(Played on PC)
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
A question I find myself frequently mulling over is whether I’m more on edge when playing as an armed or unarmed protagonist in horror games. Whilst my personal preference is generally for the unarmed variety, there’s certainly a strong case to be made on both sides of the argument. If you’re playing a title like Resident Evil or Dead Space, then there’s definitely something intensely panicky and stressful about having to make every last shot from your weapon count in order to survive; hearing the chilling empty click of its chamber when in combat can really make your blood run cold. Likewise, when sneaking around in a game like Amnesia: the Dark Descent, Alien: Isolation or Outlast, where discovery is practically synonymous with death, the constant dread and terror of being found with no way to defend yourself can feel like a nightmarish game of cat and (terrified) mouse.
Pulsetense Games’ Solarix is a stealthy sci-fi horror first-person shooter which has clearly been influenced by both stealth and weapon-based horror games. Described as “a science-fiction horror game featuring open-ended levels for both combative and stealth-focused playstyles”, Pulsetense’s goal was to “combine old-school sci-fi horror with next-gen style and graphics”. A hybrid of these two broad approaches then, Solarix has moments where you must hide from enemies, and moments where you must use your limited arsenal of weapons and tools against them. Unfortunately though, whilst the game has some interesting ideas and story themes going for it, the game’s clumsy presentation, awkward stealth mechanics and its overall lack of horror and tension left me in the dark.
Let’s start out with the basics. There’s not much of a narrative setup included in the game itself to immerse you into the world of Solarix, but what you do get does the job; you play as Walter, a survivor who’s stationed on a military/research base on an alien planet who wakes up to discover that the base’s inhabitants are slowly becoming infected by some mysterious virus. Contacted by A.M.I., the base’s AI, you’re instructed to go about the steps required to synthesise a vaccine, whilst dodging both infected humans and hostile guards. Along the way though, you’re also contacted by other characters, such as the mysterious Betty; a rather neurotic survivor who alongside telling you that she’s erased parts of your memory also grants you access to weapons and items whilst offering her own warped advice along the way. Not exactly the ideal person you want on your side in a dangerous space quarantine scenario, but hey, you take what you’re given I guess. You pull on your hazard suit and start to explore, twitching with apprehension as you venture out into the darkness.
Unfortunately, one of the first significant issues that I encountered when playing Solarix was that for a horror game, it very quickly loses what little horror and tension it manages to build up in the game’s opening moments. The opening level easily felt the most suspenseful, featuring a suitably tense evasion section against one of the many infected humans who roam the facility’s corridors. While it’s perhaps not set in the most original of environs to be creeping around in – a dark abandoned industrial warehouse – nonetheless it’s familiar horror game territory; you’re unarmed and with no way of fighting back, you absolutely have to play stealthily and stay out of sight.
So far, so good – but the problem is that when you shortly get hold of a gun in the next section, the horror elements are pretty much gone. You walk outside into a rainy courtyard, and the game becomes just a mediocre stealth shooter – but unfortunately one that doesn’t particularly work very well. From this point on, you’re mainly dispatching the rather bland human guards (who rapidly spout their repeating lines of dialogue over and over) as they routinely patrol their posts. Gone is the dread of being discovered; now your aim is to just sneak further into this nondescript base and dispatch the rather dim guards that are in your way. To be fair, being found by a guard does usually means a quick death, but it’s nothing particularly scary or horrific – you just catch a facefull of bullets, and one checkpoint reset later and you’re back in. It’s about as frightening as Perfect Dark or Metal Gear Solid (bad example, the Metal Gear series has some really fucking weird stuff going on in it actually, but you get the point).
Solarix‘s stealth mechanics feel dull and frustrating, and there’s a variety of reasons why – a rather annoying one being that it’s incredibly easy when sneaking through a level to get caught in the environment’s walls and floor textures. You’re encouraged to play stealthily and avoid making direct confrontation (i.e. shooting people), so you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time slowly crouching your way around the edges of the maps, sticking close to the shadows to slink past guards and space zombies alike. However, whilst slinking around, I’d far too frequently end up getting stuck in the ground, walls, objects, practically everything and anything in close proximity to my character over and over again. At one specific checkpoint, I would have to consistently untangle myself from the floor by repeatedly moving, jumping and crouching before I could move on, every single time I respawned. Annoying to say the least, but hopefully these glitchy moments will be fixed by the time the game properly launches at the end of April.
When you’re not busy getting trapped in the environment, there’s further frustrations to be had when trying to play like a sci-fi Solid Snake. The taser-like tool the game provides you with for performing stealthy non-lethal takedowns has an interesting design (it only works when fired at the back of your opponent’s head) but more often than not it just feels fiddly and awkward to use. It has an undiscernibly vague range, and there’s no visual feedback to the player with the targeting reticule to let you know if the jolt is going to hit. You have to get right up behind your wandering guard/space zombie of choice, but not too close or they will whip round and start blasting/mauling you. Fair enough, this does add some mild tension back into the experience a tad, but using the taser still felt like a consistently awkward and arbitrary process to me even after several hours of playing.
