by Murray Lewis
reviewed on PC
It seems like the horror genre has been unfairly sullied in recent years, thanks to a tide of games targeted at the Let's Play crowd. You know the drill – navigate a maze of corridors with only a flashlight for company, collect items, and avoid the scary monster. Throw in regular jump scares and a paper-thin plot, doled out through scraps of paper or audio logs, and you've got nearly every indie horror game of the last two years. Here's something a little different, though. Not content to just go with the Zeitgeist, Pulsetense Games have taken the brave step of attempting to match the style of AAA sci-fi horror efforts with new release Solarix. It's a gamble to go against the flow on an indie budget, but can the end result revitalize the genre, or will it be left gasping for air?
A Familiar World
The story follows the adventures of an engineer, fighting for his life after a mysterious infection wipes out the entire crew of a research outpost. Sound familiar? Yes, it's pretty much the exact same set-up as EA's Dead Space. Throw in a very System Shock-esque rogue AI, and it soon becomes clear that the plot is a patchwork quilt of familiar titles. But it's not without its own twists too, as mercenaries and psychological mind-games are added to the mix from the outset.
The story isn't anything to get excited about, and there are no surprises for anyone who has familiarity with the genre. Such as it is, it's unfurled through a combination of radio conversations and audio logs – it's a shame they didn't try something new here. The hidden-object search manages to stretch out the gameplay for players interested in finding it all, but it's hardly a reason to explore in itself. Fortunately, the environments are often so brilliantly atmospheric that exploration is its own reward. Nearly every area in the game shows real craft in creating an immersive, dark sci-fi world. The ambiance is like Aliens meets Doom, with future-industrial complexes and claustrophobic, neon-lit corridors.
The generally high quality means that the flaws in level design are even more obvious when they do crop up, and I encountered several. The most common problem is how easy it is to stumble into unintended areas of a level. It's almost as if the maps were designed before the 'jump' feature was added, as it's laughably easy to leap into an area where the level design just stops. You find yourself in a barren world of black textures and angular polygons, and there's not always an obvious way back out into the 'real game' again.
What Was That Sound?
Solarix markets itself as allowing for both a combative and stealthy play-style, but in practice only the latter is a viable option, and even that requires a pretty lax definition of stealth. A stun gun obtained early on functions much like the blackjack in the Thief series, dealing an instant knock-out blow if you can get close enough to smack an enemy in the back of the head with it. It's easier said than done, depending on the enemy type, so can't always be relied upon.
In levels with mostly human enemies, though, Solarix turns into an almost comical caricature of the modern stealth-action genre. Sneak about, beat an enemy unconscious, drag the body into the shadows, then rinse and repeat until you finish the level or get bored. It's a disappointingly trite gameplay loop, but one that you can't help falling into because it works so well. If you're more combat-minded, you do get access to a pistol. Though, it's a puny affair, useful only for knocking out lights, and ammo is scarce. You can forget tackling enemies with it – you can end up wasting half your ammunition before they go down. I did manage to get a single-shot kill at one point, but only once the AI had managed to get itself trapped in a corner, and I could never recreate the feat later, so I put it down to a fluke.
Sadly, the AI in this game is beyond wonky. In fact, it's broken in the most fundamental sense, and might as well stand for 'artificial incompetence.' Enemies in Solarix are so blind they would qualify for a discounted TV licence. They're unlikely to spot you unless you stand directly in front of them, wave your arms like a lunatic, and set your flashlight to strobe mode, at which point they get rather upset and chase you for a bit. Not to worry, as you can outrun every single enemy in the game, and once you get a short distance away they just give up and act like they never saw you. There were a couple of occasions where all I had to do was leap over a small box to escape. How such enormously broken AI was deemed 'finished' is beyond me, and it completely wrecks the game's carefully crafted atmosphere.
An indie attempt to take Dead Space's crown? It was a brave attempt, but ultimately Solarix is a game with many flaws; some forgivable, but some utterly ruinous. The core concept, while unoriginal, is at least interesting, and it's backed up by a broadly well-realized world. Sadly, the whole thing is scuppered by the absolutely comical AI, which single-handedly removes all tension from the game and transforms it from moody sci-fi horror into disappointing nonsense, frustrating and unintentionally hilarious in equal measures.
Great atmosphere, attractive visuals
Poor AI, combative approach unviable, uninspired premise