Premature Evaluation: The Solus Project

It's a pretty skybox, until you realize that the meteors can actually hit you.

Few sci-fi games embrace the menacing strangeness and indifference of the universe as you find it in Kubrick, Tarkovsky, or even Scott’s original Alien. Space, and the far future, tend to be familiar analogues to the everyday conflicts we see around us. The aliens are never too alien, and new worlds are never too new.

The Solus Project maroons the player beyond the outskirts of comprehension. It’s a survival game with a little more guidance and sense of purpose that you’ll find in the million other survival games jostling for attention on Early Access. It’s also about a hundred times more polished, which is fitting for a game fast-approaching its full release. But its gorgeous graphics and clever diegetic interface are all in the service of a story of isolation and suspense on a deserted alien world.

The game opens with some expository title cards laying out a pretty typical backstory: Earth was destroyed, and the remnants of humanity are clinging to life aboard a rescue fleet out by Pluto. Your character was sent on an expedition to find humanity a viable new homeworld. Sci-fi fans know such an expedition can only end one way, and so it’s not a surprise when something destroys your ship and dumps your character on a rocky alien coast.

What a coast it is. Solus is a straightforward game, but if it starts to soar, it’s because it sells the illusion of being lost on a harsh and cryptic alien world in style. A massive, diseased-looking planet rises over the far horizon for much of the day / night cycle, while a smaller moon appears at night. The sky is shot-through with auroras, shooting stars, and occasionally pieces of burning spaceship. In the distance, faint pieces of what could be architecture rise out of distant islands, while the nearby coast is broken up by jagged pillars of what appear to be carved rock. Your PDA tells you that the heat is intense by day, and the cold is bone-deep by night, and the edge of your space helmet visor will start to fog-in as you linger in the cold.

By day, the planet can look deceptively warm and inviting.

There are two central problems that introduce themselves quickly. First, your character needs to survive on the planet while also get enough equipment up-and-running to get a message back to the human fleet. Second, you need to figure out whether this new planet is safe, considering that the previous occupants appear to have vanished or died.

Those two questions are examined in two distinct types of levels and environments. When you’re on the surface, you’re visiting crash sites, scavenging equipment, and trying to find bits of shelter, food and warmth to prevent yourself from getting sick. You’re also finding preposterously-preserved diary entries from your former crewmates littering the landscape, which reveals an intriguing backstory to your mission, albeit in a clunky fashion.

But when you go underground, into the caves and underground vaults you discover while exploring the surface, you’ll find the remnants of an alien civilization, and hints as to why they vanished after transforming their world into a mammoth objet d’art.

You'd think an advanced alien race would produce something better than a giant Chia-Pet.

Exploration of these two environment types is what The Solus Project is all about, while the survival elements predominantly function as a way to increase the challenge of exploration. Often, this pressure acts as a sort of timer: caught in a driving rainstorm at night, your character is certain to get hypothermia if you don’t eventually seek shelter and warmth. Plunge too deep into the caves, and you risk losing your way and exhausting your supply of food and water before you find your way back out.

I love that The Solus Project isn’t afraid to let survival fade into the background, unlike so many survival games that never let you forget that you’re about to be slightly hungry, or you’re about to get too cold, or that every passing second brings you closer to the moment when you will be thirsty once again. The Solus Project wants your mind on other things besides the basic care and maintenance of an imaginary body, and it’s very easy to forget that it’s a survival game at all… until you realize you’re in mortal danger.

An aside: only once in my life have I gotten badly lost. I was in a college, at a retreat with my friends and decided to go for a nice walk through the forest a couple hours before dusk. I knew the surrounding area decently well, and most of the trails I’d seen looped back home within a mile or so. So I hurried into the forest alone, not telling anyone that I was leaving, and without a phone, a knife, or even a lighter. Because it was all perfectly safe, and the woods weren’t so very big, and so I wasn’t taking a chance at all… until I passed through a section of clear-cut forest and lost the trail without realizing what I’d done until the sun dipped below the trees and a mild early spring day started to give way to a wintry night. And suddenly it dawned on me that I was in actual danger, in a tiny forest that couldn’t have measured more than ten or twelve miles across.

This tomb is no place for children, even undead ones.

