When I originally heard about The Solus Project, I envisioned a science-fiction take on survival horror title The Forest, which drops you into a large forest (surprising, right?) after a devastating plane crash. The objective, in addition to continued survival, is to find your son—who just so happens to have been kidnapped by the cannibal-mutant inhabitants. Once you’re released onto the island, the game is largely open. Exploration is encouraged by a survival loop driven by increasingly aggressive mutants and biological necessities such as thirst and hunger.
I expected the same from The Solus Project. The game starts off similarly; a text crawl informs you of the set-up, that a rogue star on a collision course with the Earth caused humanity to evacuate our home planet in three colony ships. You are a member of the crew of a scout ship tasked with finding a suitable planet to colonize. This text crawl establishes influences on The Solus Project; homages to Star Trek and Interstellar are present. We then cut to a scene of the scout ship being blasted out of the upper atmosphere of a planet by a laser. Things get tough real fast.
You pop out of an orbital evacuation pod and emerge into an alien world, filled with colour and life. The goal is to both survive the elements and contact the rest of the fleet. That’s where most similarities to The Forest end.
The Solus Project is a linear exploration game, with simple crafting and survival mechanics to add another level of game-play to what is, for the most part, a walking simulator. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of game—Gone Home is one of the best virtual experiences of this decade. Survival in Solus basically comes down to managing several bars (hunger, thirst, tiredness, temperature, and wetness) and making sure they don’t run down, or become imbalanced. I had very little issue in keeping up with these bars, which meant that they felt like more of a nuisance than something integral to the actual game; the few times I ended up taking damage due to negligence of the survival mechanics, I was able to restore most of the health lost through sleeping after fixing the problem.
The survival elements should have either been ramped up or turned off. Solus wants to make you feel like a desperate, stranded survivor clinging to life. This is undermined by the ease of the planet’s survivability. The best use of the survival elements come in the awe-inspiring weather events that happen seemingly at random: vast tornadoes bearing down on the island, lightning exploding and crackling in the sky, a meteor storm crashing around you. Sadly, the best solution is to haul ass to a nearby cave or building and wait the storm out.
Through the exploration, we quickly discover that humans are not alone in the universe, coming across temples deep in cave systems, and ruins scattered about the landscape. You encounter humanoid skeletons and eerie alien texts that seem to depict a creation myth—or, perhaps, something darker. The story and world-building discovered in these ruins isn’t anything fresh to someone well-versed in science fiction worlds, but putting together pieces of the puzzle through abstract messages and tomes is eminently satisfying. Exploring these ruins is moody and tense, aided by an ominous, Alien-esque soundtrack.
Sounds echo through the caves, increasing expectations of an encounter with something dark and terrible just around the corner. Often, these expectations are subverted; most of the temples involve simplistic physics puzzles relating to item weight or character positioning. These puzzles aren’t complicated, and often I beat them through brute force rather than a deliberate solution. However, the game successfully builds tension through its pacing and has a few terrifying pay-offs.
All of this is assisted by serviceable graphics. They’re neither great nor bad, but the developers have managed to build a realistic alien world that really gives a sense of desolate loneliness to the player character, perhaps the last human left alive in the universe. The alien world looks familiar-yet-alien, even if it doesn’t quite match the abstract, stylised grandeur of some of the worlds in No Man’s Sky, instead opting for a realistic, terrestrial colour palette to play around with. The cave systems are creepy and claustrophobic, aided by fantastic sound design. The Solus Project, at times, made me feel truly uneasy.
However, there are some issues with the game that broke this immersion. The momentum from the introduction is immediately culled due to ineffective tutorialisation. The game’s systems and mechanics are simplistic, but the game doesn’t really tell you anything. After about half an hour of messing around with the game’s controls and crafting mechanics, I decided to restart and get going faster, in part due to the initial time pressures of the survival bars and the game’s day/night system.
There are very few animations for crafting or interacting with the world; smash two rocks together, and a sharp rock pops out of thin air. For a survival game, animations would aid immersion and make the protagonist more physical. Instead, they feel like a ghost, changing the world invisibly.
The character, who does have a voice, speaks rarely, and barely mentions anything they’ve seen so far. It’s a baffling misstep in character immersion. Anyone would have reacted with awe and fear to the relics of an ancient civilization—except our main character, apparently.
There are technical issues, especially at the start of the game. I ran into frame slowdown and stuttering—nothing horrible, but it was there. The load times are extremely long for a modern release.
Finally, the PS4 release has VR compatibility. I only played the introduction of the game in VR, but the game feels somewhat unfinished in its VR implementation. Unlike the normal game, you can only play this version with Move controllers. These are forever visualized in the game. This leads to goofy moments where elements of the controllers poke through some of the items you pick up. The environments are low-resolution. The protagonist is even more ghostly in VR, as movement is handled by teleportation or floating forwards with a button press.
Ultimately, The Solus Project is a good game. It’d be better if it decided to be either a survival game or a sci-fi walking simulator, but the game’s merits outweigh its failings.