“Your failure means the end of mankind,” reads The Solus Project’s Game Over screen. That’s because if environmental analyst Octavia (or Octavius) Sken cannot find a way to report back to the fleet that carries Earth’s few remaining colonists, the remainder of humanity will perish in the middle of space, unable to reach an inhabitable planet with their limited fuel supply. This considerably ratchets up the stakes of this first-person adventure game from Teotl Studios and Grip Digital, because after surviving a crash-landing and scavenging enough food and water to last the first day, it would be terribly anticlimactic to doom mankind because you accidentally extinguished your makeshift torch in a river and then succumbed to hypothermia, unable to find a place to dry off and warm up in the arctic, alien night.
Very human necessities provide the underlying tension for this game, as Sken must find safe places to sleep, and must ward off mundane things like sunstroke. These dangers are then made increasingly difficult, given the unyielding environment of Gliese-6143-C. There aren’t monsters to contend with as you trudge through ankle-high reddish grass, exploring quiet, long-deserted ruins, but at any moment, you might have to flee from a terrain-altering flashflood or seek shelter from a swarm of tornadoes. The planet is at once the hero and villain of this story, and The Solus Project benefits from the fact that you can’t just shoot your way out of a bad situation.
Weather in the game is randomized, which helps to keep players on their toes; at the same time, should you survive a meteor shower early on, much of what follows can’t help but feel comparably tame. Also, at 10 hours, The Solus Project feels overlong. Real-world fatigue starts to set in after having to take yet another in-game nap, just as the repetitive scavenging quickly begins to distract from the exploration. Even the story is presented at a tangent, with players having to track down and scan each scattered page from the journals of Sken’s now-dead crewmates in order to piece things together. By contrast, the Dead Space-like moments in which odd auditory signals begin to transmit through the appropriately named W.I.L.S.O.N. (Sken’s PDA) do a much better job of conveying the protagonist’s more immediate concerns.
The Solus Project conjures up a steady stream of environmental and existential dread, bringing to mind a combat-free Metroid Prime or, thanks to the excellent audio design, Amnesia. The many-mooned views from Gliese are both stunning and ominous; those orbs hang overhead like the Sword of Damocles, in that each minute spent taking in the scenery represents another inexorable step toward dehydration and starvation. The already claustrophobic caverns, littered with explosive traps and impaling flora, grow even creepier after a first encounter with a Lost-like smoke monster that can only be eluded if players first extinguish any light-emitting objects. These moments in which players follow this electrically charged black mist best capture the groping terror of plunging desperately into the unknown.
The longer players survive on Gliese, however, the less mysterious everything seems. Each of the main islands have unique elemental obstacles, whether that’s avoiding lightning bolts on Flashpoint, delving into the inert volcano that powers Hotspot, climbing the windswept basalt columns of Highpoint, or navigating the acidic and icy caverns that connect these areas. But each area’s puzzles are all essentially addressed the same way. You’ll find cisterns that must be filled, which requires a water bottle of some kind, as well as pressure pads that require a heavy object—be it a rock or a shield—to weigh them down. Swords found within the game aren’t used for combat, as there isn’t any, but rather help to cut torch-making roots off of walls, or double as makeshift levers. The inventory screen literally explains what alternative uses each tool has, which makes The Solus Project less of a puzzle game and more of a needle-in-a-haystack scavenger hunt. Searching for unmarked, out-of-the-way objects or backtracking for tools you didn’t have space to carry earlier is the game’s least enjoyable feature, and the constant depletion of resources—which also need to be hunted down—only makes this more frustrating.
Everything that hampers The Solus Project can be summed up by the unnecessary inclusion of, in the midst of all this real-world survival, a teleportation gun. Whereas the game frequently makes a point of how difficult it would be to hammer down even a weakened wall (you have to hit it in no less than eight different places), or how critical it is to start a fire before you go to sleep, this technological marvel simply requires the player to fire a disc at a remote area and then magically appear atop that disc. It’s an out-of-place mechanic to begin with, but the gun is also difficult to aim, especially when trying to land its warp pad atop an otherwise unreachable ledge. Instead of encouraging exploration, then, The Solus Project ends up taking shortcuts.