I flashed back to that moment in The Solus Project. A cave complex proved longer and deeper than I’d anticipated, and the half-charged solar flashlight that I’d brought with me from the surface started to weaken and dim as the battery ran down and the caves stretched ever onwards into deepening gloom. I could vividly picture my surface-level camp, with its fire, its food supplies, its bottles of water. All of them so far behind me that I’d never make it back. So I pressed forward, using the faint, watery light of my flashlight to navigate.

What that flashlight illuminated — badly — was increasingly disturbing, with some choice moments stolen from other horror games and even shades of Lost and Prometheus. Even as I recognized the influences and tropes that The Solus Project was employing, however, I was still helpless against their profound creepiness.

On the other hand, I wish there were a bit more to The Solus Project than just “wander around and look at stuff”. The stuff you’re looking at is pretty interesting, and the planet becomes an ever-more menacing and bizarre place. The levels are fun to explore, with loads of hidden passages and collectibles. But there’s also a lot of re-treading old ground, taking naps, and re-reading the same notes and tablets before you figure out what you missed.

There’s also not much to these levels beyond collecting stuff and delivering it to a destination or a gadget. I’m not sure The Solus Project needs to be a puzzle game, but it could use a little more to do beyond “bring the space-trash to the Macguffin device”.

When you see somethign that doesn't belong in The Solus Project, you're probably in mortal danger.

Still, The Solus Project excels as a sci-fi haunted house. A tunnel full of what appears to be teeth is utterly terrifying, while being caught in a meteor shower left me absolutely floored when I realized that the “skybox” was in fact coming straight at me and was starting to explode nearby.

Compared to much of what you’ll find on Early Access, The Solus Project is absolutely incredible. It may not be trying to create an entire “alien planet survival sim”, but it’s definitely doing an effective job of making you feel alone and vulnerable on a planet where nothing seems natural. Whether the mysteries it unveils live up to the setting remain to be seen, but like Lost, The Solus Project succeeds because the journey is so stylish and evocative that wondering about the destination becomes more satisfying than getting there.

The Solus Project is available on Steam for £14.99 / $19.99. My impressions are based on build 1128169 on 29 May 2016.

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57 Comments

  1. Alien says:

    “Few sci-fi games embrace the menacing strangeness and indifference of the universe as you find it in Kubrick, Tarkovsky, or even Scott’s original Alien.”

    Could you please name those “few” sci-fi games?

    The only one that really gave me the “Alien” (1979) feeling was “Super Metroid”. The sensation of being lost on a vast planet and the atmosphere of being alone and isolated is unmatched. “System Shock 2” comes close in atmosphere, but Super Metroid is “art”;) (the sound design; the environmental storytelling; the evocative intro…)

    I am always looking for games that come close to SS2 and Super Metroid…

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      Nauallis says:

      Only game I can think of that captures that feel as a game was the storyline of the Marathon: Evil scenario for the Marathon Infinity engine (link to alephone.lhowon.org)
      In this case it’s less about the indifference of the universe, and more of the fear of being an explorer in a completely unknown environment.

    • kincajou says:

      Although i haven’t played it, i hear Duskers does a good job at getting that feeling locked down. Of the stuff i have played, “the swapper” got the atmosphere of loneliness in a strange environment done quite well (although no real horror there).

      If you like the feeling of isolation in foreign environments which don’t always make sense i would advise reading Solaris by stanislaw lem, no book has achieved it that well in my opinion (though the English translation is, i hear, a bit cut down since at the time they wanted to get rid of …”the boring bits” which build the isolation further.)

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        Nauallis says:

        Oh man, Solaris is great at emphasizing the “aliens are alien” idea. It’s really baffling to me how little mainstream sci-fi includes any alien species that are inherently unknowable/incomprehensible. It’s either “humanity has found no alien races, and suddenly, RUINS!” or “all of the aliens we’ve found can be communicated with.” There’s very little “these aliens might be sentient but we seriously can’t tell and WTF is going on.”

        • bhauck says:

          A pet theory of mine is that aliens have already gotten here, but their sense of time was so slow compared to ours that the only thing they identified as moving at the pace of they associated with life was our continents. If the moon ever shrugs its shoulders and takes off, I have a guess as to why.

