Once upon a time, I was tasked to review The Red Solstice, and from what I recall I had a generally good time. It was a sci-fi horror shooter based on Mars that never tried to explain the beasts trying to claw your suit open as you survived. You just did missions with allies and tried to make sure your character saw home base again. Solstice Chronicles: MIA seems to be revisiting the formula with a story in hand, and I’m left wondering if the lore was one best left unspoken.
Solstice Chronicles: MIA is a sci-fi horror twin-stick shooter by Ironward. The large bulk of which is a campaign mode where you play as a forgotten marine. One who breaks free from the claws of the monstrosities below to find a way back home, during which they stumble on a chatty rebel drone who has their own mission to complete.
I look at the “horror” genre name with something approaching uncertainty. Does it have horror themes? I’d say so, in a Doom sort of way. “Everything is terrible on Mars today, it’s all grotesque and they’re trying to turn my innards into my skin”, just with a whole lot less cheese. It is in a similar way to Ironward’s prior title The Red Solstice. Then again, both Steam store pages avoid using the word “horror”, so maybe I’m off about it.
However, what The Red Solstice had was atmosphere built upon beasts trying to flay you whom you couldn’t understand. You were able to project your fears onto the unknown beings. Solstice Chronicles: MIA instead seeks to inform what has happened through its campaign: An infection gone wild with some who have a disfiguring symbiotic relationship with it and wish to spread it (which reminds me of someone whose name half-rhymes with pester who works at a biochemical company that half-rhymes with Danella). With it, the narrative mystery, tension and the potential fear from projection onto the unknown is gutted with a metaphorical fillet knife.
In its stead is something that is, well, functional. You have a robot side-kick whose dialogue is a 0.5 on the Claptrap scale of robotic “light-hearted” self-awareness. A marine who has the personality of a damp dish cloth. Besides the missed opportunity to install some creepiness of trying to escape a poorly-defined threat, there’s nothing to really high-five or tut about.
That said, it is clear the gunplay is where the dedication went.
Between missions, you are able to level up between your class-specific tree, player tree, and drone tree. You’re given points depending on the difficulty you completed the mission at, as well as bonus little points you’ve scavenged. You can also pick your primary and secondary weapon, your rechargeable class ability and your two equipment abilities (that use resources). There are a few balance concerns (e.g. if you’re not ramming points into the player tree, then you must have reaped it already for its delicious fruits), but still allows a neat level of customization.
Then you leap into Solstice Chronicles: MIA. For a start, when you aim there is a cone of probable fire separate for each gun that adjusts as you shoot. Another nice touch is you can resurrect yourself as long as you have suit durability, to a health equal to said durability. This is something that is worthwhile as you will likely be downed by a potentially heavy flow of enemies suddenly, measured on a “potential spawnable” and “spawned” meter, depending on events and your actions. Monstrosities will slowly be unleashed depending on the spawnable amount, with larger skull-crushers only being unleashed on higher tiers of potentiality.
This is where smug-drone comes in, as she (…it?) is equipped with four abilities. Two abilities increase the potential spawnable rate in exchange for help. The drone can scout for lootables or bomb the wildlife while risking taking you out with it. However, you can also decrease the potential spawnable rate. Shield keeps small beasts at bay and slows big monsters as well as lowering the meter a slither. Taunt lets you get the beasts all spawned now in exchange for lowering the longer-term spawnable amount (which can coincidentally slow your game down). These abilities, when combined with the spawnable amount meter, really allows for a lovely dash of risk and reward.
Yet, I find it frustrating this is layered on a mission design that is so… Basic. Most missions in Solstice Chronicles: MIA play like this: Go from point A to point B, occasionally activating generators or doors. During this process, most enemies will either just give you slaps of different kinds or just spewing acid about, both simply require varying degrees of bullets. It’s disheartening that there is barely any room for neat tactical play depending on the common creatures rushing at you. That said, I admit I managed to get through about 60% of the game before my save file got wiped, so maybe a new common enemy gets introduced late-game that mixes things up.
Every so often you’ll be facing a boss fight which only serves to really demonstrate how messy the enemy AI, boss design and hit-detection is. Sometimes you’ll be hit when you were way out the way, other times bosses will clip through ledges to where you are and the boss design is high damage, high health and high flow of monsters. I nearly rage-quitted on the first boss due to the severity of the problems, especially the ledge-clipping and hit-detection somehow slapping me on a ledge below it.
It isn’t as though the game is eye-candy or varied besides it. For the majority of the game, you’ll be seeing venues of reds, grays and browns. That said, you do stumble on some greenery after the half way point.
So, after all, is said and done with the campaign you may be wondering “…Now what?”. Well, I have good news. There is a survival mode. However, it seems the type of mode that pales in the shadow of its predecessor. You get a choice of one level and only one other local friend. There is no online support. There’s still a leveling up system, one rooted in knowing when to quit and reap what you’ve earned rather than pushing your luck too far, but it still feels bare-boned with a singular level choice.
The final score for Solstice Chronicles: MIA is a 5/10. Every step forward in the gunplay department is repelled back in the mission, enemy and narrative aspects. While the campaign boasts a good length, beyond that lies a survival mode that is lackluster at best. That said, oddly, I can’t get angry at it, especially at its price point.
Overall, the biggest issue is that I find it hard to recommend it to anyone while The Red Solstice (Ironward’s prior work) exists. It seems focused on being a campaign-orientated title in the same setting, answering questions that didn’t particularly need answering and offering a narrative that is, well, inoffensive. I hope post-release support fixes the issues as with work this could make for a neat rough gem. In the meanwhile though, unless you’re heavily curious and weighed down by a packed wallet, maybe what happened on Mars should stay on Mars?
A PC Review Copy of Solstice Chronicles: MIA was provided by Nkidu for the Purpose of this Review