Strangely though, you’re actually better off ditching the stealthy tactics altogether. It’s actually significantly easier and a far more enjoyable experience to simply forget about the taser and go in all guns blazing. You see, this is one of the more fundamental issues with Solarix; you have no real incentive to play stealthily whatsoever. Rather than bothering to spend time carefully distracting guards with thrown objects or shooting out lights to sneak by, it’s far easier and way more enjoyable to charge through each level whilst gleefully headshotting your enemies like a maniacal madman.
Contrary to the information the game tells you, you actually have plenty of ammunition to take on all threats in the demo, and spare clips can often be acquired from the various storage boxes littered around the levels. It’s a shame, as tighter ammo restrictions would have easily made the stealth mechanics feel much more relevant and tense to the playing experience. Making sure that the player has to carefully keep track of a dwindling supply of bullets would naturally encourage them to opt for using stealthier playstyles…but as the stealth mechanics are so frustrating in their own right, I’m actually quite thankful that Walter is packing plenty of heat in this case.
So, without a serious threat of running out of bullets, you can save yourself the rigmarole of going through the game’s awkward stealthy shenanigans. Even when you re-encounter the space zombies in the third level, it’s easier to just take the opportunity to practice your sharpshooting skills and pick them off from a distance than to bother trying to sneak up on them. Unfortunately though, even shooting your way through Solarix is not exactly a glitch-free walk in the park either. Just like the non-lethal taser, the pistol is plagued with its own particular set of frustrating and obtuse quirks as well. Sporting a vague and inconsistent range, and wildly fluctuating damage output, every time you virtually squeeze the trigger you’ll never be quite sure whether your bullet will hit its target, and if it does, kill or just alert your opponent to where you are. For example, killing an unaware opponent takes a single bullet to the head, whereas an aware one can take upwards of four. Again, there might well be some narrative explanation for this in the finished game, but in this demo without any external context, it just ends up feeling inconsistent and cheap.
Actually, speaking of hypothetical story explanations, let’s hold up just for a second here; while you don’t get many narrative threads to cling onto in this demo, what little story elements you do get are actually pretty good. While I found most of the in-game world and its inhabitants itself to be largely uninteresting, there’s a handful of crew logs scattered about which help to liven things up quite considerably. One in particular had a chilling written account about a group of technicians unearthing and observing an ancient alien machine, and the threat of a sentient AI interfacing and infecting the crew of the base. It’s in these moments that Solarix manages to claw back some of the horror and unsettling atmosphere that it regrettably jettisoned out of the airlock so early on. The piecemeal delivery of the story information here reminded me of the effective way in which the horror is slowly drip-fed to the player through written artefacts in games such as The Chinese Room’s Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs; even though you’re not told exactly what’s going on, your mind can’t help but uneasily churn the few disturbing details you do have around in your brain as you blast your way through the game.
Additionally, there’s some cool Silent Hill-style implications that what you’re seeing and experiencing might not be real, which might be an issue that the final game explores as part of the narrative – is it right to be gunning down the clean-up squad mercilessly? Are these infected humans I’m pumping full of intergalactic lead actually innocents? In this demo though, there’s no such moral restraints to hold you back, and the combination of the frustrating stealth mechanics and the ever so fiddly taser mean that you’d probably not care all that much if such in-game ethical concerns actually were an issue.
Regretfully, there’s still another problematic aspect of the game that I’ve yet to address, and get ready, it’s a pretty big one. The game is just too damn dark. It sounds like an utterly ridiculous complaint to level at a horror game, but trust me, in this case it’s entirely appropriate.
Things are fine to start off with in the indoor corridor sections, but it’s once you get to the great alien outdoors and you’re mainly wandering around in wide-open valleys in murky darkness that the lack of light starts to really grate on you. You have an unlimited flashlight attached to your suit, which you think would solve this problem, but for whatever reason it’s ineffectual after the first indoor level, throwing out just a watery crescent moon of pale yellow light at your feet and nothing else. It barely illuminates anything, rendering it practically useless. The game’s Steam blurb boasts about its next gen-graphics, but you’ll have a hard time appreciating them without whacking the gamma settings up to max.
At first, I didn’t mind the gloominess all that much. As I trekked my way in practically pitch-black darkness across through these strange alien hillsides and picked my way through various burnt out spaceships in order to find supplies, things initially felt nice and eerie. After about five or ten minutes of uneventfully wandering around however, I soon found myself getting bored of looking at nothing but the same dark dull environments, empty save for a few dopey infected milling about in specific spots. There’s just so little contrast in terms of the in-game lighting that the ubiquitous darkness quickly stops feeling sinister and just becomes plain boring. While it’s nice to not be in the typical claustrophobic tunnels of practically every other horror game, by the time I got to the crashsite in the third level, I was just tired of seeing nothing but empty, perpetual darkness.
