The Solus Project is a much-hyped game that gained a rash of followers after its Early Access release in February 2016. Hailed as an innovation, it tracks the lone survivor of a crash, on a planet that can definitely support life, but may be harboring something sinister. Players must scavenge supplies found in the environment, as well as the wreckage, in order to survive and find a way out of their predicament. The developers call it the spiritual successor to The Ball.
After such hype, a great trailer, and good Steam reviews, I was ready to dive in and have my face rocked. [I know I’m late to the party, but I feel obligated to warn that there are small game spoilers in this review.]
The Solus Project (the actual in-game namesake) is tasked with finding a habitable planet for the displaced citizens of Earth, who’ve all been relegated to a safe zone called The Prolus Colony, in the vicinity of Pluto. This occurs after a rogue class-B star traveled toward Earth and destroyed it; the mass exodus began in the 36 years between the discovery of the star and the actual destruction of the planet. Five ships were actually given the “find a home” order, but the game focuses on just one (Solus 3).
The opening cinematic shows the Solus 3 group traveling toward Gliese 6143-C – after a single projectile strikes it, the ship blows up, and you manage to get into a pod and escape, crash-landing on this world as the only survivor. You’re guided by a PDA that serves as a sort of tutorial and objective device, telling you what to do and where to go. Body temperature, hydration, health, and the environmental stats are also tracked on this, which turns out to be the game’s HUD. This system is extremely sensitive, and you must walk a tightrope when you play on higher difficulties, because it’s easy to reach the panic point, where so much is failing in a domino effect that you’re just screwed. This information can be changed from metric to Imperial units, which I, as an American who didn’t really want to try to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit in my head, found helpful.
Graphically, The Solus Project is great. The atmospheric events were particularly nice, with the stars, weather, and astronomical events lending a very real feeling of loneliness to the whole affair. I actually died when the first weather anomaly happened, because I was too busy admiring the opposite direction, and didn’t make it completely into my home cave in time to avoid the giant tornado that sucked me back out. The controls are easy (and you can set custom key bindings, anyway), so they don’t detract from the visual experience. The world is enormous, as well – lots to do, lots of secrets to find, and you never really run out of things to look at. It is a narrative game, however, so you do have a set path. I also loved the sound design. It was so cheesy, but it fit the game really well. Electronic beeps with robotic voices, and an undercurrent of tense music with environmental sounds bearing the brunt of the emotional toll – that’s really all I require from a game’s soundscape.
As far as the technical aspects in the world, there are artifacts and odd ship parts that increase different stats (such as hypothermia resistance, stamina increase, etc.), a teleport pad that is required to reach certain places, and a beacon that’s set to lead back to points of interest. Several parts of the ship crashed down to provide these things, as well as additional food and water to help with the beginning of the journey. I had to learn how to live off the land, however, and the focus on survival is more of a focus on how you can use what’s in the immediate area. There are a number of ways to die (I clearly won a Darwin award), but exposure seems to be the biggie. A nearly constant temperature fluctuation requires the use of several tools to keep the body temperature steady, and because of this constant flux, mixed with the need to eat, drink, and sleep, things get stressful even in an easier adventure difficulty.
I don’t know how I can possibly describe what happens in The Solus Project without using up even more words than I usually do, but the whole “spiritual successor” thing with The Ball? Try “giant additional piece of the same puzzle.” I never finished The Ball, but I watched a complete playthrough a number of years ago, and suddenly remembered the oddest details that helped flesh out The Solus Project a bit toward the end. There are bits of story and research (hidden in areas that attempt to usher you out quickly) that directly tie the relationship, but there is still some guesswork to figure out the exact references, despite the ending (which made the intent of the discoveries pretty damned clear). There were so many structures, and for being a planet way off in the BFE portion of the galaxy, a disturbing number of them look like they could have been found on Earth.
The devs say you don’t encounter monsters, but let me just go ahead and tell you that you need to stay on your toes in the cave levels. The constant unsettling feeling is spurred by the existence of what appeared to be a mass genocide, with something (someone?) using new materials to carry out old rituals (going into details here would be a bit too spoilery, but dude). Something horrible clearly happened, and the quest to find out what it was seemed just as important to me as getting off of the planet. At times, The Solus Project did feel more like a scavenger hunt than a game, where “trudging” would be a more apt term. Abusing the teleport pad was a favorite pastime of mine during those points. The caves made up for it by giving me the creeps, which is good incentive to hurry, even without being “encouraged” by a threatening presence.
Through it all, I kept hearing, though my little HUD device, bits and pieces of how the human population was closer and closer to the brink of self-destruction; the pressure toward completion continued to build. The communication tower was finished, a connection was established and then…ugh. I seriously didn’t like the literal last-minute story-ending cinematic. It felt like an homage to The Twilight Zone without the actual mind-twisting uncertainty – it was more like, “Okay, I guess…?” I can’t give it away to those who haven’t played (or watched) it, but I felt as though it was was too neatly-wrapped as compared to the mounting horror the game seemed to be building. As always, your mileage may vary. It obviously bothered me enough to devote space to it in an otherwise glowing review.
I will say this: The time I spent playing it was not wasted just because I didn’t like the tail end of a game that lasts somewhere around 12-16 hours for those who just trot straight through it, and significantly longer for those who take the time to explore the areas and find all of the secrets (there are over 150 of them). This is one of the more achievement-hunter-oriented games I’ve seen, and hardcore hunters could potentially spend a day’s worth of hours replaying just to find everything.
The Solus Project is well worth your time if you have any inclination toward sci-fi and survival. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Kholat. And obviously, yes, if you liked The Ball, then you should check it out.