          • kincajou says:

            that’s quite cool as an idea. Though i guess in our reference frame we’d never even see the moon shrugging and taking off. Speaking of which, isn’t the moon getting further from earth every year? ;P

          • Unclepauly says:

            Well you have something in common with The Donald then. The aliens are here and aren’t leaving anytime soon.

          • Raoul Duke says:

            Weird bit of serendipity, I had this exact thought in the shower this morning! I was thinking about why it is that we can’t find anything when we look (SETI etc).

            Of course it could work both ways. Alien ‘life’ could be super slow moving, as you suggest. Or it could be so fast moving that we cannot even perceive it. We are inherently chemical/mechanical beasts, so much of what we do is limited by the speed at which chemical reactions or physical movement of our meat-lumps occurs. But if a species evolved in a way where its processes were driven by the speed of light or some other mechanism, it might think and act (and live and die) at speeds we can’t even comprehend.

            And then you have other ways aliens might be truly ‘alien’, such as:
            – scale – they could be huge or super tiny
            – medium – they could exist or communicate in some medium we don’t know about (we only worked out radio in the last couple of hundred years, after all, let alone other types of radiation and force)
            – dimension – they could experience reality in a completely different way to us which makes us incapable of perceiving or interacting with them

          • Niente says:

            Talking of scale reminds me of Hitchhikers and the massive alien battle fleet that came to Earth and was swallowed in one gulp by a small dog.

        • Eight Rooks says:

          Solaris is a masterpiece, one of the greatest books ever written, and should be essential reading for anyone wanting to create and/or further their knowledge of truly thought-provoking, out-there genre fiction. The “We don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors” speech is one of the finest uses of the English language I’ve ever read (even in an imperfect translation), and pretty much encapsulates every argument brought up in these comments. Seriously, this isn’t intended as hyperbole – I was not prepared for just how good it was when I read it and walked away in a daze, more or less. mindblown.gif and then some.

          I’ve still not seen the Tarkovsky version. Soderbergh’s take is surprisingly good, and I can’t help but feel Lem was a miserable old sod in dismissing it… but I can see his argument, it does kind of miss the point of the book. It’s very elegant, very moving, but it’s not even close to being as earth-shaking as the novel.

          • kincajou says:

            I fully agree, as for the film, in the italian translation i read it seemed Lem preferred the Sonderberg version. The tarkovsky film is good but it is very much a product of it’s time, long shots, vague explanations…. Unfortunately so much of the book happens in people’s minds that it’s been hard to translate to film. If you like Lem you might enjoy the futurological congress movie which came out, i don’t know how true it was to the source material but it’s a good watch :)

          • dfghj241 says:

            yes! Stanislaw Lem is still the undefeated monolith of science fiction to me, specifically on the subject of aliens, that basically drove me to become a biologist some time ago anyway. I fully recommend His Master Voice! its his best book IMO, when i finished it i was just as you so skillfully described: dazed, confused and hungry for just as much of it as i could get. The book itself its more philosophical than normal, its written in the format of a mathematicians memoir! Another thing about Lem i love is how he always experimented with the art of literature, per instance, some of his work is written in “apocryphs” format, which basically is a review for a book that doesn’t exist. Its absurd what he does with it, even invoking the view on life and the universe as an all powerful, infinitely faster and weirder AI, to really put into perspective the human view versus Machine view! That’s Lem for you!

          • emertonom says:

            Another massive fan of Lem here, and I can tell you that “The Congress,” the film based on “The Futurological Congress,” is very, very, overwhelmingly different from the book. It’s not terrible, but it’s nowhere near the absurdist thrill ride that the book is.

            I can also second the recommendation of His Master’s Voice, which is my favorite Lem and definitely deals with aliens we can’t even begin to grok, and also Waltorious’s recommendation of Fiasco, which is more in the vein of this game, in that it deals with an *expedition* that encounters baffling alien stuff. Fiasco was actually the first thing that leapt to mind on reading this review. (The book, not the noun.) It would basically amount to a walking simulator, as this game does, but it’d be more along the lines of Escher and Dali than H.R. Giger. That’d make for a pretty great VR title.

          • Scrofa says:

            On the Tarkovsky’s version I completely agree with Lem himself, whom absolutely hated it for reasons of putting up the ideas literally opposite to the ones brought up in the book. Wouldn’t recommend. The visuals and cinematography are great though (albeit there is some dodgy acting).

