A failed Kickstarter from an inexperienced team trying to recreate three of the top games of all time? What could go wrong?
Disclaimer: I backed Solarix on Kickstarter. However as that Kickstarter was unsuccessful they never got my money so it shouldn’t matter, but what does matter is the timing. Now people stupidly complain when successful Kickstarter games miss their original release dates, but what about failed Kickstarters that still somehow meet their release dates? That’s actually worrying, and when you have a pitch as ambitious as Pulsetense Games’ with Solarix it’s even more so.
The story goes like this: on a planet in deep space, your character Walter is awakened to find his colony wiped out by a mysterious virus and the majority of the residents transformed into surprisingly fast shambling corpses. As the remaining military attempts to “contain” the infection, the ship’s AI AMI guides you through the Solarix facility, but she herself is under attack by a mysterious ancient artifact called ‘The EYE’ that seems to be the cause of all this death.
In the storyline description alone you probably noticed System Shock, Half-Life, and Dead Space as inspirations, but the game itself is mostly a cross between Thief, System Shock and Deus Ex. You probably now also get why I was so interested in Solarix. Those are some of my favourite games of all time and the mere thought of a game attempting to combine them all has me wet around the ankles. Unfortunately the Kickstarter failed in August 2014, but now in May 2015, less than a year later, it’s out anyway. While I acknowledge that Pulsetense had been working on Solarix for three years before the Kickstarter and the campaign was just to get “improvement money”, that still seems a tight turnaround for a game supposedly struggling for cash.
If this were a 2D adventure game I wouldn’t be too worried, but this is an Unreal-powered 3D stealth/shooter trying to recreate and combine some of the greatest games ever made. It will surprise no one then that Pulsetense have been too ambitious for their own good. I don’t decry their ambition, but the team obviously didn’t have the experience, time or funds necessary to fully realise it. Solarix is full of great ideas but is massively flawed, buggy as hell and isn’t anywhere near as good as any of the games it’s inspired by.
Sticking with the good things to start with, the story is pretty entertaining. It is literally a combination of Half-Life, System Shock, and Dead Space but it’s done fairly well, with intriguing side-stories, a suspicious AI, and a mad masked woman named Betty spouting fun nonsensical dialogue over your radio. Then as soon as The EYE starts piping up like SHODAN and Betty’s sneaking around offing people unseen in the Megalodon space station it gets even more interesting. Furthermore despite being one of Pulsetense’s reasons to go on Kickstarter, the voice acting is actually pretty convincing, especially when the only non-audio log people who talk to you are a mad woman and two damaged computers. Betty in particular is a delight, and the robotic voices of AMI and the EYE work very well.
The audio in general is good, with creepy sounds echoing down hallways and grunts talking to themselves and sounding like they’re halfway between staunch loyalty to their commander and blowing their brains out. The Unreal Engine 3 graphics are very straightforward but the dark, dingy atmosphere and jutting metal buildings keep things feeling like the horror game Pulsetense were aiming for.
Aiming for that is, but didn’t achieve. Despite setting the audio and graphics to “maximum creepiness” Solarix just isn’t scary. This entirely comes down to expectations. Pulsetense have basically removed most guns from the game, put in a focus on stealth, depowered your character, have strange eerie noises and drench the game in darkness, but it’s not enough. The monsters just aren’t scary, and this isn’t just because their designs are very dull (which they are) but because they never do anything unexpected. They’ll always pace back and forth over the same area and if they run after you you’ll always be faster than them, and they’ll never appear at some shocking moment or crawl through a vent or anything. You’ll see every enemy coming, because they’ll just be wandering slowly about. Boring.
The sneaking is similarly substandard as Walter moves far too slow when crouching, which you have to do all the time otherwise enemies will hear you miles away, and the Thief/Splinter Cell-style Light Meter doesn’t always work properly. Furthermore Solarix is utterly unfinished, or at least highly underpolished. Enemy AI is awful for starters, as enemies alternate between walking the same patch over and over again or searching in a highly useless manner. Or killing you, which will probably happen often, at which point you discover the location-based save system is atrocious - and in one instance for me didn’t actually save at all through two checkpoints, even though the game told me it did.
It is also hideously buggy. Enemies can go through walls, your character will get stuck on everywhere and everything, areas that you should be able to go to are blocked for some reason, sometimes things just won’t work which is particularly bad when it comes to your freakin’ guns, and at one point I randomly died for no reason at all.
I could put up with all this, but the final nail in Solarix’s coffin is the biggest: the design. I’m sorry to say this Pulsetense, but it’s awful. I’ve mentioned the dull monster designs, but despite the creepiness I praised Solarix on previously the world is all pretty uninteresting to look at. Progression is mostly linear despite the game’s best efforts to seem open, but this linearity gets hammered home with the pointless, dull backtracking which happens for no apparent reason other than padding, with no surprises in store to offset the tedium. Exploring is actively discouraged as dead ends are everywhere and there’s never anything to discover, so it’s always a shock when something interactive actually bothers to show up. Even things as simple as item placing are screwed up: why is the keycard for a locked door in a box next to the door, and why does that ammo depot feature a single health pack but no ammo whatsoever?
The developer’s heart is in the right place, but Solarix just isn’t very good. It tries to be a horror-focused stealth game but mucks up everything except the story. Level and monster design is pathetic, enemy AI is poor, and everything is predictable which removes all the horror. Finally the game is buggy as all hell so any fun that Solarix’s story offers (which is admittedly definitely there) is wiped out the third or fourth time the player gets stuck in a wide open corridor or by pressing the crouch button. Once Solarix has had massive patches up the ying-yang it might be worth a punt, but the poor level design, dull stealth and lack of distinct surprises will still suck out all the fun, not to mention the scares. I don’t know if the Kickstarter funds would’ve helped matters, but Solarix’s overambitions are the death of it. Shame.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Getting to the Megalodon space station, turning off the gravity and jumping around like… wait, wouldn’t you just float without gravity on?
Good vs Bad
- The story's interesting and is quite well told, with good voice acting and audio.
- Enemy AI is poor and is either highly predictable or extremely stupid.
- Level design isn't very good, with levels filled with dead-ends and pointless backtracking.
- Highly unfinished and extremely buggy.