[su_highlight background=”#3b88ff” color=”#ffffff”]Platforms: PC, Steam | Developer: Pulsetense Games | Publisher: KISS ltd | ESRB: Unrated | Controls: Keyboard[/su_highlight]
Going into Solarix I was expecting great things. An indie stealth game with inspirations from classics such as Thief and System Shock, but with decent graphics? Thinking back to Spirits of Xanadu, a similar sci-fi game I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, whose main weakness was the graphics; Solarix should have been amazing. Somehow, it wasn’t.
The story is very familiar if you’ve played any other sci-fi horror games. You are Walter Terrace, an engineer working for a morally questionable company. Unfortunately you’ve come down with amnesia so you have no idea what’s going on and must piece the backstory through audiologs, announcements from the AI and mysterious messages from a psycho that seems to know you, called Betty. The dialogue’s voice acting itself seems fine, but there is very minor character development so it’s hard to feel invested in any of them. Although there are elements of whether you choose to believe the AI or Betty, Solarix is incredibly linear both in its story and design.
The environments themselves are good, featuring a lot of variety. You start off in a grimy, metallic interior but escape to the outside rather early on where the game can show off its rain effects (which an overhanging roof will provide shelter against). To give credit where it’s due, further locations are always aesthetically distinct despite the dark surroundings expected out of stealth games. The main gripe is based around the design of the actual levels themselves which have only one path with no incentive for exploration; in fact the game seems to punish you for deviating from your objectives. Particularly in the earlier levels there are multiple objects scattered around that you can jump onto. There are no world model physics so you can’t push items out of the way, as a result if you fall into a crevice or end up on one side with no objects to jump on you can get trapped and forced to reload; a larger issue than it should be due to Solarix using a checkpoint system.
The lack of saving aside, the HUD is refreshingly minimalistic and unintrusive. A small light gem borrowed from the Thief series will handily inform you of how dark your surroundings are, with another small bar to monitor your health. Any objects that you can interact with will faintly glow, with the name of the objects or container being displayed if you’re close enough. Both the map and inventory are a return to classics, bringing up their own small window without pausing the game. Pinpointing your exact position on the map involves some guess work based on landmarks due to no markers indicating where you are. The inventory is mostly redundant since medkits have their own hotkey, but may be used to review what items you have.
Although Solarix presents several new toys, sadly there isn’t too much variety. The first item you acquire in the tutorial level is a hacking tool that functions identically to the lockpicks from the first two Thief games. For those unfamiliar with Thief, that involves you rubbing your face against a door panel and holding down the action button. While yes, there is no skill derived from this; it is actually used as a dramatic tool – where you’re forced to stand at a locked door while a patrol approaches. The first weapon you receive is a pistol whose purpose is twofold. Aside from the obvious use of taking out enemies at range, it can also be used to shoot out electrical lights – again much like Thief’s water arrows. The final unique item is a tazer that can render enemies unconscious through a melee attack from behind, provided they are not alert. With the risk of sounding like a broken record, it functions identically to Thief’s blackjack – albeit more clunky to use.
The similarities continue with the enemies, of which there are several. As well as human guards and zombies, critical areas are guarded by turrets and cameras. Any further comparisons stop with the enemy AI, which is up there among the worst in the genre. The stealth system is already somewhat weak due to crouching resulting in invisible sneaking while standing generating as much noise as possible. The problem is that enemies are almost entirely oblivious to lights being shot out next to them and to the player themselves if you’re crouched, provided that you’re in the shadows. Even on the hardest difficulty it’s possible to sneak under the noses of enemy guards.
In the event that the guards are tipped off to your presence their AI does not improve, it can even be argued that it becomes worse. Their movement slows down to a crawl, which significantly reduces the difficulty of avoiding them – as well as looking hilarious. If the armed guards spot you they will either go berserk and shoot a constant stream of bullets (even if there’s map geometry in the way) or worse; they will charge towards you and just stand there requesting backup – unreactive to your light or getting shot at. Although the AI on the camera is marginally better, being able to track you even if you’re crouching in the shadows, the guards still just run to the camera’s position instead of where it’s pointing – making them completely useless.
Regardless of which alert state they’re in, all enemies have various dialogue lines they’ll say while they’re wandering around as is the genre standard. In fact they’ll be talking so frequently that you will keep hearing the same five or so lines repeated constantly. This isn’t as much of a problem with the zombies due to their distorted dialogue but it is particularly noticeable with the human guards when they’ve mentioned visiting their parents for the umpteenth time. Another thing that will get on your nerves relatively early is the ambient sound, which consists of loud howling. Initially it may build suspense due to uncertainty about whether something is making the noise but once you realise it’s just loud haunted house noises constantly you’ll probably turn the ambient noise down or off completely so you can hear enemy footsteps better.
I can forgive some deficiencies in games so long as there’s some enjoyment to be found elsewhere. Looking back at the Spirits of Xanadu review, that game also had mediocre shooting while looking a lot worse than Solarix. However while the former managed to include interesting puzzles and environmental interaction, Solarix doesn’t have anything stimulating. Instead it goes for the model of putting things on other things, such as batteries in generators or keycards in doors. Even Thief (a game that Solarix tries hard to emulate) encourages you to explore each room for loot and rare treasures, or to find alternate entry points – which is sorely lacking in Solarix. With flimsy combat, broken stealth and uninspired puzzles there’s just not enough of a game to play.
Reviewed on PC. Review copy provided by the developer.