Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


SOLARIX (PC, 2015, TURKEY): FIVE DOOMED SOULS
July 1, 2015, 8:38 am
Filed under: Solarix (PC 2015 Turkey)

1I learned about “Solarix” like 15 minutes before it was released. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but that’s what it felt like. And that felt wrong because (as the crappy games blogger < dumb word alert) I often feel like I spend more time researching games than I do playing them. I’m always on the hunt for some obscure title, new or old, something that fits this ill-defined blog that I can blather on about ad infinitum. I spend hours trawling websites, looking at past reviews, cancelled game lists, the 300 cruddy Early Access titles on Steam that seem to appear every other day. It’s a full time job I don’t get paid for.

2So when I stumbled upon the Steam store page for “Solarix” and read that Pulsetense Games—a group of roughly 10 guys working together physically and virtually—had been developing the game steadily since late 2011, I had to shake my head. Say wha? A first-person, deep space, horror stealth game that others have been following for four years, and I only hop on board when the store page goes live? I’m clearly falling down on the job. I’m not worthy.

3But I was genuinely excited. This was my kind of game. High hopes, indeed. But were my expectations met? The short version is: Yup. The game is not perfect by any stretch, but the mechanics work well, the atmosphere is thick with dread, the play length and environments are laudable, and the story…oh my, the twisted story. Let’s start there.

4I’m a sucker for narratives in games, from complex to cliche (that’s why you won’t find me running mindlessly around CS:GO maps), and as a slow burn experience “Solarix” is content to take its sweet time revealing its story and characters to the player. And reveal is the right word. No obvious expositions here, no pace-killing cutscenes explaining a backstory, no lengthy dialogue setting up characters. In the dribs and drabs of (professionally and believably voiced) audio logs and (actually interesting) text-only diary entries (and yes, I’m an English professor by trade and am allowed to say such things), you (as a mute, stasis-pod amnesiac) come to slowly understand what year it is and how long you’ve been asleep, your name, why you are stationed on a mining colony on the planet Ancyra, and who Gregory Hart is and why he and his deteriorating militia are dangerous. Over the course of this deliberately paced game, you also learn whether the artificial intelligence named AMI who guides you has been compromised by a competing AI of alien origin, if the person identifying herself as Betty over your headset is batshit crazy or not (the answer is yes—keep reading), and why everything has gone to utter deep-space shit and what you can do to change all that.

5And now, to shed light on some of those questions. (The standard spoiler alert applies, and anyone who has played the game should feel free to let me know if I’ve omitted any key plot points or conflated any story elements; as I just explained, the only real way to experience the twisted narrative of Solarix is by piecing it together while playing.) According to the “Solarix Company Profile” tablet you find sitting on your own bunk at the very beginning of the game (which, by the way, has been nonchalantly tossed there—you may never even see if it you’re not paying attention), you are filling the space boots of 26-year-old generic electrical engineer Walter Terrace, attached to the Ancyra Mission which is sponsored by the Solarix corporation. The year is 2160…or, likely, a few years later than that. Your assignment is listed as “Indefinite Stasis,” which should raise some red flags since, of course, you are up and walking around. Clearly you’ve been asleep for at least the many months it took to get here…but for how long after that? (And where the hell is that mouthwash anyway?)

6Your first task is to don your space helmet, whereupon the fully self-autonomous artificial intelligence AMI (pronounced in game [by most characters] as two words – “Am I”) tells you in a flat monotone that she’s got some problems—problems which she would normally be able to iron out on her own “in half an hour,” but she can’t because…well, everything’s fucked up pretty badly. This is your first introduction to poor Walter’s decaying, chaotic world of Ancyra. Once a functional planetside mining facility, at some point in the (distant?) past, a virulent infection (well actually “dozens of infections, all combining and mutating and leeching off each other” as one audio log describes it) was released into the colony. As several mission doctors tried in vain to halt the virus (again, more exceedingly well written and voiced audio logs, especially for an indie game), the infection slowly devastated all employees of Solarix (300+ scientists and engineers) mentally and physically. The virus caused everything from madness to mutations—the colonists essentially wiped themselves out.

