Solo isn't a walking simulator. Ironically though, it is a great example of why our hobby doesn't need walking simulators. These games rest upon the premise that gameplay need not accompany story, or the idea that removing gameplay is the only way to get the most out of video games as a storytelling medium. I have never bought into this notion that games have to feature either story or gameplay and that you can't have both at the same time. Solo is the latest game (and definitely not the first) to demonstrate exactly why I feel that way. It bills itself as "An Introspective Puzzle Adventure" which may sound interesting to some, but cringe worthy to those of us more cynical and tired of seeing mediocre fiction being passed off as "games." If you are one of these people, then I can relate. And, I can recommend that you not write off this game before you have had a chance to try it because you may, like me, find yourself pleasantly surprised.
Right away, you will see that the game benefits from sound artistic choices. Solo, whose setting and visuals are very obviously inspired by The Legend of Zelda: WInd Waker, takes places on a series of small islands. In fact, if you were to envision an isometric, HD version of Wind Waker, then Solo might be the game that you would come up with. The bright, beautiful, and colorful locales in which you will spend all of your time are a perfect setting from the game. The serene atmosphere offered by these visuals and the game's gentle soundtrack combine to lend the game the feel of being an exotic vacation.
Each island starts off with just a small area above the water. As you solve puzzles and progress, you are rewarded with one of the game's philosophical questions. When you provide your answer, another section of the island arises out of the sea and you walk over to that section to solve the puzzles there. After repeating this process a few times, the island is complete and you get in your boat to sail to the next island. Meanwhile, you have the opportunity to interact with the game's adorable wildlife and occasionally solve a side puzzle that is not necessary to complete the game.
The theme of this game is love, but not in the form that sees you romancing an NPC or saving a princess. Instead, it is one that sees you contemplating what love actually is and challenging your assumptions about it. It would be very easy for a game that delves into this subject matter to fall flat on its face and provide a lot of unintentional comedy. Instead, the game tackles this material thoughtfully and intelligently, posing questions that you likely have not yet encountered in a video game. Can you stay in love forever, or is falling out of love inevitable? Should you keep hurtful secrets from your partner? What happens when you are no longer sexually attracted to your partner? The game poses these and other questions to you, and it implores you to answer them for yourself. There is no "right" or "wrong" in the game, and there is no story as much as there is a journey. Your goal isn't so much to win the game as it is to learn more about your own tendencies and deeply held assumptions. It is in this manner that the game delivers on the "Introspective" portion of its tagline in spades.
The game also delivers on the "Puzzle" portion of its tagline very well, which is the more pleasant surprise here. That is not to say that it is revolutionary or that it doesn't have its share of minor issues, but the gameplay is more challenging and cleverly designed than that of most indie "art" games nowadays. The game borrows a handful of very common elements from other puzzle games, such as placing and climbing on blocks and using fans to propel yourself upwards. In fact, most of the game is just placing four different kinds of blocks in an arrangement that will allow you to reach high places and cross gaps. Don't let this simplicity fool you, however, because Solo gets plenty of mileage out of mixing and matching its simple mechanics. It is enough to keep you engaged for the game's five hour duration.
It is difficult to describe what makes a puzzle game work well, but you know the feeling of a good puzzle game when you experience one. With a great puzzle, there is the presentation of the challenge. Then there is the initial period of trial and error and failure, where you may even begin to doubt that the puzzle is solvable. Finally, there is the deduction period where you achieve that ever-so-satisfying "aha" moment that occurs when you finally solve it and get your in game reward. The quality of a puzzle game might be measured in how many of these "aha" moments it offers, and Solo offers quite a few of them. It is definitely not the hardest puzzle game on the market, but don't be surprised if a few of the puzzles stump you for more than a few minutes. Another measure of a good puzzle game is how many puzzles it can offer with its mechanics without monotony setting in or solutions repeating themselves. A good puzzle game should gradually increase its difficulty with puzzles whose solutions build upon what you learned in earlier puzzles. Solo passes this test too, by teaching you its basic rules and tricks with some easy initial puzzles, and then by forcing you to recall and utilize those tricks later in the game.
If any significant criticisms can be leveled at Solo, it would be that the game brings little to the table in the way of originality when it comes to its nuts-and-bolts gameplay. Despite the game's solid execution, the feeling of familiarity occasionally creeps into the picture. Nor do the gameplay and the artistic themes in Solo benefit from much synergy. These two pillars of the game work together just fine, but just about any nonviolent game mechanic would have also worked just as well. To its credit, Solo does attempt to add some twists to its formula. One of these twists is a guitar that you carry with you, which can be used to play music. Over the course of the game, you learn various songs that can turn rain into sunshine and vice versa, or drain all of the color out of the world and turn it black and white. As far as I could tell though, these changes were little more than aesthetic, and they ultimately did not have a gameplay effect.
A few other issues nag at the game as well, although these problems are more of a minor nature, or polish issues that are possible to fix. For instance, although the game does not feature cutting edge graphics technology, I still developed some frame rate issues as each island gradually grew, and when the islands got full and the screen was loaded with content, sometimes it slowed down to 15 FPS and below. In addition, I frequently encountered a control problem when I would levitate a box with the game's staff and attempt to move it. Namely, my avatar would spaz out after I picked up the box like an extra from the movie Jacob's Ladder and it would become impossible to place the box. These problems are the types that can typically be remedied with patches. If they are not, however, then you may find that they provide an annoyance. If your experience with the game is like mine, however, then they won't provide much more than a small one.
With its tagline, Solo promises an experience that is both introspective and puzzle-based, and it lives up to that promise. Its unique presentation of the theme of love is backed by solid, well-designed puzzle gameplay. It's refreshing to play a game that not only makes you contemplate a theme in a way that other games do not, but also does it in a manner that does not neglect the aspects of games that make it a unique medium. The game does not revolutionize the puzzle game genre, but it doesn't have to. Solo is a successful experiment that is easy to recommend for those of you who like to experience new takes on what gaming has to offer. It's also easy to recommend for those of you who want to enjoy games as an art form, but are weary of experiences that come up short in the "game" department.