Throughout the history of games, more and more elements of other mediums have been incorporated into game design, creating ever more interesting and creative ways to tell stories. Fort Solis is another example of this, being heavily inspired by the thriller genre of film and placing you under a heavy layer of suspense to keep your attention. The voice acting is phenomenal, the sound design is unsettling in the best way, and the set pieces are utilized perfectly to create layers in the story as everything unravels throughout your experience. That said, the story and cinematography alone don't carry enough weight to make Fort Solis the incredible experience it could be.
In Fort Solis, the story revolves around Jack Leary (voiced by Roger Clark) and Jessica Appleton (Julia Brown), two engineers working on a station on the Planum region of Mars. After receiving a manual distress signal from the neighboring outpost of Fort Solis, Jack leaves the base to investigate and see what caused the disturbance, only accompanied by Jessica as she monitors him from their base.
Following this segment, the game opens up and you are allowed to explore some of the base before you are steered down the required story path. From the start, this game is a walking simulator - the only actions you can do are walk, interact with objects, and complete quick-time events (QTEs). As you explore the seemingly abandoned space station, various collectibles are scattered across the game and can be looked at later in the "Extras" menu. Things like audio logs, trinkets, and emails all serve to tell the story of what happened at Fort Solis, what research they were doing, and why the station was abandoned. This is one of the stronger aspects of the game's narrative focus as it encourages the player to keep an eye out for these little bits and pieces of environmental storytelling.
While the collectibles help tell the story of what happened at Fort Solis, they also allow Jack and Jessica to develop as characters, and show the player a glimpse into this world before the events of the game. Their conversations feel natural to hear, like two good working buddies who have known each other forever. They talk about things like how Jack likes to drink, their opinions on zombie movies, and other mundane things that make them feel more three-dimensional as characters. The game is short so utilizing the extras to serve as a way to make the game's world and characters feel more believable improves the overall experience of the game.
Suspense is the Keyword
What makes Fort Solis an interesting experience is the level of suspense it provides while going down a linear path. The game has a few sections where areas converge into more breathable hubs, but then split off into dark, narrow, pathways that are only illuminated by a helmet light or emergency lights. Most rooms are well-lit, but feel cramped because they're filled with small furniture and cluttered desks. The exterior of Mars is dark and barely visible as you walk through it, and the colors the game employs are muted. The only area that contrasts this is the greenhouse, a wide-open facility littered with greens hanging over archways and decorating desks. The atmosphere of Fort Solis is incredibly unnerving to go through and keeps you on edge.
The sound design lends a huge hand to this as well. Footsteps echo and can make it feel as if you're being followed, while the soundtrack adds pressure to every move you make even if it lacks consequence. I was particularly a fan of how the diegetic audio would sound more filtered if the controlled character had their helmet on or off. Combining this with the narrative elements lends a huge hand to wrap the story section of this game in one big scary bow, and it's easy to find this game intriguing based on these details alone. That being said...
The actual gameplay is severely lacking
Throughout my time with Fort Solis, I kept trying to make connections to other games before letting it have its own identity. At first, I tried to compare it to Alien: Isolation, but the suspense and fear arise from the environment in this game, not a monster that hunts you. I tried comparing it to Until Dawn, but there aren't branching pathways and choices that change the ending as was the case in SuperMassive's horror hit.
While there are similarities to those other games in small ways (unsettling atmosphere and QTEs), what this game lacks overall is any kind of real gameplay or impact. The gameplay loop consists of walking down hallways and proceeding down a very linear path. QTEs come and go in a very nonchalant way that caught me off guard sometimes purely because the visual cues for them aren't very apparent, and completing a QTE gives you a five to ten-second scene that follows. The game's map is hard to read because the cursor doesn't move with the character. There aren't any tools, items, or anything that changes the flow of gameplay. While I still consider this an interactive narrative, what Fort Solis is lacking is a true layer of interactivity that would really make it a game.
Despite the wonderful voice work of Roger Clark as one of the main characters I couldn't help but feel a strong disconnect between myself and Jack Leary. In line with the classic horror movie trope, Jack chooses to turn his fear into a lax curiosity, poking and prodding around Fort Solis until it's too late. I felt that this was his weakest element as a character because even for someone as easygoing as him, it didn't make sense. Jack doesn't seem the type to be an overachiever, so why carry on the inspection for so much longer than he needed to when he realized something was wrong? That said, it makes Jessica's motivations clear for her role toward the latter half of the game.
It's best said by Jack at the beginning of the game: "I wish he had done more." This game has a strong narrative, and considering how short it is, it was easier to pick up and play on days that I was busier than normal. I would boast about how that could lead to replayability, but the inability to move faster than a walking pace does that a disservice. In the end, Fort Solis's identity is structured in how it draws inspiration from film, stories that are told from beginning to end without any kind of interruption aside from the viewer pressing the Pause button. Despite being accompanied by an interesting narrative, the gameplay itself is lacking in some important ways, ultimately making Fort Solis a disappointment.
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