7In an attempt to salvage the operation, former administrator of the colony Gregory Quincy Hart has ordered his militia to occupy the Ancyra facility…but alas, his “clean up strategy” isn’t going to plan. Fear of becoming infected (as well as hunger, since rations are running short) has started to make some of his men uncontrollably paranoid, trigger happy, and potentially cannibalistic. Of course, it hasn’t helped that a handful of them are “coughing up gallons of their own blood” as they actually show signs of infection. But you’ve been spared all this mayhem, apparently, because you’ve been napping. Of course, as AMI warns, it’s now your job to stop the infection from leaping off the planet and making its way to earth “which would mean the fate of millions.”

8Way above your head, in far orbit around Ancyra’s mining facility is the ISS (interstellar space station) Megalodon, a Solarix corporation owned ship and research facility that houses AMI; while presumably the orbiting facility is devoid of people due to the infection, she’s nevertheless not alone. You see, 20-ish years prior in 2143, during an earlier expedition to Ancyra, Solarix scientists uncovered an alien artifact which they dubbed The Eye. In order to study its function, it was “installed” in the Megalodon, but to no avail. For more than a dozen years, the mechanism was scrutinized; while it may have interfered with the ship’s internal systems on several occasions (in other words, it disrupted AMI here and there, erasing precious data) and negatively affected the health of a few crew members who had prolonged exposure to the device, “the nature of its existence” remained “frustratingly unparseable.” In other words, 16 years later, The Eye was still a huge Ancyra mystery.

9That is, except for one small detail. Seven years after digging it up and plugging it into the Megalodon’s systems (in the year 2150), The Eye suddenly cleared its throat and spoke the word “Peace.” Oh, but wait! Six years later (2156), out came the word “Is.” Finally completing its opus in 2160, The Eye uttered the word “Futile.” Peace…Is…Futile. Pretty unnerving conversation, right? In response to this declaration and the lack of progress in understanding its function, Megalodon staff director Reggie Malchow pleaded with the Solarix board of directors to “remove the artifact and cast it to the void of space.” But unfortunately that never happened (why don’t they ever listen!), and now, decades later as the auto-piloted research station orbits the devastated mining facility on Ancyra’s surface, AMI is under attack by The Eye, which has reactivated and turned out to be a competing AI (yeah, it was just biding its time all along).

10To complicate matters further, Gregory Hart, the clean-up crew guru and possible coward, has hightailed it to the ISS Megalodon as well, to avoid either becoming infected himself or being shot by his men, who (still patrolling on the planet’s surface) are now questioning his leadership. What are his plans exactly? Is he trying to shuttle back to earth and leave them stranded? Amidst all this, AMI requests sleepy Walter’s help: “I need you,” she says in her best mechanical drone. What’s a poor electrical engineer (with stasis-induced bedface and bad breath) supposed to do?

11Through the game, though, you never stop wondering: Is AMI, as a fully autonomous AI, really on the up-and-up? Can she be taken at face value? She has asked you to find a way to get up to the orbital station—which necessitates quietly traipsing through the mining facility, shutting down some automated defense systems on the surface, powering up and doing a safety check on a shuttle, launching it, etc., etc. Though ultimately your plans don’t work out the way you thought they would, once aboard the automated ISS Megalodon, your surroundings change dramatically (and I have to say it’s very cool), but your job continues: Sneak around, try to find AMI (who has gone suspiciously silent), figure out what is wrong with her, see if pain-in-the-ass Gregory Hart is lurking about the place and maybe incapacitate him, and to make sure anyone who is remaining and infected has no plans to catch the next ride to earth. Containing that virus—which The Eye may have somehow initiated–is key.

12If all these entanglements seem like enough for you…well, you’re not in luck. There’s one more major drama queen that will nibble on your ear throughout Solarix, providing a whole lotta color to the extremely dark proceedings. Her name is Betty, and she is…shrill, goofy, confusing, and dangerously unbalanced. She seems to know a hell of a lot about what’s happened on Ancyra, and Walter’s past in particular. She appears in your earpiece early in the game (actually, she’s the first voice you hear telling you to get yer butt into gear), and for quite some time it is unclear exactly who the hell she is and how she is monitoring your progress. At one moment, she appears to be your giggly friend, giving you some advice about sneaking around your environment and leaving you your first gun in a nearby crate. Thanks Betty!