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          zapatapon says:

          Fellow Lem fan here. While Solaris is his masterpiece, the idea that there are worlds and creatures out there fundamentally incomprehensible to humans is a recurring theme in his oeuvre, one that he explores under many fascinating angles. I remember in particular “The invincible” and “Eden” which I can also both recommend for their potent evocation of alien-ness.

          • Waltorious says:

            I’m also a Lem fan, and while I haven’t gotten my hands on Eden or The Invincible yet, I can add his novel Fiasco to the list of books dealing with the truly alien. Recommended.

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          The Almighty Moo says:

          Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth has a good ‘alien alien’ in it, though several steps removed from Lem’s it still is quite excellently realised. The series has its problems as a whole, but the chief antagonist is pretty good and fairly ‘other’

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            keefybabe says:

            I’d also say the aliens in Donaldson’s Gap Cycle are significantly more alien than 99% of aliens in fiction.

          • SableKeech says:

            Prime-tastic!

    • Urthman says:

      Kairo feels to me a bit like Kubrick sci-fi film, or an Arthur C. Clarke novel.

      link to kairo.lockeddoorpuzzle.com

    • Jonnyuk77 says:

      Bioforge….?

      Mastaba, you bastard!

      • floogles says:

        “If you’ve come for the fork, you’ll be sorely disappointed.”

        Love this game, some frustrating design decisions but the atmosphere is superb.

    • elaforge says:

      It’s obvious of course, but the original Metroid. I think it was more alien and unexplainable and unexplained than Super Metroid, where initially you don’t even know if the protagonist is human (and certainly doesn’t act human, turning into a ball like that).

      Also the music being minimalistic and in odd rhythms (Norfair is a 13 beat cycle throughout) I found more appropriate than Super Metroid’s more sophisticated but more mainstream soundtrack.

      Also the giant maze of unmapped rooms that all look the same means you actually can get seriously lost. In Super Metroid you just pull up the map and there you are.

    • Waltorious says:

      I also love Super Metroid. So far I haven’t found anything to match it, but I can say that I like the original System Shock even better than System Shock 2, so I can wholeheartedly recommend it. Especially now that it has an enhanced edition that allows the use of mouselook, rather than the original clunky controls.

      I did try a little bit of Metroid Prime and found it had a similar atmosphere to Super Metroid. It actually makes Samus feel more like some kind of high-tech archaeologist, with her ability to scan everything for background info. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Super Metroid but it’s worth a look if you haven’t tried it before. The transition to 3D worked a lot better than I expected.

    • Durgendorf says:

      FTL can feel very, very lonely.

  2. kincajou says:

    “Few sci-fi games embrace the menacing strangeness and indifference of the universe as you find it in Kubrick, Tarkovsky, or even Scott’s original Alien.”

    I’m sorry but the credit for Solaris should not go to Tarkovsky, although Tarkovsky produced some exceptional work it’s the mind, creativity and writing of Stanislaw Lem that make Solaris what it is…

    In my many years of being a sci-fi fan, i find Lem is an underappreciated gem in an envoironment dominated by the anglosaxon currents and styles of writing. It would be a pity to let him be forgotten by giving the credit of Solaris to Tarkovsky

    • Konservenknilch says:

      I took it as a reference to the movie “Stalker”, and was about to comment on having to highlight the Strugatzki brothers’ work instead. No only in “Roadside Picnic”, but many other works as well, they excel at portraying “alienness”. Highly recommended, all of their stuff.

      And of course read Lem as well ;)

      • kincajou says:

        I’d never heard of them, they look really interesting! Do you advise starting with “roadside Picnic”?

        • Konservenknilch says:

          It’s a perfectly fine place to start. None of their novels are serialized anyway, though many take place in the same universe. Roadside Picnic of probably the most well-known because of the movie, though it’s a very, very loose adaptation.

          I’m only familiar with the German translations, and I have no idea how much was ever translated into English (or the names then).

          • Replikant says:

            Really strange book. Couldn’t stop reading.

          • Waltorious says:

            I should point out that Tarkovsky’s Stalker was actually made in collaboration with the Strugatsky brothers, so while it does differ significantly from Roadside Picnic, it at least has the approval of the original authors.

