A key ingredient when looking to instill the proper amount of horror in someone is to make them feel completely alone in a vast, uncaring world. Stripping away their social support, navigation, and tools is a surefire way to set the stage for a truly scary experience, and while this may read like a serial murderer’s how-to manifesto, it’s really all advice I picked up from playing the scariest videogames on the market. Pulsetense Games has taken this formula into account in an attempt to create a truly horrifying ordeal with Solarix, but will their open-ended approach drain away the fear factor?
Set on Ancyra, an alien planet far from the safety and comfort of Earth, Solarix‘s storyline focuses on the unfortunate adventures of an electrical engineer named Walter. After waking up to find the entire research base empty, save for a few rotting corpses, Walter must navigate a series of crashed shuttles, dark mines, and open yards to find out exactly what went wrong. Along the way, this hapless handyman interacts with a motherly AI named A.M.I. and an insanely spunky woman whose name I actually didn’t catch (possibly because she kept distracting me with her creepy analogies). As the story develops, we come to understand that an alien machine found within a cave on Ancyra and brought aboard a research vessel has caused everyone to go mental, and it’s our job to find a cure and escape the planet. It’s here where I draw the Isaac Clarke comparison.
Good Thing I Have This Gun
Though Solarix supplies players with a series of weapons and is played from the first person perspective, this game is anything but a FPS. As a major proponent of stealth, Solarix makes sure that bullets for your pistol are about as rare unicorns, and anything short of a headshot is only going to enrage whatever kind of foe you come across. Instead, it’s all but insisted that you either sneak around the horde of heaving mercenaries or stun them with your handy-dandy taser. While I appreciate using a non-lethal option in lieu of not having enough bullets to go around, the animation for a head shot and an incapacitating stun are the same, blood and all, so I’m not actually convinced that I’m merely knocking out the guards as opposed to straight up murdering all of them.
Like many other stealth games, Solarix provides a few different ways to get around the various types of obstacles and enemies strewn about the map. Distracting guards with thrown objects or shooting out lamps are two perfect examples of the game’s innovation, but I found it all too easy to just remain outside the six feet of visibility afforded to each guard, opting instead to sneak behind them until they stopped for an overly long stare in a random direction. Even when I was occasionally spotted, running for a few seconds and then crouching behind a box was almost always enough to make them forget about me completely, which took a major chunk out of the game’s induced anxiety.
Too Much Set, Not Enough Dressing
While it’s easy to see that a lot of love and attention went into the level design for Solarix, it’s also extremely evident that the majority of space provided on each map goes largely unused. Nooks and crannies can be found in almost any of the open-level environments, but most of them are completely barren. Enemies tend to be gathered in loose groups along the main pathway, while the intricately designed trails through caves, crash zones, and storage yards are absolutely devoid of life and loot. Once I realized that every threat would be predictably laid out in front of me, I stopped being afraid of the empty recesses of the map.
Along the same lines, the game seems to misplace too much of its faith in the “open-ended” approach to each level. While Dead Space and Alien: Isolation may have felt confined, choreographed, and linear, it may have actually done more good than harm in terms of generating fear. By forcing players through a very fixed path, developers can more easily craft environmental interactions and jump scares. By allowing me to walk everywhere with a flashlight, knowing full well nothing was going to jump at me, the only scary aspect of the game becomes the dark itself, and I got over that when I was five (okay, ten).
The Scariest Words Are Those Left Unspoken
One of Solarix‘s selling points so far seems to be the plot. While there are no cutscenes or cinematic intros, the game does an excellent job of painting a picture through audio logs and emails. At one point, while I was sifting through some shuttle wreckage in search of a key card, I came across a crew member’s data slate and read one of the most haunting memos I’ve ever come across. The story instantly unfolded for me, and I found myself looking around furtively to make sure nothing was behind me. Interactions like this, lacking any type of glam or agenda (since I could have easily ignored it) are what makes games like Solarix special. If you can convey the true horror and despair of watching an entire ship go mad from an unknown disease without taking me through some convoluted cutscene, you’ve let my imagination do the work for you and I promise that I’ll be terrified.
While the game still boasts a healthy amount of bugs, such as getting caught on a stray piece of metal on the floor or holding my taser in a manner that would shock the person to my immediate left, the overall production value is amazing. The scenery and physics, developed using Unreal Engine 3, create a dark and gritty world ripe with the promise of a decent scare, and the ambient sounds and voice acting are the aesthetic cherry on top. If they can smooth out the sneaking mechanics, repopulate the maps, and amp up the fear factor, Pulsetense Games will be looking at quite a successful sci-fi horror misadventure wrought with alien diseases, psychotic mercenaries, and an obviously mistrustful AI.
You can check out my first forty minutes of play above, or some screenshots of the game below!