13But then in the next moment she promises to “hunt you down” because “we’ll have so much fun together!” Talk about mixed messages. At one point, she advises you to ignore everything AMI is telling you to do. “I’m your only friend here, Walter. I am on your side,” she coyly says. But then, after making herself laugh by telling a stupid joke, in the next breath she pleads for you to not leave her alone on the planet…then calls you a fool.

14Here’s a perfect example of the angst Betty brings to the game: As you stumble across one of your dead colleagues hidden behind a large rock, Betty pipes up, “Oh! You weren’t supposed to see that! But you don’t recognize him anyway, do you? That’s because I cut out that part of your brain.” With friends like Betty, who needs mental patients. But as far as a foil goes, the insertion of this colorful, philosophic nutjob into this extremely serious situation is nothing short of brilliant in my book.

15Onto the gameplay: As primarily a stealth affair, it should come as no surprise that “Solarix” consists of you, in first person, skulking around very large and dark industrial environments (labs, refinery spaces, crew quarters, storage areas on the planet surface) and natural locations (mostly expansive caves on Ancyra which are being mined, as well as a fiery spaceship crash site). Later in the game, you (involuntarily) make your way to the orbiting ISS Megalodon itself in deep space and continue skulking about. During your sightseeing tour, your main job is attempting to avoid (or incapacitate) sentries that have semi-unpredictable patrol routes (which—warning!– become highly unpredictable when alerted).

16On the planet surface, these are mostly Gregory Hart’s armed soldiers on foot, although some of the foes are also various lurching monstrosities (presumably former colonists) who have mutated, having been exposed to the infection the longest. On the ISS Megalodon in the second half of the game, the foes are decidedly more robotic in nature. If you attempt to directly confront these enemies, the game painfully reminds you with a quick death that you are not a soldier—you are a lowly engineer, and sneaking around in the shadows should be your modus operandi. In other words, run-and-gun gamers should not apply for a position with the Solarix corporation—this game is not for you. You’ll find nothing but frustration here. But for the mature, patient gamer, read on…

17The game is full of nice touches (especially for an indie). For example, as you hide from human enemies, you get to hear some of them muttering disgustedly or nervously to themselves—sometimes about starving, sometimes about various aches and pains, sometimes about fear of infection, and irritation at the dismal surroundings. “There’s one of them sneaking around here in the shadows with a weapon” you’ll hear them say about you. “I don’t want to die.” All of it feels very believable and urgent. To make their worse dreams come true, you are equipped with a number of weapons/tools to help you creep around—a flashlight (no batteries needed!), a pistol to take out light sources as to remain in the dark, a smoothbore rifle (in the second half of the game) for close encounters, a tazer which allows you to sneak behind enemies and (with a precision zap to the head) actually incapacitate them, and two hack devices to open doors and computer terminals.

18There are drawbacks to all of these: Using the flashlight too liberally makes you immediately visible to everyone—which means certain death. To wit, a handy, everpresent “how visible are you?” meter is nestled into the lefthand corner of the screen. The hack devices require very close proximity to your target and the process is not instantaneous—hacking, although automatic (no mini-games here), takes precious time—time enough for you to be discovered, yikes. The gun, of course, makes noise, and foes can hear it from pretty far away, so eliminating light sources must be done carefully. Ammo is also somewhat difficult to come by. Ostensibly, the pistol could be used to kill opponents, but I personally never used it for that due to the noise factor—most likely every sentry in an area would be on top of you within seconds. The tazer is finicky and, as mentioned, requires a close proximity to your target, as well as some careful aiming. Luckily, there are many highlighted items in the environment you can grab and toss to create distractions—when your enemies go in search of the disturbance, you can strike with your tazer from behind…or make your way safely in the other direction, your choice.

19But if you do attack, don’t leave that lifeless body just sitting there to be discovered by another enemy! Go ahead, pick that ragdoll up, and lug it slowly across the map to some dark corner and drop it (or, if you want, use the corpse as another source of distraction). And about moving through the maps: You spend almost the entire game crouching since it is noiseless. Thankfully the developers have left the crouching speed at a relatively good clip (actually it seems to be nearly the same speed as walking upright, but just without footstep sounds), so no worries about feeling like you are wading through quicksand the entire time. Just stay down and in the shadows!