      • jeeger says:

        Yay for the Strugatskys! My favourite Sci-Fi book of all times isn’t something by any “western” author, but the book “The Doomed City” by the aforementioned brothers.

        It’s pervasive atmosphere of strangeness and hopelessness has irrevocably impressed itself on me, and I haven’t read anything alike in yonks (please, tell me where I can find more, dear community).

        • Konservenknilch says:

          Ooh, that’s another fantastic one. Very very weird though.

        • Shinan says:

          I need to look up The Doomed City. But one book I can recommend about… you know, aliens and strangeness is China Mieville’s Embassytown. Just the way that book tries to sort of explain how the eliens think and work is just amazing (and also alien). I was incredibly impressed by it.

          Though not having read The Doomed City I don’t know if that’s even close to it. I might just be confusing it with the other discussion about aliens being properly alien and exploring that. :)

          • AyeBraine says:

            The gift on my 16th birthday, waiting for me on my table, was a 16-volume Strugatskys collected works (it is finite, because one of them died in ’91). Mom knew what’s what. Was the best gift I ever received and certainly I used the most (some volumes literally disintegrated into pages eventually). It’s also serious reading, mostly (as much as I like genre, that’s not it); and invariably greatly ahead of its time (you should see some of the cliched old-fashioned drivel their contemporary Soviet sci-fi authors put out). You got gritty socio-politic fantasy, you got weird Ph.K.Dickian transhumanist worlds, you got Transmetropolitan-like satire, you got deconstructive space opera idealism that manages to reinforce idealism, you got slice-of-life novels with three timelines, you even got brutal medieval fiction slash political satire (a sociologist from space works undercover in a dirty “circa-14th c.” world).

          • jeeger says:

            Heh, read the Bas-Lag cycle already, and it was great fun (also have a look at This Census-Taker, which is like reading a Dark Souls book), but so far, I’ve not read his other stuff — I’ll have a look, thanks!

        • kincajou says:

          It’s got a completely different atmosphere, but my favourite Sci-fi book is Philip k. dick’s Ubik.

          It plays with reader perception in a way that’s incredible… where Stanislaw Lem has stayed with me ever since solaris and made me question how limited human interaction really is, Ubik makes me question if i even exist in this world. Every person i have given it to has said they have this effect where they finish the book and need to go and touch something to “you know…make sure it’s real”.

          If you’ve never read it i’d happily advise it, it may not have the feelings you’re looking for but it does bring a whole different set of emotions with it. :)

          • Konservenknilch says:

            Dick in general is great, Ubik is probably one of my favorites. Top place goes to Valis though, just because of, again, sheer weirdness. It also shows that Dick was really something of a nutjob.

            That casual crossdressing in Ubik though, that cracks me up to this day.

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            Nauallis says:

            Those first five words

        • Imposter says:

          I haven’t read The Doomed City but it’s definitely on my todo list now. For something that gave me a feeling similar to what you’re describing (or if you just want a good book, I can recommend them wholeheartedly just on general merit), I can’t recommend the Southern Reach trilogy enough. Very Roadside Picnic, admittedly.

          • jeeger says:

            You win a prize for mentioning something I haven’t read yet :-) — I’ve already read the other recommendations, although I should probably reread some of them.

            Thanks for the reply, I’ll have a look!

      • Scrofa says:

        Strugatsky’s “Snail on the Slope” was one of the life defining books for me.

    • Replikant says:

      Lem’s fascinating. I adore the Star Diaries: While a number of his books are kind of slightly depressing, the Star Diaries are lighthearted and funny.

  3. syllopsium says:

    A forest barely 10 miles across? It’s entirely possible to get completely lost on a misty moor less than a mile across..

    There’s a reason why towns are generally so unreasonably close in first person RPGs.

  4. Hourences says:

    Thanks for playing and writing about our game Rob :)
    Very nice to hear you enjoyed it!

    Full release is actually just around the corner, announcement with extra info following within hours!

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      magogjack says:

      I for getting this game, and I can’t wait to see what your team makes next!

    • DrazharLn says:

      In the 0.63 update today you released a lot of VR updates. How complete would you say the VR experience is at the moment? Are you still struggling to get VR store accreditation due to low frame rates?

      In the update you also talk about reduced graphical fidelity for VR. Any idea what a user with a 980ti would lose compared to the monitor/traditional experience?

