An interstellar research station left in shambles. An infection slowly maddening the survivors. A story told through audio logs and journals. Morally ambiguous AIs guiding you through the chaotic setting. As an electrical engineer who wakes up in the station with no memory of what—
Hey no, come back!
This isn't just a rehash of Dead Space. No, not a ripoff of System Shock 2 either. Well, not entirely. Okay, Pulsetense Games' Solarix is far from the most original videogame in the world. Its inspirations are obvious to say the least. But if you want to find a spiritual successor to these touchstones of the horror sci-fi genre, you could do a lot worse. Solarix captures the vibe and experience of playing the best in horror science fiction without surpassing them. It's imitative to be sure, yet with some drawbacks its intended audience should still be satisfied.
Ahem, if I may continue. You play as an electrical engineer who wakes up in a ruined research station. Guided by two AIs, both of whom insist that you should not trust the other, you make your way through the rather large facility figuring out what happened and seeking help in the process. The station meanwhile has been taken over by a group of desperate men infected with a virus that makes them go out of control with rage, zombies more akin to the infected from 28 Days Later than Night of the Living Dead. Gameplay is composed of the standard fare: Avoid or fight these bad marine dudes, collect security keys to advance to the next area, hack into doors and security systems, etc. Again, totally fine. But we've seen it a million times before.
As you may have already noticed, the story is much the same. It isn't mind blowing, but it's at least somewhat engaging. The conflict between the AIs is compelling enough to make the player want to keep going through the game. And plague stories are usually fun. It really lacks much more than that, though. Few appeals to pathos by way of interesting characters, nothing terribly sophisticated about the origins of this infection. There's just not much soul to it. The story in Solarix is like so many other things in this game: Fine, but ultimately mediocre.
The graphics are done through the Unreal Development Kit, which is problematic because every UDK game looks shockingly similar. This one is no different. Again, it looks fine. (And the ragdoll physics are amusingly ridiculous.) Only there's a disappointing lack of disturbing creatures to face. While some of the more well-infected marines walk in uncanny ways and make creepy noises, for the most part you're fighting normal soldier dudes. It's like F.E.A.R. in that you feel like there should be more freaky abominations running about, but they never seem to show up. Otherwise the graphics contain lots of boxes and junk and leaky pipes and bloody graffiti. Again, it's sci-fi horror. You know what you're getting into. Decent graphics altogether, just not distinct.
The protagonist is basically a blank slate, which isn't great but at least consistent with the genre. Unfortunately there isn't enough going on in the gameplay to make up for this. No customization of weapons or character stats. It boasts two styles of play—either stealth or force. But the scarcity of ammo means that stealth is clearly the preferred choice. Which would be fine if it were compelling, but it gets boring after awhile.
Stealth suffers from Outlast syndrome in that once you realize you can run like hell through each area, the sense of fear and tension abates. Your taser gun easily disposes of any given enemy as well, as long as you sneak up on them, making gameplay into a simple matter of hiding in the shadows until an enemy walks past you then zapping them. There's something vaguely exciting about it, but there isn't enough to mix up the play to keep it from eventually feeling mundane. Which is the absolutely worst thing one can feel in a horror game.
The AI is also quite flawed, although it must be noted that it has been improving with successive patches. Enemies will attack with an unnatural swiftness after you do small things like stand up from crouching or walk out into the light for a brief moment.
The problem here is that when playing this game, I felt like I was just trying to cheat the system rather than playing within the game's interior reality. By that I mean I was doing things that wouldn't make sense logically but do within the game. Running into an enemy then hiding behind a crate that anyone in real life would have obviously seen me hide behind, for instance, only to have that enemy completely forget where I am. Maybe the infection erases their sense of object permanence. In any case, it's weird and awkward.
But again, Solarix knows what it wants to do and does it fine enough. With its twelve wide open levels (which, to be honest, just make it more of a pain to navigate than anything, as there's not much to do within these spaces) and relatively linear progression, the game lasts around ten hours or so. It's woefully average, facing the same problems that most of these kinds of games do like bad AI and a detached story. The sci-fi horror enthusiast can find a satisfying experience in getting one more ruined space station to explore, but it never really surpasses the old masters.
Check out Solarix on Steam here.
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review on PC.
All the horror sci-fi game tropes are accounted for, the good and the bad. Solarix is for fans of the genre who wish to ride with the wheel they are used to rather than see it reinvented.(Review Policy)