This unfortunately means that in these low-light conditions, it’s incredibly easy to repeatedly miss items and areas that are necessary to make progress. As the majority of Solarix is a featureless black landscape, it can be painfully dull to try and navigate your way around successfully, and just one glance at the fuzzy, undynamic in-game map let’s you know that it’s going to be completely unhelpful in your attempts to orient yourself.
On top of that, there’s these invisible walls that prominently protrude into several paths you have to take throughout the levels, and others that block off empty areas that otherwise look perfectly accessible, making your fumblings about in the dark even more confusing. To make matters worse, there’s also places where there aren’t any barriers in place where you do want them – i.e. solid rock walls, meaning that it’s actually incredibly easy to end up accidentally clipping out of the map entirely. It ends up creating this no-win, no-fun situation; you have to search every nook and cranny of the maps to find what you need, yet if you do go poking into the nooks and crannies of Solarix then you also risk getting stuck out in the great dark beyond with no obvious means of getting back in. Once again, I appreciate that this is a pre-release demo that I’m playing here so hopefully these are things that will also hopefully be patched out for the final release, but the fact that it’s so easy to get trapped outside of the level without explicitly trying to force your way out doesn’t exactly encourage you to go off and explore the game’s world.
Obviously, horror games are loved for the very reason that they don’t offer the player as much help as other genres, that they are designed to make you stressed and anxious and that more often than not they can be more punishing than other genres. Yet while I admire Pulsetense’s choice to not hold the player’s hand as they explore, or to not broadcast giant distracting navigation markers to herd the player towards the next objective, I felt that Solarix ought to have done a lot more to clearly communicate important information to the player about just what exactly they’re supposed to be doing at times, or what specific item they’re currently after.
For example, in my first playthrough of the demo, there was a point where I just got completely and utterly stuck. Perhaps I’m just a complete fucking idiot, but after finding a door locked with a handprint scanner in the second level, and later a conveniently-placed hacksaw nearby, I felt pretty confident that I knew exactly what to do next – namely go back to one of the still-warm guard bodies I’d only seconds ago riddled with bullets, roll up my sleeves and start to slice ‘n’ dice.
I then proceeded to spend what felt like an eternity trying fruitlessly to chop hands off the fallen guards, and getting increasingly baffled as to why I couldn’t. As I wandered from corpse to corpse, desperately trying to detach a hand (and even in a moment of grim determination resorting to hurling a dead body at the scanner to see if that worked, sadly to no avail) a string of ever-more puzzling questions were starting to race through my head. What am I doing wrong? Do I need to equip the hacksaw as a tool? Why can’t I equip the hacksaw as a tool? Is it space bar or left mouse button to cut off their hands? I keep clicking on their hands but I can’t chop them off? WHY OH WHY ARE THEIR BLOODY HANDS NOT COMING OFF ALREADY!?
It was only after spending the best part of an hour fruitlessly clicking and aimlessly wandering back and forth in the level over and over again like a complete chump that I just happened to stumble across a pitch-black cave hidden round a corner and completely off the beaten track which contained the very specific corpse and the very specific hand that I needed to sever to use on the door panel. Nowhere had the game bothered to inform me that only a specific hand would work, and thanks to the vague in-game map, it was just pure luck that I’d stumbled across the actual solution. The reason that I’d missed the cave every single time as I roamed the area was – yup, you guessed it, the entrance was pitch-black. I could have still been there in that section to this day, furiously clicking on corpses and mashing the space bar to no avail if I hadn’t stumbled across the solution by accident. By this point, I was just so annoyed that I desperately wanted to start hacking Walter’s own hands off just to make it all end right then and there.
Anyway, look, I know I’m just textually ranting by this point so I’ll draw things to a close. Overall, there’s also just this sort of rough, unpolished feel to Solarix which makes it really hard to get into and properly enjoy. There’s some cool ideas in the game, wrapped up in what looks to be an interesting narrative, but there’s just a such a litany of various annoying problems cluttering up the experience which repeatedly get in the way of the player’s immersion. The stealth mechanics don’t really work that well, and there’s practically no horror elements whatsoever, and the interesting narrative ideas buckle under the weight of boring and dull level designs. Whether you play stealthily or aggressively, combat in Solarix is vague and murky at best; you’ll be crossing your fingers each time you line up a headshot or prepare to jolt the back of somebody’s head, never quite sure of whether things are going to work predictably. In short, you’re left with an underwhelming and fiddly shooter experience in a dull world that’s shrouded in darkness.
Again, just to be totally clear about this, I’ve been playing a pre-release demo of Solarix, so hopefully Pulsetens can get the smaller glitchier problems with the weapons, invisible walls etc. fixed before the proper release. I’m just concerned that the bigger problems the game has with the stealth and combat systems are fundamental design issues that unfortunately can’t just be fixed with a quick patch. Personally, the game feels undercooked; Solarix needs to get out of the shadows and back into the developmental oven – ASAP.