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Review: Solstice Chronicles: MIA (Steam)

Even if it is only remotely considered a sequel to The Red Solstice, today I’m reviewing Solstice Chronicles: MIA, a game that can stand on its own and be enjoyed by veterans and new players of the series alike. It’s the second Steam project for developer Ironward, but they decided to drop the squad-based shooting (Co-Op or AI assisted) in favor of either a two-player formula or lone wolf and drone assistance. Along with new maps and foes, Solstice Chronicles: MIA also expands the leveling system from its predecessor.

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The game defines irony quite well. Humanity fled Earth after it was compromised by the STROL virus and the mutants it created. Mars, the eternal Red Planet and eventually a colony in real life (not that we’ll live long enough to see it) seems like the logical choice for a Sci-Fi setting that is as close to a hellscape as it can ever get. The fourth planet from the Sun was also overrun by STROL-infused monsters which made short work of both the colonists and the security detail. Players assume the role of a lone survivor, a grunt whose name is never revealed and he’s being referred to as “Marine”. Not even a Joe or Bob, Ironward? I’ll call him Billy, then. MIA is the acronym for “missing in action”. A step above KIA, but only because of uncertainty.

At least we’re told of our Marine’s employer. The Elysium Mining Corporation may not be the unseen evil in this title, so they’re not comparable to Umbrella, Tyrell or Weyland-Yutani. They certainly don’t try to “harness” or better said, weaponize the monsters for some devious purpose, but can still be accused of minimizing the threat or not providing the marines with enough firepower to have a fighting chance. It was a turkey shoot and once the chocolate cake has hit the fan, you can expect no reinforcements either. Marine Dude has to evacuate his hind from the accursed planet and he’ll have to do it on his own. Or almost, since he quickly finds himself in the company of a mysteriously chatty drone that calls herself “Saffron” (yes, she has a female voice).

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So at least Solstice Chronicles: MIA knows how to sprinkle some comic relief over the otherwise prevalent survival horror subplots and themes. It isn’t even an escort mission since Saffron can assist the Marine in more ways than one. I shall focus on her skills in the gameplay section and for now I will summarize the 22 levels within the game, while avoiding spoilers. Marine flees for his life but the plot obviously thickens as he discovers that the colony’s demise has been deliberate. An inside job, a resistance movement which reminded me of the Red Faction series (it’s on Mars, right?) and the increasingly numerous swarms of mutants, are just some of the obstacles between one hapless but glorified bodyguard and his shuttle towards home. Wherever that might be, since Earth is no longer a valid destination.

I know the drill. Unreal Engine 4 and 4K resolution@60fps aren’t getting along very well. I went for 2K but even then I had several instances in which the frame rate would drop close to 30fps. Fortunately, it didn’t happen during the majority of the gameplay. By the time you get zerg rushed by dozens of foes at the same time, you’re chances of survival are slim already. On the upside, UE4 does provide adequate eye candy if the dev team was skilled enough. Ironward confirmed this unwritten rule. The levels may seem like few but they are filled to the brim with details and asset reuse or not, they are never positioned in a similar manner as to provoke a déjà vu. Particle and lighting effects, excellent shooting animations and a convincing (albeit fictional) flamethrower trajectory, it all feels and looks like a quality game. I played my fair share of twin stick shooters over the years but Solstice Chronicles: MIA is definitely one of the prettier titles within the genre. It even features cinematics rendered with the in-game engine, instead of FMVs (pre-recorded animations).

Surprisingly, there’s little to complain about the sounds as well. Voice acting was fine, if nothing special. But at least they didn’t hire actors who phoned in their dialogue. Yeah, I know that drone looks like the infamous “Dinklebot” from Destiny, but I assure you that Saffron is far more enthusiastic in her line delivery. Soundtrack never bothered me and the sound effects were on par with the rest of the audio assets.

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Several key elements separate Solstice Chronicles: MIA from its competitors on Steam. Apart from the good looks, the gameplay really shines through the use of that drone in conjunction with a single marine controlled by the player or a two-man team in Co-Op. A Threat Level gauge indicates at all times, an accurate estimation of both the scale and sheer power of the mutant swarm trying to chew your face off at that specific moment and location. Threat Level elevates itself as you slay more and more approaching foes but it can also be lowered by scripted events or Saffron’s direct intervention since her Taunt skill is used precisely for this reason. Her other abilities (Scout, Block, Bomb) are just as useful in the long run. Just don’t forget that you aren’t fighting this “uphill battle” alone and that the AI doesn’t get between you and your marks nor does it require babysitting, since the mutants prefer Marine flesh over a chunk of metal and circuit boards.

Our not-so-silent protagonist has a deadly skill set of his own, but it is more dependent on player choice. Character classes are represented by Assault, Demolition, Hellfire and Terminator. The first two are rather self-explanatory and too “vanilla” for my tastes so I went with Hellfire since Terminator is a bonus class unlocked after you’ve completed the 22nd level on the Normal (“Soldier”) difficulty. If it isn’t obvious already, Hellfire is the “Flamethrower Guy”. The weapons are well diversified in comparison to enemy variety or methods of dispatching them. The class I chose had the second weapon slot locked to the Salamander P20 Flamer and that also happens to be my favorite weapon in the game. Mutant BBQ from a seemingly endless ammo supply, as the flamethrower is reliant on the Marine’s stamina. Weird choice but fortunately most stats can be upgraded in the game’s RPG-like leveling system. Skill points get distributed between missions.

I mentioned that the tactics seem rather limited and the shooting mechanics within Solstice Chronicles: MIA gets repetitive when you know that the foes follow a linear pattern. A beeline towards the protagonist. No ambushing, flanking and the vast majority of mutants don’t have a ranged attack option of their own. So they just try to close in on our armed-to-the-teeth Marine by mindlessly charging in hope that numbers alone will suffice. It gets old eventually and the boss fights are few and far in-between. You’ll be tossing flares almost as frequently as grenades, since most levels are too dark and you’ll be hearing the swarms sooner than spotting them. It adds to the horror element so I can’t complain. A desolated colony shouldn’t light up like a Christmas tree after all. The environments vary from collapsed highways to sewers and laboratories. They all have in common the green STROL infested areas that also double as mutant spawning locations.

As with other titles from the genre, the more you use a specific weapon, the bigger bonuses you get in regards to damage or reload speed. And you’ll have quite an arsenal to choose from, so at least the firearms don’t disappoint as much as the mutants themselves. Overall, Solstice Chronicles: MIA is a worthy sequel and a step in the right direction for the developer. Perhaps Solstice will become a trilogy since it’s already a series which proves that even twin stick shooters can move with the times.

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.

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