20Now that we’ve parsed the narrative and nature of the action, you might be starting to draw some obvious comparisons to games of yore: If the “engineer navigating a devastated mining colony” premise sounds a bit like “Dead Space,” then okay. If the unreliable-yet-autonomous AI situation sounds a bit like “System Shock,” then so be it. If the stealth mechanic sounds like “Thief,” then you are getting the picture. This, indeed, has been the intent of Pulsetense Games all along—to create a title that hearkens back to some of these iconic games (some older than others), while reminding players that horror games can consist of much more than shallow, Slenderized, PG-13 jumpscares (which, as the latest trend, have definitely outstayed their welcome).

21Browsing online reviews of Solarix seems to reveal split decisions about how effective Pulsetense has been in paying homage to these foundational games and gene-splicing them. Personally, I loved “System Shock” and “Dead Space,” and I found that playing “Solarix” was equally fun (even though it lacks that triple-A cred.) Specifically though, it seems those reviewers who have built sacred altars to “Thief” (secretly tucked away in the corner of their gaming rooms) see “Solarix” as nothing but a pale imitator of that godlike experience. I can understand that reaction…but fortunately, I don’t fall into that category because I never played “Thief.” Yes, yes, and I know that foolish admission means I know absolutely nothing about games whatsoever. Fine, fine—so stop reading now. But the good news is that my previous non-experiences leave me absolutely free to enjoy “Solarix” as a fresh, new experience. (Well, I stashed a whole lotta heavy, unconscious bodies in “Deus Ex” too, but it’s all good exercise, right?)

22There are some fair criticisms to level at this game. For example, some players have complained that while the environments are massive (the game’s explanation is that the mining facility and space station were built to accommodate gigantic robotic machinery—definitely not a place for teensy, fragile humans to be wandering in), exploring these maps aren’t really rewarded in any material way—most of the nooks and crannies you discover are empty, which works against the narrative (which asks you to believe this is a living–well, dying—world).

23To add to this, some of those very nooks and crannies aren’t entirely safe—at several key points, I fell headlong through the world; there are many places where clipping occurs on the edges of these very big maps, and easily passing through the geometry will get you irretrievably lost…again for no real reward (other than having to load the last save). I suspect that many of these seams will eventually be duct-taped together so this doesn’t happen—although this is NOT a Steam Early Access game (it’s just a game, you know, like the olden days when games were just actual complete games), it is of course being regularly patched by the devs as of this writing (July 2015). Just beware that going off the beaten path in this game doesn’t reward you with much except accidental failure.

24Also, as of this writing, gamepads are not officially supported (yes, yes…if I were a real PC gamer, I wouldn’t even be discussing this, yadda, yadda…). But note that my old 360 controller worked fine natively in-game with just a little tweaking in the controls menu, which is how I played it; gamepad support has been promised in a future patch (currently it does not work within the menus themselves, so have your mouse handy). What else? Some have complained about the fact that players cannot save at will. Regarding the save system, it is location-checkpoint-based; this means that, although quicksaving is not an option, all you have to do is backtrack within any given map to trigger a save—this creates a lot of back-and-forth walking (and is probably not how the devs want you to play), but it is something I did often so as to not lose precious progress. (Yes, I’m a methodical player, no apologies.) I understand that checkpoint saves are a console-centric lameness that PC gamers must despise (or else you’re tossed out of the clubhouse), but I’ve never minded them personally; checkpoint-based saves can add significant tension to the proceedings, which I presume is the point here.

25Personally, I have one major criticism, a cautionary gripe that some players may want to consider before taking this ambitious title for a spin: The gameplay in “Solarix” seriously lacks variety. Sure, there are a number of alternative ways to accomplish a goal; as mentioned, you might shoot out light sources to allow you to take a more direct approach to your objective while remaining in darkness, or you may find a more circuitous route on the edge of the map not requiring you to destroy lights, or you might attempt to incapacitate a patrols in your way, or you might toss environmental items to create distractions. Unfortunately, when you consider these approaches, they are all essentially the same: avoidance.

