Twin-stick shooters have been gaining more attention lately with a number of small releases like Full Mojo Rampage, Nex Machina, and Helldivers. The influx of indie titles has made the genre become more crowded in recent years. Solstice Chronicles: MIA aims to differentiate itself from the pack, but only comes up with concepts that have been done better elsewhere or half-baked ideas that barely function.
Solstice Chronicles: MIA’s most glaring problem comes down to a severe lack of polish. It feels like an unfinished build of what might eventually have been an interesting game. Pretty much every kind of rough edge you can think of permeates the experience. Typos abound in the text prompts. Glitches rear their ugly heads at inopportune times, occasionally completely blocking all progress. It runs sluggishly. The story seems to be missing key parts that would help string it together; dialogue, transitions between scenes, etc.
All of that simply leads to a frustrating, jagged mess, which could be forgiven if the gameplay itself was satisfying. Unfortunately, the lack of polish results in the complete disruption of any sense of pacing the various levels might potentially possess. Despite having a system that controls the spawn rate of alien enemies, there never seems to be consistency to it. Some levels begin mid swarm. Others go long stretches at the max alien spawn level without releasing much of anything. Often, the best solution to reach the end of a level is by ignoring enemies altogether and sprinting for the end, fighting only when the game boxes you into a corner to wait for an elevator or a door.
During those hold your ground sequences, Solstice Chronicles: MIA manages to have a pulse of life. The developers sometimes provide various tactical defenses like turrets or barricades or napalm bombs, all of which can be placed strategically to help ward off oncoming waves of aliens. Due to the pacing of the game being completely off, you will not often have the breathing room necessary to place those pieces of equipment. Also, for some reason the game seems to think lights are a good defensive item? If you’re given a choice between an automated turret and a set of lights, why on earth would you pick the lights? Also, sometimes doors don’t open or get stuck, leaving you to battle monsters for eternity or until you turn the game off.
The story, such as it is, functions. Players take on the role of a space marine left for dead at a remote outpost struggling to find his way back to civilization as a mutating plague infects a nearby colony. He encounters an autonomous drone with some attitude and the two make an uneasy alliance to get them back home and stop the virus. It’s a tired premise, but the dialogue occasionally manages to earn a chuckle. The whole thing ends on a somewhat baffling cliffhanger. We experience this story through a number of cutscenes that often unceremoniously dump the player into the next stage with little to no transition or set-up.
As much as I don’t usually point fingers at the graphical quality of a game, Solstice Chronicles: MIA really needed more polish on that front. Most of the locations look or feel the same. If you’ve played a generic sci-fi action game before, you know what this looks like already. A climactic boss encounter occurs late in the game against a giant sand worm while the player clings to a moving train. This sand worm just clips through the surrounding terrain and the train itself. It’s not even uncommon to see similar graphical glitches in Solstice Chronicles, the worm just provides one of the most noteworthy examples.
It took four hours to complete Solstice Chronicles: MIA. There are several difficulties, a survival mode, and the entire thing can be tackled with a friend, but only via local co-op. A truly dedicated player might be able to squeeze out twelve hours of gameplay, but most won't have any desire to stay within Solstice's world for that long. The game checks all the boxes of being a functional, if horribly messy, twin-stick shooter, but offers very little else.
Some interesting ideas do appear within Solstice Chronicles: MIA. The main innovation takes the form of the drone. Players can use the drone to perform a number of different tasks to add variety during the hectic bullet shooting. The drone has the capability to scavenge, finding ammo, upgrades, and health while mid-combat, but it comes at the cost of attracting more enemies. As a counterbalance, the drone can taunt enemies, attracting more of them to the player's location while decreasing the overall spawn rate. It can also create a forcefield to give the player a bit of temporary breathing room. If things get a bit too overwhelming, players can have the drone detonate an AOE explosion that can be intense over a small area or cover a larger zone and do less damage. If, miraculously, Solstice Chronicles: MIA receives a sequel that has more time to be fully fleshed out, I’d love to see the drone’s unique functions expanded.
When everything goes right and Solstice Chronicles: MIA manages to fire on all cylinders, there are glimmers of a much better game. that being said, I find it hard to recommend, especially at the full price of $20. If you’re really hurting for a local sci-fi co-op game, pick it up when it inevitably goes on sale. Similar games exist out there for lower prices and with more content, like the 2010 Valve title Alien Swarm, which offers a more refined experience, four player online co-op, and comes at the low cost of free. Steer clear of this one unless you truly can't get enough twin-stick shooting in your life.
Is It Fun?:
Talk your way through a derelict spacecraft to solve a mystery
Very simple and sleek - the retro aesthetic sets this apart
Relatively sparse music, but excellent when it hits
Navigating the correct way to phrase things can be difficult
I enjoyed it, but it's definitely a slow burn
People who prioritize drama and enjoy non-violent games
Solstice Chronicles: MIA is now available for PlayStation 4 and PC
Review originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 09/15/17