In space, no-one can hear you… if you hold down the crouch button
Solarix is a game I was prepared to love. If someone was to pitch the game to me, it’d probably go something along these lines
“Ok, so get this: it’s a first-person horror game about an amnesiac protagonist in the classic tradition of Amnesia: The Dark Descent with the lonely, desolate, seventies style depiction of a far flung space outpost that you might find in Alien: Isolation. Your character unravels his past while being led down a perilous path to perdition by an insane hacker and an AI with a gradually dawning sense of self. With a deadly virus having killed or turned the populace of the outpost into crazed monsters, you have to uncover the mystery of the ancient, inscrutable alien machine at the heart of the madness.”
After listening, wide-eyed, I’d be temporarily stunned. After recovering a portion of my wits, I’d reach into my pocket and fling forward a frenziedly gathered bundle of bills, demanding them to take my money. Yes, Solarix is a game with a hell of a premise, it’s just a shame about the game part.
After I’d first dimmed the lights, put my headphones on and steeled myself for the inevitable mind-rending terror that was to come, it didn’t take me long to realize just how clunky Solarix is. To sneak past your deranged adversaries, you’ll need to crouch down and crawl forward to conceal the sound of your footsteps. So far, so normal. The thing is, you’ll frequently get stuck on terrain objects while crouch moving. I’m presuming the reasoning behind this is to stop you falling off ledges while sneaking (even though I never encountered a situation where this might be a problem, unless you count the couple times I fell through the scenery) but the annoyance is that you freeze up whenever you start to traverse even the most gentle of gradients. This led to countless situations where I’d get stuck in one place while an enemy was patrolling towards me, unable to stand and unstick myself because my footsteps would be heard. So I’d just have to throw my hands up and accept the death, feeling far more irritated than immersed in the horror.
However, the game’s clunkiness can work in your favour just as it can work against you. Enemies can get stuck on terrain objects just as you can, and I actually felt rather pitiful for one guard on the earlier levels, glitching between two crates, jittering up and down as the physics engine tried to determine which plane he was on. Not helping matters is that as long as you’re crouched and in darkness, enemies are practically blind. I was able to sneak around just a few feet in front of some guards, shamelessly in their line of sight. If you do get caught though, escape is scarcely a brisk jog away from most enemies. I’d usually round no more than a single corner before pursuers would be overwhelmed by the pathfinding AI required to continue the chase and gave up.
Perhaps Solarix’s biggest mis-step is the fact that combat is even an option. At it’s most complex, combat is never more than a matter of backpadelling away from a pursuing opponent and hoping they die before you run out of bullets or corridor to run through. You can also incapacitate baddies by sneaking up behind them and zapping them in the back of the head with some sort of electric stunning device. However you decide to fight, the hit detection in Solarix is woeful and I was scratching my head more than a few times when point-blank shotgun blasts appeared to entirely miss their target. Most importantly though, the fact combat is even there gives you a sense of power over your surroundings, which decreases the already dwindling sense of fear and tension even more.
Playing Solarix really allowed me to appreciate the skillful design of other superior first-person horror games. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, monsters pop up at unexpected times, after a tense, oppressive atmosphere has been thoroughly built, and even looking at them drains your character’s sanity. In Alien: Isolation, the titular beast will freak you out every time you see blips on your motion detector, before popping out of a vent and biting your head off when you least expect it. Sadly, Solarix’s monsters and maniacs just didn’t scare me the same way as I watched them trundle about obliviously on their predictable patrol routes.
At this point it might seem that I dislike Solarix, though I still maintain at least a part of the twisted, warped love I expected to have for it.
When Solarix gave its stealth/combat sections a rest, it managed to build a nice atmosphere, with the music providing a nice creepy ambience, dropping in a few indecipherable, mechanized groans and screams here and there. I even got a little rattled by the odd strategically placed jump scare as the increasingly unreliable protagonist suffers lapses in his sanity. I liked these atmospheric interludes, which is why it made me more frustrated Solarix spent so much time on its more lackluster elements.
There are plenty of early levels with too much empty space and too many invisible walls. In spite of this clumsy level design, the rain-drenched alien planet you start off on is visually pleasing enough to wander through. At the point where you go out into space for the first time, there’s a definite sense of quiet grandeur and beauty to the proceedings; walking over sun-streaked hulls and making low-gravity jumps under a sea of stars.
Solarix’s story is about the essential madness of the human condition: that we want things we can’t have, feel hope when everything seems hopeless, and seek redemption from the unforgivable. It’s one of those relatively rare games that’s not a wish-fulfilment tale in any sense, and I loved how it evoked bleak seventies-era sci-fi not just visually but thematically as well. The writing is sharp, and the various logs, emails and memos you find scattered around in your travels give a well-paced trail of narrative breadcrumbs for discovering the protagonist’s past. The supporting characters were interesting and well drawn enough for me to want to uncover the chequered timeline of their mental and physical decay. It’s sort of appropriate that the mad love I did have for Solarix was for anything but the parts that technically made it a game.
On a note of conclusion, I have to say that Solarix has one of the most somber, sudden and beautiful endings I’ve seen in gaming. I’m not sure you’ll want to play through the game to experience it though, unless you’re the sort of slightly crazed person who’d be determined to love Solarix, even with its many flaws.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Kiss ltd; Developer: Pulsetense Games; Players: 1; Released: April 30, 2015