REVIEW: Solstice Chronicles: MIA ?

This is what happens in my house when I sit at the PC, and everyone else wanted a turn first.

It’s you and the grimy overheated cannons transfixed to your white knuckle grips. Then before you a sea of mottled flesh, claws, and snarling fangs a view that only last for seconds. Soon their exploding masses and squeals of agony echo with flashes of light with waves of flames. There is a certain appeal to the “against all odds” synopsis, even if it is guilty of being far too common. Solstice Chronicles: MIA is a spinoff chapter of Red Solstice, but instead of managing a squad in a tactical game, the focus is now on just one desperate soldier fighting the impossible. Does this game’s varied elements gel together to stand apart?¬†While the twin stick shooter market is more crowded than a Denny’s Senior Discount breakfast, SC:M pushes some of the competition off the bingo table with it’s intriguing mix of genre staples as well as some unique technical features. There are so many crude and rushed elements to this game that it threatens to obscure the solid qualities it brings. Fortunately, the whole is worth more than the sum of it’s parts.

It’s you and a whole lot of dusty nothing. Did I mentioned the zillions of mutants trying to nibble on your gushy gizzards?
Not only did this fugly dude not wash his hands, it’s clear he didn’t flush.

The Solstice series take place on the planet Mars, after humankind has brought Earth to ruins due to something known as the STROL virus. Instead of finding peace and a new beginning, the same viral outbreak and civil infighting has turned Mars into a new wasteland. You play a sole marine, left behind as two warring factions escape the colony. Action elements are controlled twin stick style, but with several strategic options mixed in to make each encounter a defensive stand versus your typical twin stick mindless firing. There are also standard RPG customization options, including choosing a combat class, and applying skill points to any number of categories that enhance your particular play style.

With the many varied techniques game designers have used over the years to ease players into their game it can come as shock when a game’s tutorial or instructions are missing or broken. For Solstice Chronicles, its training wheels are mired in concrete. Its tutorial elements for this game are presented haphazardly and suffer from translation mishaps; it is the biggest detractor to the enjoyment of this title. How does Survival mode work? Where do you extract? How do you use each weapon and skill for each class? What do you do when you get to the power generator?

The perplexing tutorial and confusing level mechanics are also met with uninspired and insipid cutscenes. These scenes attempt to inter-stitch the levels you are traversing, but most of it feels amateurish and rushed. Saffron, the drone who becomes your sidekick is particularly irritating. The banter that goes on between the soldier and the drone will mean little to the viewer; as there is no established context to care about insurgents, corporations, or even the STROL virus.

Prepare to find yourself cornered and pooped on by the Mars version of the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man many, many, times.

Finally, there is one game mechanic I couldn’t make heads or tails of, and that’s the Threat Indicator. The explanation for this very noticeable scaling bar isn’t even mentioned until several levels of the Story mode have gone by, yet it affects all aspects of gameplay. In theory, activating power generators, scouting with your drone, laying down nuclear size explosions, all increase your threat levels and thus increase the amount of enemies that spawn and hunt you down. In practice however, it doesn’t really work that way. Regardless what you are doing you will always progress from the fast moving, easy to kill, land crawler types to the fat bullet soaking Behemoths, and then the armored hounds and beyond. It doesn’t matter if your threat level is Low, Medium, or Extreme, these Behemoths will choke a level in no time. Taking them out is a waste of ammunition, but allowing them to stay on the map means they spawn more enemies, essentially choking you out of existence. It’s like handing someone trapped in a burning building a fire extinguisher, that is half filled with napalm. However, gamers who have persistence and patience can be rewarded with some exciting combat moments.

Saffron excels at making little sense, while being highly unfunny.

There’s plenty of good gaming to be found within Solstice. The opening level highlights what works very well. With plentiful plumes of fire, sparks, bullets, and blood commensurate with the mayhem players unleash. There is a constant feeling of desolation thanks to the dusty winds, the long cast shadows of twisted branches, and lithe blades of grass That crawl in parallel to your flashlight’s movements. Controls feel smooth and efficient with a keyboard and mouse (more so than with standard controllers). Weapons project a cone of effective radius rather than requiring ultra precise aim. Each weapon may have higher area cones to denote more focused accuracy, but otherwise, it is simple and clear to understand: If it’s standing in the red target area, it’s going to get pumped full of lead. At it’s core, this game is a solid twin stick shooter both visually, and with the amounts of items and options you can tinker with for your character.

During the first few missions after selecting your class, it becomes clearer how the formula of scouting, exploring, and defense has a congruent flow as you progress through levels. This gameplay element is compounded in cooperative play with a friend. As mentioned scouting helps players easily find items in a set area around the player. These items can be found by walking around every square inch of the map, this is simply not possible with the aforementioned mutant overpopulation problem. Adding more points into drone scouting can begin to yield important upgrades to your suit’s defense and damage abilities, but attracts unwanted attention. It becomes a careful and strategic tightrope for players and one of the more intriguing aspects of Solstice Chronicles.

This customization screen doesn’t appear until later in the game, and chock full of options that need to be combed over.
I think the ground is trying to tell us something.

The best parts of Solstice involve creating your own mini Sparta fortresses, and then waiting for the onslaught of enemies to arrive. Using the drone to deploy barricades, turrets and mine traps, and then activating the scout, or power generator and letting the fireworks fly is very satisfying. Equally so, is knowing when to give up your endeavor and rush out of there before the truly massive enemies trap you in a room. Even with the flawed enemy spawn system, and confusing threat bar, it was very satisfying working with a partner to quickly deploy a maze of death and destruction just to buy a few seconds to escape with our precious goodies. A seemingly droll dusty outcropping of stone and rocks, can turn into a key defensive stand in an instant simply because of the immediate bottleneck you can create with your other abilities. Including dropping turrets, and barricades to restrict enemy movements, as well as other mines and traps that stun or disorient foes.

No matter what else is wrong with this game in its current state, there’s something to be said about just setting everything on fire and blowing everything up.

Another intriguing aspect of Solstice is that it comes built in with Tobii Eye Tracking support. While Tobii is still a niche game enhancing product, there is a growing community of gamers that love what it offers. Solstice does feature one of the best Tobii implementations right out of the box, as your eyes help scan the horizon for oncoming enemies. Not only then but it is very useful for seeing what is coming next, and where there is a potential place to stop and drop defenses and continue. Once I got used to playing with eye tracking, it was difficult to do without its advantages (although not required by any means).

There’s another reason why Solstice merits serious consideration for your game library, and that is developer Ironward’s constant activity on Steam’s forums. I was surprised to see them responding multiple times (even daily, at times) to user questions. For example, while keyboard and mouse play is absolutely solid, there are some issues when trying to play with dual controllers (Update: As of earlier this day, the dual controller patch has already gone live, and is toggled in the main menu options). Developers have been active on Steam’s forums, and immediately released an alpha patch for testing dual controllers. It is clear that this is a smaller indie release, but with this kind of developer support, it is sure to score big points with many gamers. Solstice Chronicles: MIA is a flawed game, seemingly more charcoal briquette than diamond in the rough at times. Still, with polish, a patch or three, and some time it could be a fantastic addition to any twin stick shooter or top down action RPG fan’s library. Even in its current state, the game distinguishes itself with a strong emphasis on stalwart defenses mixed with frantic escapes, and can be difficult to put down once you get into the rhythm of it all.