Striking the Wrong Chord
In the Indie Game world, there are many powerful titles dealing creatively with expressing emotions. Games like Rime, Gris, Celeste, To the Moon and A Night in the Woods successfully and creatively deal with heavy themes like loneliness, love, loss, anxiety and depression. These titles, among many others on the market, have struck a chord with gamers who have gone through and experienced these feelings. Solo: Islands of the Heart, by developer Team Gotham, tries its best to deliver a powerful message about love to the player, but sadly left me feeling only frustrated.
Right from the start, the developers (through various talking statues) let you know that this game is supposed to be an introspective experience about love. As such, you start off by providing your gender and the name and gender of your “significant other” so that you can answer the future questions as realistically and personally as possible. Upon doing so, you leave your small island home on your boat (named after the previously mentioned person, which is a cute detail), and venture off on your quest of self-discovery.
Upon arriving at the first tiny island, you are surrounded by cute critters, little colorful plants, some talking statues, a small lighthouse, and moveable boxes. When you interact with the lighthouse, it shines a beam that directs you to a statue. Then, moving boxes to access previously inaccessible ledges, you interact with the new highlighted statue. Next, the statue asks you a “personal” question about love and some aspect of it with your partner, and you must choose one of three responses. After answering to your best ability, the island expands and a new bit of land will pop up, with another lighthouse, puzzle, and question-posing statue. In theory, this sounds like a pretty decent setup to a cute puzzle game with a bit of a message thrown into it. In reality, this cycle is unfortunately poorly executed and each part of it seems like a missed opportunity.
… it felt like I was playing a bad Facebook or Buzzfeed quiz…
For starters, my biggest gripe with Solo is the personal introspective questions and all that stems from them. The best way that I can describe them is that it felt like I was playing a bad Facebook or Buzzfeed quiz, learning about “what kind of lover I am.” The questions are not really fun to answer as they are worded quite bluntly or poorly and are often annoying “what-if” scenarios without any good answer. Personally, when I’m playing a game, the last thing I want is for it to ask me “How important sex is to me.”
Then, to make things more annoying, you talk to the spirit of your partner after answering the question and hear their response to what you said. What is intended to be a way of challenging or questioning your opinion with a new perspective instead always comes off as needlessly negative spin on what I said. To me, as hard as this is for me to say, the whole premise of the game being a personal reflection is a mistake. I just wish I could have sat back and watched a pre-written character’s life and story unfold, rather than feeling like I am taking a survey.
… trying and failing to get the camera oriented where I needed was infuriating.
The other half of Solo’s gameplay comes from its use of block puzzles which foster creative ways to reach new areas. Each island mixes up blocks with unique functions, like extending, suction cups, and wind-blowing, and leaves it up to you on how to get to the designated area. Similar to Portal or Breath of the Wild’s shrines, I really felt like there were many different possible solutions to each area, and it sometimes made me feel pretty darn smart with my approach and solution. Unfortunately, what I ended up feeling more often than not was pure frustration. The controls for these sections, to put it as bluntly as the aforementioned survey questions, were just terrible.
For example, I fought with the camera more than I did with the puzzles themselves. Some of the puzzles require pretty precise block placement, so trying and failing to get the camera oriented where I needed was infuriating. On top of the camera, the overall mechanic for placing the blocks was unnecessarily difficult. In my mind, when the game is based around specific locations where a block needs to go to reach areas, it should use a grid system; but for some reason Solo opted not to. I frequently had instances where I would set up the blocks perfectly next to each other, but (due to the lousy camera and controls) would place the block three or so pixels too high, making my character unable to climb it. Sadly, all of this, among other issues like poor cursor color choice, made the puzzles unfun to play.
… sadly left me feeling only frustrated.
I did, however, enjoy the cute visual design that Solo presented. The colors are vibrant, the characters (especially the lil’ critters) were just darn adorable! I do wish that there was a little more detail and variety, especially because after the first of the three sections I felt like I had seen everything already. Similarly, the soundtrack started off as ambient and relaxing, but was really lacking in variety and had only one loop for each island. When you are spending over an hour on each island, this really starts to take a toll on you.
Overall, I am simply bummed out about Solo: Islands of the Heart. What I thought I would be playing was a cute little puzzle game with a similarly cute story. What I ended up playing felt more like a game that really didn’t know what it wanted to be. It tries to help the player be introspective about love, but ends up feeling like a survey with a pessimistic curve. It tries to have engaging puzzles, but is plagued with clunky mechanics and fundamental missteps in design. It tries so hard to be something special that will resonate with players and their emotions, but sadly will probably end up in a sea of other games full of missed opportunities.
I need to note that playing on the Nintendo Switch was not a good experience. I have no idea what the other platforms run like, but to me, a game this visually simple should not have any performance issues on any platform. Yet, playing on the Switch (even in docked mode), the game lagged terribly and pretty darn consistently. I just can’t help but feel that if something like Mario Odyssey can run flawlessly on a console, there is no excuse for a small title like this to lag and crash as much as it did.
Yes, if you:
- Cannot get enough of cutesy, colorful games
- Are desperate for a new game with block puzzles
- Enjoy taking Facebook and Buzzfeed Quizzes
No, if you:
- Want a game that will draw out a good emotional response
- Are looking for quality, well designed puzzles
- Don’t like being asked blunt, personal questions
- Like a game to have audio and visual variety
Solo: Islands of the Heart released on July 31, 2019 and is available on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch at an MSRP of $19.99
Note: Cannonicity recieved a copy of the game in exchange for a fair and honest review.