The Solus Project makes a very good first impression. You – playing as either a male or female version of a crash-landed astronaut – emerge from your escape pod and immediately fall face-first into a rocky shore, the roar of the wind and sea mingling into a not-so-friendly welcome.
Your vital stats monitor readily guides you through the first crucial steps of gathering materials to craft a makeshift torch and finding a resting place where you can access a water source and be safe from the elements.
By this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking The Solus Project is yet another take on the survival genre, this time with an alien theme.
But as you realize that your makeshift torch is more or less eternal, and that infinite caches of food and drink are peppered around the archipelago where the game is set, it soon becomes apparent that the survival elements are incidental to what is, in truth, a game about exploration and environmental storytelling. There is also no combat. In the few locations where you encounter hostile fauna, evasion is your only choice – and not a particularly challenging task, at that.
Sadly, the exploration soon becomes rote, and the storytelling has as many lows as it has highs.
The setting is compelling at first. The islands in The Solus Project are gorgeously crafted and peppered with ancient alien ruins, monoliths, and a decent variety of flora. The caves are appropriately dark, dank, and claustrophobic. In the former, you can, for the most part, roam freely around, while the later – despite having a healthy dose of side-passages and secret rooms – are mostly linear affairs that connect the central island to the others.
But the novelty soon wears off and rarely returns. Glimpses of excellence in design – particularly near the end game, on an island dominated by a mountain-temple windmill, buffeted by strong winds and peppered by lightning which briefly invokes the worlds of Fumito Ueda – are few and far between, lost among the padding of traversing identical tunnels and scavenging parts from a copy-and-paste coastline.
For the completionist explorer, The Solus Project offers over half a thousand secret artifacts to collect. And while, cumulatively, they increase your odds of survival, each one is of so little individual impact that it rarely feels rewarding to seek them out. Backtracking through a huge tunnel so you can use your newfound rope to descend into an abyss and be rewarded with 1% extra resistance to hunger isn’t going to set your world on fire.
In fact, most of the resistances seem more or less irrelevant. During a full normal play-through, the only frequent threats were hypothermia and weather anomalies – tornadoes, lightning strikes, and meteor showers – which have an alarming tendency to home in on the player’s character.
The problem here is that your response to all of these is largely going to be the same: find a cave, build a fire – or not, as in most cases your undying torch proves good enough – and wait out the bad weather, usually by sleeping. Most of the big caves you’ll have explored as part of the main quest, but the small ones can be explored in a couple of minutes, if that. It feels less like interesting game mechanics and more like padding.
It’s not that requiring the player to sleep or take shelter is a wrong way to introduce tension, it’s just that it never feels like a meaningful interaction in The Solus Project. When a snow storm hits and your body heat starts to tank, you never feel a rush of adrenaline as you desperately look for a cave to take shelter, you just think “Oh, I guess I have to go back to camp and hit the sleep button until the snow goes away.” Survival should be tense and exciting; here, it’s mechanical and boring.
It would have been much more compelling if, instead of having to hunt for secrets in order to gain really small increases in resistance to exposure, the player could actually craft shelter, or buff-granting food. While it’s the developers prerogative to decide not to do a fully-fleshed out crafting system, the systems they put in place for survival simply aren’t interesting or fun.
Using the default settings, your survival monitor conveniently places way-points that you follow to progress the main mission. They are not very intrusive, and won’t hold your hand that much; the way-point may direct you to a door, but it’s up to you to explore around and find the key.
The Solus Project’s puzzles rarely stray from the lock-and-key variety. Occasionally, you’ll have to use your short-range teleport disc to solve some spacial puzzles, and some more complex puzzles arise here and there, but in most cases you will be looking for keys and door-unlocking mechanisms.
Overall, it feels that if the developer stripped out the survival aspect entirely and made it a pure walking simulator, or one with light lock-and-key puzzles only, it would have been a much more enjoyable, if much shorter, experience.
The ultimate purpose of your journey is to build a device to “phone home,” report on your crash-landing, and whatever else you deem worthy after exploring the planet. Your fleet, escaping from a dying Earth, is running out of resources and desperate for you to report on the planet’s viability for colonization.
This point is brought home by several diary pages scattered across the landscape near the crash sites of your dead companions’ escape pods (though one has to wonder about the perfect legibility of hand-written diaries after lying outside on the sand through several tornadoes and torrential storms) and somewhat badly written, though nicely acted, one-way voice transmissions from the fleet.
A much more interesting quest is finding the ancient stone tablets and monoliths describing the history of the planet, and the ultimate destiny of the previous inhabitants. The writing is considerably better here; it’s much more about you piecing it all together, rather than about the game shoving poor radio drama in your face.
Ultimately, The Solus Project succeeds in using light survival elements to add a bit of tension to the exploratory narrative genre, one commonly criticized for a lack of game mechanics. It then builds an interesting world around these, with some cool narrative pieces to discover. Sadly, there is too much dullness and padding between these, and the game ends, for the most part, feeling like one big chore.
The Solus Project was reviewed on PC with a copy provided by the developer.
Developer: Hourences, Grip Games| Publisher: Teotl Studios | Genre: Exploration, Survival | Platform: PC, Xbox One | PEGI/ESRB: Unrated. Developers recommend 12 and up | Release Date: June 7th, 2016