The Final Frontier
In the 2014 Christopher Nolan film Interstellar, the human race is on the brink of extinction and sends a crew to the other side of the galaxy to check the viability of a few distant planets we’d sent scouts to explore previously. It turns out not all of the planets were as nice as they looked from back home, and some of the scouts had a very, very bad time. In a way, The Solus Project feels like a spiritual prequel to Interstellar. Instead of drought and famine, a pesky rogue star decided to wander its way into the solar system we call home. Luckily humanity was able to flee to a temporary home around Pluto on massive capital ships, but without renewable resources it’s only a matter of time until the light of humanity slowly fades. That is, unless you can do something about it. You board a ship sent out the the distant reaches of the solar system purposed with scouting promising plants for potential human habitation. Of course things go awry, and after a meteor crashes your ship the game starts you as the lone survivor on a strange planet surface among the wreckage of your once mighty vessel.
Stranger in a Strange Land
About a month and a half ago I did an Early Access preview for The Solus Project, and at that point it was already a nearly complete game. It was already brimming with scale and wonder, and I looked forward to the last touches of content and polish. Thankfully this space pie came out of the over perfectly baked, with the final release putting just the right touches on an already appealing dish.
The Solus Project may fit into a few different genres at different points, all equally satisfying, but it begins as a fairly straightforward survival game, and you’ll need to start taking care of yourself right away. When you first wake up things seem pretty overwhelming, although, to be fair, crash landing on an alien planet probably wouldn’t be the most comforting experience. Luckily you’ve got an AI/computer program partner in your head that can help you out a little bit, but your first immediate concern pertains to the data sheet on your wrist. This is where you’ve able to view your vitals, including such things as hunger and thirst levels, body temperature, and tiredness. I love not having to pull up a windowed menu every few minutes, which goes a long way towards selling the immersion. However, I also wish there was at least a little bit of tutorial for dealing with the survival elements to help players get a hang of what they’re expected to do to survive. I figured it out eventually, but I died a few times of temperature and hunger because the system isn’t always the most intuitive until you know what you’re doing.
If you're looking to really lose yourself in the game, The Solus Project also supports virtual reality headsets. There’s was a fair amount of controversy about its implementation, which, at first, was frustratingly unpolished and unreliable, but at its current state the game plays pretty well. I had a few issues with the UI and some text readability, but it’s at least in a spot not that’s more functional than not, and the developers have been very transparent about their awareness of the issues and continuing efforts to polish the VR experience.
Like most survival games, crafting does play a fairly large part in The Solus Effect, but it’s been simplified to a more logical level that some more complicated systems. It’s also not the main focus. This is first and foremost a narrative experience, not just a sandbox asking you to survive. You won’t be spending all of your time hunting for crates of resources or rare minerals to craft tools of higher quality. Instead you’ll be combining things like a metal rod, dry brush, and oil for a torch, or hitting two rocks together to make a sharp rock. It’s all very logical, so much so that I did most a lot of it before being prompted to. For example, early in the game, you need to make one of the aforementioned torches. Before my digital assistant had to ask me to make it, I was in a cave. I had a metal rod from the crash, and thought “hmm, can I stick some of that dead plant on the end?” Indeed I could.
Then I wandered around outside and found one of the giant rocket engines from my crashed ship still blasting propellant at the beach. I pulled out the unlit torch, held it out, and it lit. This is obviously a very simple example, but most all of the crafting just works, like you’d expect it to in real life. It’s nice when you can use your creativity and instincts with navigation, crafting, and puzzle solving instead of trying to memorize game systems and arbitrary blueprints. Because it isn’t complicated or particularly difficult, crafting positions itself in your mental peripherals, acting as a tool to help you explore and survive instead of something you need to focus a lot of your time and effort on. Eventually you’ll establish yourself enough that the survival crafting elements kind of fade away in favor of other things, keeping them from ever overstaying their welcome.
A Whole New World
The Solus Project is an incredibly beautiful game. From a strict graphic fidelity standpoint it’s “good,” but the world design and presentation elevate it above most other survival adventure games I’ve played. The flora and fauna is familiar, but just alien enough to make you feel out of place. The various debris crash sites are fairly unique and alive. You’ll hear strange noises you can investigate. You’ll see more debris crashing down from the sky off in the distance that you can go find. There are nasty storms and some quakes. It very much feels like you’re wandering around a living, breathing place instead of a static map with a few interactive bits. This being the case, exploring is really quite fun. While you’ll have to spend a fairly considerable amount of your time in the beginning just trying to survive the elements and your bodily needs, you’ll eventually find new equipment that gives you resistances and increased durability, letting you focus more on exploration and working through the game’s narrative (which takes some sharp, satisfying turns into creepier things). The only areas that weren't quite as fun to explore are the underground caves and temples, which were a bit more repetitive. They could be pretty creepy, but they lacked some of the “aliveness” that other places had. Overall, there’s plenty to uncover, and I genuinely became invested in what was going on, even if some of the narrative payoffs were more exciting than others.
A Bold, Cold World
Survival games seem to be a dime dozen recently, but The Solus Project is doing enough differently to earn its place in gamers’ libraries. Crafting is logical, the environment is interesting enough to make you want to explore it, and there’s a nice balance between exploration and survival that make both feel important with slogging down the other. I genuinely enjoyed learning more about what was going on with humanities new potential homeword, and the story kept me wanting more. Add on that this is one of the more full-featured and engrossing games available for the HTC Vive and Oculus, and you’ve got a winner on your hands.
Engrossing setting, some great awe-inspiring moments, fun crafting, and an engaging narrative that shifts tone and focus throughout the game.
Some of the underground environments became rather repetitive and less fun to explore than others.