interaction using a little sailor who represents you, the aim becomes a little clearer: to navigate archipelagos, locate lighthouses and reach the accompanying totem for each. Upon interacting with the totems and answering the questions they ask, more islands emerge to explore.
Where the puzzling aspect comes in is by the lighthouses and totems being situated in areas that aren’t easily accessible without the aid of blocks. Given just a small number of blocks to pick up, rotate if necessary, put down and climb upon, you must figure out how best to utilise the limited resources to venture high up and to bridge vast distances. Initially the blocks are plain, but others are slowly introduced which blow you up into the air, can stick to the sides of walls, and have a platform that extends out. There’s also a parachute that can help in soaring across gaps which seem too wide.
It doesn’t sound like much, however it still makes for some interestingly clever solutions; for example, you may need to manoeuvre the blocks around you whilst traversing them and turn the air blowing ones upside down to work as an elevator of sorts. The difficulty increases at a steady pace with just a single block available at first and by the third, and final, archipelago, there could be four different blocks ensuring the potential for success is complex enough to cause a decent challenge – without becoming irritating though. Unfortunately, the unlockable magic wand will bring about the frustration instead.
This wand enables you to grab blocks that aren’t right next to you by holding the trigger and pointing the cursor at it. The same process applies for when you want to place it down. Actually targeting the block and then selecting the exact area it needs to be dropped is an absolute nightmare. It’s a constant struggle between getting the camera angle in position and finding the precise spot you want the block to be in. Because of such hassles, a relatively straightforward solution can end up being drawn out longer than needed through the fault of the game’s mechanics; especially when you drop a block in the water by accident and have to reset the problem.
Another annoyance is in regards the save system as whenever you load up a save, it puts you right back at the beginning of that particular archipelago. The progress on it is still intact, but you have to make your way through the completed parts, instead of Solo just spawning the sailor at the last puzzling spot you were at.
Moving on and aside from the totem puzzles, there are other little problems to overcome that work in a similar way. These involve reuniting Puchuchu creatures by creating a path between them and diverting a water source to ensure the island flowers are watered. The latter adds a couple of new blocks that are more suitable to the task at hand, with holes in to funnel the water through. Attempting to solve such puzzles certainly brings a bit of variety into the mix.
Visually, Solo has a colourful, child-friendly aesthetic that provides a comforting and relaxing environment to wander around. Despite the islands being a tad sparse, there are a few creatures to populate the land and their designs remind me of Pokémon with their cutesy and unique looks. The audio works brilliantly because the minimalistic sounds of the ocean makes it feel as though you are actually on an island, chilling out. It is a little bit lonely at times, but I believe that’s to allow you to reflect on the subject matter.
Solo: Islands of the Heart on Xbox One is something of an enigma. The deep delve into the player’s love life is a risky one as many won’t even want to contemplate such thoughts when gaming and so the ‘story’ could be a non-event for some folk. On the plus side though, the visuals, the sounds and the puzzling goes hand in hand to create an experience that’s a challenge, with a fair few intelligent solutions to figure out. If only the block placement and camera angle weren’t constantly at odd with your efforts, then it’d be a far more enjoyable game.
As a puzzler, there’s enough here to just about warrant a purchase.