      Finally, what’s the interaction like with tracked controllers? Can things generally be picked up and thrown around? Are items mapped and used somewhat naturally from the hands? Anything you’re still working on in this domain?

      Solus looks great, thanks very much for working on it :)

      • Hourences says:

        Hi,

        Not sure on how far in VR is. We are waiting to get feedback from the community now to see how much more we must do to VR besides the obvious (inventory menu/tutorial system) and then we can give you a better estimate. Nonetheless we intend to have VR more or less final 1 week after the full release of the game next week.

        It is a heavy game for VR seeing it is large open spaces, full dynamic light, and lots of translucent rendering, but you can scale it down massively with the rendering settings. I only briefly tested it on a 980ti myself, with a CV1 and only in the first level before any storms hit, but I was at 90 FPS there on medium detail. It might be that pushing it up to high detail would still keep it at 90 even, so we are definitely making very good progress there. It is getting close.
        At medium detail some particles are gone, and the shadow quality is less good. That’ll be the most obvious changes. Foliage might fade faster. Those kind of things. The step from high to medium isn’t huge. Medium to low is a huge visual difference though.

        The Vive controllers are working entirely. You got a laser pointer on the right controller to aim at objects so you can pick them up. Objects you pick up appear in the middle of the circle on the right controller as if you hold them. The left controller is the pocket computer in the game so you can bring up the computer any time you want and look at it. While scanning items you thus aim at it with the laser of the right controller, and then read the computer you hold in the left hand and it works great I think.
        Flashlights and torches work awesome too, you can basically just swing them around as if you hold them in real life.
        You can throw but velocity is limited so you won’t throw very far. We might change that still.

        • SingularityParadigm says:

          Do you plan to build in support for Oculus Touch when they release later this year?

          • Hourences says:

            Don’t yet know. Depends how VR is received, and depends on how time consuming it is technically to support Oculus touch once that is available.

        • DrazharLn says:

          Thanks for replying, that sounds positive :)

          I’m not sure about the laser pointer pick up mechanic, but I assume there’s some reason you went for that rather than the more usual ‘move hand close to object, pull trigger, hand turns into object’ method. Maybe it’s one of those things like teleporting that sounds weird and immersion breaking but actually works really well in VR.

  5. naam says:

    “Few sci-fi games embrace the menacing strangeness and indifference of the universe as you find it in Kubrick, Tarkovsky, or even Scott’s original Alien.”

    No-one mentioned MirrorMoon EP yet. Talk about feeling lost in an uncaring universe, seeking only wonder.

  6. PanFaceSpoonFeet says:

    Droooool. This looks awesome. Steam says min spec is a 460, but blurb says they’re only getting 70fps with a 780ti on low… any chance of a demo.? That’d be real useful.. yay to the super metroid love on here. T’was the sound that really made that one.

    • Hourences says:

      PanfaceSpoonFeet – no no, the 70 FPS on low on a 780ti that is in VR! And that is before we made all the current changes on top of it! We will take that out soon from the store page.
      VR is heavy as always, but in non VR mode it runs really well. You can check our Steam reviews and see how many people bring up great performance, and how few say anything about FPS issues. We never tried just how low you can go with the specs, the 460 is just a cautious guess. We have DX10 support too, so you can probably go really low and still have it run 30 fps on low end settings.

  7. Pelt Hunter says:

    I bought this game a while back and can easily say it is one of my favorite survival early access games I’ve bought. Mostly because it’s damn near finished. Extremely playable. Also, the islands are certainly very surreal and otherworldy. The space tornadoes alone are stunning but the environmental effects, particles and lighting all coalesce into something… more. It’s amazing.

    Although, I will say the puzzles annoy me. When I think something will work, it won’t until I’ve hit a certain “checkpoint” that drops a certain something else I need. I’m still looking to find the second lever to open all the admittedly stupid looking barred off areas in the caves. In fact, I hate the stupid caves. You think you’ll find something in the seashells but nooo…. no secrets to be found as often as in… say… Uncharted 4 or Wolfenstein: The Old Blood. Different genres, yes but it still bugs me.

    Overall. Would recommend for an experience that truly feels different and whole.

  8. TheSplund says:

    Well, that’s another game in my Steam Library – very positive reaction above and I’m rather looking forward to playign it shortly