Sci-fi mysteries are the best, aren’t they? Simply changing the setting from our familiar planet to outer space or to a strange new world and what would be a routine whodunnit or enigma becomes a much more engaging experience. Or at least it does for me, and it feels like it’s this foundation that Fallen Leaf and Black Drakker are going for with Fort Solis. Part walking simulator – yep, I dislike the term but really did get that vibe here – part quick time event challenge, and part classic “ghost ship” tale. There’s nothing you haven’t seen before, mechanically anyway. Where it comes across as different is the focus on characters, environmental details and sense of place, and these elements have it come across more like an interactive movie than any other gaming genre. Knowing that you’re likely to be guided quite heavily then, does that make it appeal more, or less? You’ll have to get your ass to Mars to find out.
Playing as Jack Leary, space engineer, you’re part of a two man team maintaining equipment on the surface of Mars. With a large dust storm about to blow in you get a distress signal from the nearby Fort Solis – an old mining and research outpost that’s a little out of the way of the main settlement. As you and your partner Jessica are the closest to the facility, you decide to split up and have Jack head there to find out if they need help, with Jess staying behind to complete the repair and wait out the storm. Cue a trundle across the surface of the Red Planet to Fort Solis only to find the place locked up tight and no one responding to your hails. It’s an imposing place and with the sky darkening and the weather worsening Jack needs to get inside, release the lockdown on the site and find out where the crew are. Suffice to say things aren’t as straightforward as they seem and you’re there to discover the fates of each of the station personnel, find out what exactly they were working on, and avoid a suited psycho intent of making sure you don’t get out alive.
The adventure starts out as typical third person fodder with you controlling Jack and interacting with the environment to perform actions and make progress. Fort Solis does take a moment to explain that whilst points will be highlighted in the environment that can be triggered, they aren’t always visible with some only appearing when the right prior interactions have happened. It’s a subtle detail, yet one that means walking into a room isn’t about looking for little glowing white circles for the quickest way to exit, there’s an element of exploration and discovery involved. Naturally, this system is more about finding out the less obvious bits of story and provides encouragement to read, watch and listen to everything that’s on hand. What you realise after a while is that slowly walking from one place to another is the vast majority of control that you have, and as soon as anything exciting happens the game takes control with the exception of the odd QTE popping up. I’ve no issue with that when it doesn’t break the immersion, but I found the QTE’s a bit awkward to hit consistently (like they were sluggish), and wasn’t convinced, on a single playthrough at least, that they changed the ultimate outcomes… successful or not. Playing again will tell me more, and given the runtime that’s not really a problem.
Touting its credentials of leaning more towards interactive story then game, Fort Solis clocks in at around 3 hours long, depending on how much exploring you do. That’s fine for the tale that it’s telling, and means that it doesn’t outstay its welcome, as well as giving the actors enough time to establish the main characters without overblowing them. The main cast is well selected – Roger Clark, Julia Brown, and Troy Baker – and bring things to life with their performances; though they are hampered a little by the plot. There’s a build up that works brilliantly that gradually escalates the tension and provokes that “what has happened” wonder through the first couple of chapters, and all without straying into jumpscare for the sake of it territory. It then plateaus a bit when you understand the mechanics and the lack of real peril and start to enjoy the revelations. Unfortunately the end doesn’t have the pay off because what Jack finds out isn’t overly well explained, and I can’t even say that’s a deliberate ambiguity. It feels more like someone forgot to hang the threads that the plot needs to swing from. Is it disappointing? A little… but not the end of the world.
The journey to the last act and finale is definitely the best part of the game, and it’s been documented that the developers were looking at a “Moon meets Dead Space” scenario. I’d comfortably say that they pulled that objective off. With plenty of nods to Visceral’s sci-fi horror masterpiece, as well as touches of Alien, the atmosphere it creates is pretty special. Largely this is down to the design of the Fort Solis outpost itself and the use of scattered objects in abandoned areas to convey a lived in place; but also in the numerous recordings to watch and listen to. Using Jack’s multi-tool mounted on his wrist, you can access computers and personal recorders to get snippets of logs that add depth to the ancillary characters as well as life in the station. I particularly enjoyed the use of the video logs and the way it adds more depth than just a voiceover. It’s the focus on visual fidelity that helps sell the world and it all does feel tangible as you’re trudging down corridors or across the dusty surface of Mars. Splitting audio and the voice acting out separately: Troy steals the show really, though all three main actors are great, and I think that’s where the tightly focused runtime helped; whereas the environmental noises are functional without being overpowering. Maybe with the latter it could have done with more punch, especially as there’s an option to play environment sounds through the PS5 controller speaker. It doesn’t work well on the pre-release code by the way, there’s a delay that clashes with the console audio and I ended up quickly turning it off as it was distracting.
Were there other things wrong with Fort Solis? Not really. The main gripes are the walking pace, the story missing key explanations, and it being over a bit too quickly. That said, the level of polish on display and consistent feel of it being a AAA title puts it in good company. It’s a hard one to review without spoilers littering the page, and as such it might seem like it’s a bland title – it isn’t. I was onboard all the way through the game, and hooked when it delivered a couple of surprise changes of track at just the right points where you might be thinking of taking a break. For those who are thinking they don’t want to horror title affecting their beauty sleep, it won’t because it’s not really got any horror to it. If it were being classified as a film it’d clearly be a thriller, and that’s what it offers up throughout, if a little clumsily tied off at the end.
A PS5 review copy of Fort Solis was provided by Fallen Leaf’s PR team, and the game is out now on PlayStation and PC for around £30.
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