26This in itself is fine, but sadly the game’s approach never changes; once you figure out which gameplay style works for you, even though the environments and enemies may be different, “Solarix” becomes a “wash, rinse, repeat” affair–other than one small section that requires you to use a Lebron-James-on-Flubber-like vertical leap to solve a puzzle. This low-gravity jumping section (which allows you to see the orbital station from almost a mile above—way cool!) is a fun, welcome change of pace, but it lasts much, much too briefly and only highlights how “one-note” the game ultimately is.

27As an example: I just finished dumping about 85 hours into “Dying Light” as I played the campaign cooperatively with my partner, including all side missions (not comparing these two games here by the way; this is just an example). I’ve found, almost like clockwork, right around the 40-hour mark in any game (Fallout, Borderlands, etc.), regardless of quality, my attention span starts to seriously wander. This same issue arose with “Solarix,” but it happened around the 10-hour mark. My restlessness was directly due to lack of variety in gameplay. For most of you, I’d say “Solarix” is about an 8- to 10-hour game, which is impressive for a small development team; I am notoriously slow as I (methodically) poke and prod around for screenshots and whatnot, so it took me about 15 hours to finish it, but it did become a bit of a repetitive slog during the last quarter or so.

28One complaint that I’ve seen in several reviews regards the scariness-factor of “Solarix.” Simply put, some players say that for a deep-space sneak-em-up horror game, it’s just not scary enough. As I mentioned previously, the developers are eschewing jumpscares on purpose (there are actually a few, but that’s not what this game is about). To respond to this criticism, I guess I’d say that like any game requiring you to reach objectives without being detected, “Solarix” does create sufficient tension. There were dozens of times where I clenched my teeth sneaking up on a foe to tazer him, wondering whether or not at any moment he would turn on his heels and pop me in the head (which, of course, happened repeatedly). Poor, weak Walter-the-engineer can get himself killed rather easily. That kind of tension works in my book.

29To add to this, the game does a pretty good job at developing a gloomy, unbalanced, alien, dangerous atmosphere. This comes through in the dark visuals (which, as a UDK [Unreal 3] game, are generally not breathtaking, but they are ambitious and they work more often than not), in the aforementioned sound design, and in the complicated narrative. (By the way, wanting to experience the end of the Walter’s story was the sole factor pushing me to complete the game, which is a testament to this title’s strongest suit—the narrative, by far.)

30While stealthily moving from point A to point B, you can’t help but wonder whether Walter’s actions (by your hand) are right or wrong. While the game is linear and the objectives are set, you really have no idea if everything will be okay—is Walter simply setting himself up to get infected, crushed, shot, or to be dominated by a nutty AI? While I wouldn’t say this falls into the black-and-white “scary” category, the story does not give “happy ending” reassurances and takes itself with deadly seriousness, which I (as a humorless oaf) prefer in games. (Edit: Now that I think back on it, was the 20-year-old “System Shock,” actually “scary” in the same way we might use that phrase today? Hmmm…).

31Actually, (as if this post weren’t long enough already) let me revise that last bit. I don’t want to overlook the fact that there are a few very well-placed jokes in the game, another testament to how effective the writing is here. (Humor is generally known to be one of the most difficult genres to write convincingly.) Here are three I remember: After a very long text-only (no voiceover) message from AMI telling Walter what he needs to accomplish, she ends the note by writing: “You’re not reading any of this, are you?” We, of course, know what attention-span-deficient-14-year-old gamer that barb is directed towards. Next: In an exchange with AMI found on a personal terminal of one male Solarix employee who has been eyeing a female colleague and is thinking about proposing (I’ll let you discover how the relationship unfolds), he asks a harmless question: “Can you get married on this ship?” AMI’s response is technically complex and lengthy, and as she proceeds, it seems like AMI thinks she herself is being proposed to: “I cannot obtain the rights of marriage without first obtaining a tangible, organic body for exclusive use, whether as an avatar or chassis.” In other words: Yes, I could get married, but at the moment, I’m only a computer program without a physical body. Duh. In response, the dude corrects her by saying, “No, I mean can anyone get married? Not just you.” And AMI responds with a curt, “I know what you meant.” Nicely done.

