In the past month, between The Solus Project and the new Star Trek film, I’ve had a decent taste of what it’s like to be marooned in space. And it’s safe to say that, due to this recent exposure, any desire I had for space travel has been properly dismissed. While Star Trek Beyond gave us a heroic, and surprisingly comedic, tale of a crew overcoming immense adversity, it still touched on the less desirable aspects of space travel. However, The Solus Project acknowledged these aspects and amplified them ten-fold. In wild and uncharted terrain of Gliese-6143-C, you’ll face starvation, hypothermia, dehydration and a myriad of other of other life-threatening ailments that rarely cross the minds of us privileged first world folk. Suffice to say: it’s terrifying.
Earlier this year we were privileged enough to get an early look at Teotl Studios’ survival horror experience, ‘The Solus Project’. If you read the corresponding article, you’d know that I was thoroughly impressed by the preview. And since then, I’ve been quite excited for the official release. What I first noticed about the official release of The Solus Project was that the game hadn’t changed drastically since I last played it. Of course, there are the obvious bug fixes and the release of the full story and game-world. But the preview and the finished game don’t feel like totally different products. And that’s really the issue with this game. The Solus Project has a very tight foundation. The gameplay ideas, environments and survival tactics are nothing short of incredible. However, graphical issues and control problems definitely hold The Solus Project back.
The world of Gliese-6143-C is beyond interesting. The terrain and views alone out-do many of the AAA game worlds. However, the planet’s lore and weather conditions are its best assets. You begin the game knowing very little about the planet. You’ll explore the planet and experience its climates as you attempt to establish contact with the space colony – holding the remaining members of the human race. An ominous and foreboding overtone surrounds most of your exploration. Humanoid skeletons are scattered across the planet. You’ll find notes from your deceased crew mates, detailing their declining sanity. However, as the story progresses, you’ll piece together the mysteries surrounding the planet.
The Solus Project took a minimalist approach to storytelling and this directly complimented the game’s style. Most of the planet’s lore – the Sky Ones, the artwork and the tombs – is revealed through notes and cave drawings, which the player can choose to ignore. Both narration and dialogue are scarce, and this scarcity creates a terrifying feeling of abandonment. You’ll play the majority of the game on the edge of your seat, dreading a danger that seldom appears.
The sound mixing only furthers this feeling. From the dripping of water in caves to the rustling of grass, almost every sound is engineered to compliment the sense of peril that is so important to the game. The rain and cyclones sound dreadfully realistic, however the impact of these sounds is lessened by the robotic voice reminding you that ‘you are fifty percent wet’. Still, that’s a small criticism of an otherwise exceptional element of this game.
Visually, some aspects of the game are stunning. The moons and nearby planets that are silhouetted in the horizons damn near took my breath away when I first saw them. Many of the views reminded me of Dark Souls – in the sense that they were both spectacular and terrifying. You couldn’t help but wonder – in this ominous atmosphere – what dangers were lurking under such beautiful facades. The occasional pop-in texture or drop in frame rates (specifically when entering certain caves) does detract from the experience, but it’s easy to forget these issues when faced with the game’s other visual highlights. For instance, the light manipulation and the changing between day and night seemed almost realistic. And the weather conditions – though sometimes ridiculously severe – were skilfully animated and very well designed.
What wasn’t well designed was the game’s HUD. The blurred edges and blacked out corners are obviously designed to mirror an astronaut’s mask. But the design makes the screen seem claustrophobic. It also destroys any sense of peripheral vision, and thus becomes irksome quite quickly. I understand that realism is an important factor for absorption in a game world, but in The Solus Project, the atmosphere alone does enough work in this department. And this HUD was so ugly and so annoying that it threatened to undo that work. Sometimes, less really is more.
Also the system for interacting with objects and the environment is ridiculous. Essentially you’ve got to direct the miniscule icon in the centre of the screen into the centre of another equally minuscule icon somewhere – and usually somewhere illogical – on the item or the piece of environment you wish to interact with. If that description sounded long-winded and stupid, that’s good. It suits the mechanic perfectly. I shouldn’t need to shoot a bullseye every time I want to pick something up – especially when picking things up is an integral part of The Solus Project. This is why they developed the ‘stand next to it and push x’ approach to picking things up; it’s simple and it works. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: video games should be fun. Yes, fun can be a relative term: some people might enjoy being scared, others might enjoy insurmountable challenges and others might just like shooting stuff. And by making a frequent and imperative task difficult, the developers have made it quite difficult to enjoy The Solus Project.
This problem is worsened when coupled with the lethargic movement controls. When walking up hills or crouching, movement slows to a crawl. You’ll find yourself jumping your way up hills just to go faster because the character’s walking pace is mind-numbingly slow. And just to clarify, these are hills you’re meant to climb. Even by itself, the movement speed problem is annoying – good games don’t feel like they’re wasting your time. But given that a large portion of The Solus Project involves avoiding weather hazards, not being able to move properly uphill adds an unnecessary element of difficulty to the game.
But luckily for Teotl studios, the world of Gliese-6143-C is so intriguing and the process of surviving is so well refined, that most players will be able to endure these shortcomings. Please note here that I didn’t say ‘overlook’ because these flaws are too glaring to be overlooked. As gorgeous as the scenery and the messianic carvings are, I couldn’t ever shake the feeling that they’d be more gorgeous if the HUD wasn’t in the way.
I always find it frustrating when a terrible game has fantastic graphics. However, the frustration is so much worse when a fantastic game is held back by surface issues. The Solus Project is good but it doesn’t live up to it’s true potential, and in that respect it’s also disappointing. Still, the game’s atmosphere is extraordinary; it’s a type of quality we don’t see very often. And I only wish that the developers had payed a little more attention to The Solus Project because I think it could have been something truly special.