32Lastly, while less of a joke and more of a self-aware jab, there is a poignant “exchange” between monotone AMI and mute Walter (which is clearly an homage to the Freeman [of the Gordon variety] who has had such a massive influence on all things gaming): After going through hell and high water to repair her, Walter is finally standing in front of the mainframe computer which houses AMI. With her large, eyeless, distorted, unanimated face looming above you, she gives you a string of final orders to complete the game. And, right as you turn around to head to the next objective, she says: “Walter, wait. You are capable of speech, yet you remain silent. I…dislike this profoundly. I need you to talk to me. Show me that you understand the implications of your actions. Inform me when I make a poor decision. Talk to me. I can’t do this alone.” It is an exceedingly interesting moment that almost breaks the fourth wall: Will we hear Walter’s voice? Should I, as the player, say or do something? If I could I would, but of course I can’t. I’m restricted to the confines of the game; I can only use the tools the game has given me. And that means, sadly, that my relationship with AMI is a wordless one. And you turn, silently, and continue your duties. I have to say, for me, this is a first. Super cool.

33Game philosophy aside, let me say a few things about the sound design of the game. If you’ve bothered reading any of the overly long posts on this crappy blog (and, honestly, I don’t see why anyone would), on several occasions I’ve explicitly said I rarely critique soundtracks of games. Why? Well, I wouldn’t call myself a music snob, but I do “compose” music (of the electronic variety) and have had several CDs published and distributed nationally; some of my tracks have been licensed for films and television shows (yes, for real money—for example, HBO’s “The Sopranos” BTW—and trust me when I say no one could ever seriously make a living at it). (Edit: Apologies for the bragging, but I’m just establishing some ethos here for my following argument.] Anyway, it’s difficult to sonically impress me, and often the endless music loops comprising most OSTs irritate me within minutes…so my first move when gaming is to find the music level slider in the options menu (praying to the gods there is one!) and push it all the way down. Ahhhh….relief!

34So take my word for it when I say the “music” in Solarix works well. More like low-key industrial ambient meanderings than actual songs per se, the soundtrack is appropriately sinister in tone—dark metal clangs in the far distance, steam hisses miles above your head, and cold synthetic tones emanate from who-knows-where, all of it wafting in and around every corner. But more importantly, the ambient “music” is so subtle, quiet, and environmentally sensible that any irritating “looping effect” (which drives me simply insane with most games) is pretty damn difficult to detect. (Editorial note: I did find that during the second half of the game, the soundtrack seems to become a bit more jarring, less “integrated” (if that makes any sense), and repetitive; additionally, lowering the volume in the menu during the second part of the game did not seem to have an effect [even after restarting], which may be something that needs addressing in a patch.) Interestingly, at the request of players, the developers have made the soundtrack available to download for free (check Solarix’s community hub in Steam)—what a nice group of guys. Hummable? No. Danceable? No. Personally, I wouldn’t boot this up on my car sound system for a pizza run. However, in the context of the game? A definite thumbs up.

35I’ll say nothing too revelatory about the quite serious ending, except that ultimately you are not who you think you are and you’ve been absent from the picture for much longer than you know, AMI is not who you think she is and she feels very differently about you than she has let on, Gregory Hart is not necessarily the scumbag he’s been portrayed as, and Betty…oh, there’s a definite reason why Betty knows you as intimately as she does…and she has a very good reason to be screaming angry.

36Interestingly, after the dust settled on the game, I saw it in a completely different light: Sure, “Solarix” includes alien planets and space stations and viruses and monstrosities, but ultimately these are just stage dressing. Instead, “Solarix” is actually about five doomed characters—Walter, AMI, Gregory, Betty, and The Eye—all of whom are stranded in the midst of a terrible tragedy. Play this? Yes, play this. Just keep your expectations in check (actually, ALWAYS keep your expectations in check regardless of what you’re playing). While Solarix most assuredly is a study in depress-o-vision, it delivers an interesting tale with sad, quirky characters who just might visit your darkest dreams when you least expect it. Yay indies!

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