Fort Solis Review – Strife On Mars

Fort Solis Review – Strife On Mars

Fallen Leaf’s space thriller tells a topical story of human ingenuity and hubris alike.

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Put a few humans in outer space for a story set in the future and the result always seems to be that nothing will go their way. That’s once again the broad strokes of this latest space thriller, Fort Solis, but the intrigue, as ever, is in the details. Developer Fallen Leaf does a good job of hiding the satisfying answers to its central mysteries up to the very end, which makes its story consistently absorbing even as some of its gameplay elements betray its own Hollywood-inspired intentions.

Fort Solis is a third-person adventure game that tells a story reminiscent of Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s slow, sometimes to a fault, and more concerned with its message and themes than action set-pieces. That doesn’t mean it’s a low-stakes tale. On the contrary, the secrets tucked away in Fort Solis are existential, but it’s expressed through the eyes of a small cast of interesting characters whom you’ll get to know over the game’s five-hour story.

Fort Solis has AAA aspirations, and it shows quite clearly in a few ways. For one, the game looks gorgeous. Built in Unreal Engine and presenting gameplay in an over-the-shoulder style, it would be easy to mistake this indie for the next big-budget cinematic thriller. That’s further solidified by its exceptional cast headlined by Roger Clark and Troy Baker, but the complete cast of about 10 or so people is just as well-written and with great performances to match. Clark’s Leary and Julia Brown’s Jessica Appleton do well to color in the world in the first hour, including their own characters who would otherwise be amorphous Mars transplants in drab uniforms.

Visually, Fort Solis is indistinguishable from a big-budget project.
Visually, Fort Solis is indistinguishable from a big-budget project.

In Fort Solis’ vision of the year 2080, we’ve yet to occupy Mars as a species, but corporations have made it a mining and research hub. I bet you can guess how that’s going. As a skeleton crew stays behind to work what is essentially a weeks-long graveyard shift on the red planet, a distress call across the facility alerts Jack Leary to an issue within the titular research lab. The game ramps up its drama at a pace that pulled me right in, where early chit-chat and jokes over the radio with his scene partner, Julia Brown’s Jessica Appleton, soon grew more stressed as doors appeared sabotaged, then dire as bodies started to pile up.

Paced to unfold like a mini-series meant to be marathoned, the central question of what happened on Fort Solis is expertly hidden from full view for nearly the entire game. It’s presented in a virtual one-shot style without any loading screens, doling out the next dangling thread at a pace that kept me both guessing and playing. I was impressed by how well it shielded the truth of the matter while simultaneously drip-feeding a lot of details over time. It does this largely through video-gamey methods: optional audio and video logs as well as emails.

Though that approach is far from novel, it feels justified in this universe where workers are recording messages to send back to their families on Earth, or cataloging some of the facility’s recent dangers to cover their own liability concerns. This ample number of optional clues led me to carefully examine everything I could find–for example, not just the words in an email, but the date it was sent, who wrote it, and whether I’d already seen the other side of the conversation. I was trying to reveal the magician’s prestige before they presented it to me. I never did figure it out any sooner than I was meant to, which kept me engaged and ultimately satisfied.

Like in a lot of games, it does feel like the story demands you dig through many of these optional clues to have it all make sense. According to in-game stats, I found 92% of all video logs, audio logs, and emails which collectively help flesh out the story considerably, but it seems a few more important details are hiding in that last 8%. Still, I also sense that some of the game’s answers aren’t found even there, and as someone who enjoys a lingering mystery, I happily made peace with that outcome.

There are likely branches you might expect this story to travel down, such as hostile aliens, rogue AI, madness by way of isolation–the usual suspects of a creepy space station. I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that Fort Solis is both structured unlike other stories in this popular subgenre and also lands on a story that feels novel, while still keeping intact some of the more popular themes of dystopian futures. Its dramatic unveiling in the final act is both threatening on a massive scale and also so innocuous in its original intent that it’s actually tragic.

As some in the real world consider the prospect of colonizing Mars, Fort Solis examines why that’s even on the table, what pitfalls that might include, and how even well-meaning people can cause catastrophe when we’re grappling with the cosmos. It blurs the lines between heroes and villains in asking these questions, making characters complex and its ethical argument nuanced.

Those strengths helped me push through some of the game’s more frustrating bits related to its gameplay mechanics. Fort Solis is an adventure game, closer to something like Firewatch–complete with the woman on the radio chatting with you as you investigate anomalies–than it is Dead Space. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are a few missteps in its execution.

Like a well-paced mini-series, it'll be tough to figure out the story's central mystery before you're intended to.
Like a well-paced mini-series, it’ll be tough to figure out the story’s central mystery before you’re intended to.

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For one, your character moves slowly to the point of frustration. This worsens when the game opens up, allowing for more exploration. I wanted to turn over every figurative stone so I didn’t miss a clue as to what I was piecing together, but this often meant trekking slowly across expansive areas looking for interaction points where my character would comment on them. It was at its worst when I did all that slow walking and found nothing in various corners in the environment, leaving me empty-handed after wasting a few minutes at a time.

It’s as though the game wants to maintain control of its pacing and not let players run wildly across the terrain while its story is telling much more of a slow-burn sci-fi tale. I can appreciate that creative direction, but I still feel there was room to speed up player movement without sacrificing the cinematic presentation. Given that backtracking is sometimes built right into the story by way of the titular fort’s tiered security clearance system you’ll figuratively climb across its four chapters, this issue is blatant right away and only gets in the way more as the game goes on. For all the apparent want of a properly paced story, the slow movement speed hurts it more than a jog button would have.

Even when you’re going in the right direction, gameplay mechanics remain light. You’ll have to solve some basic puzzles and nail a few quick-time-event sequences–or not, as there seems to be no penalty for failure. But for the most part, you’ll just want to head in the right direction, as suggested by the story and the smartphone-like object strapped to your wrist. This makes gameplay less involved than even a Telltale game, as here there are no choices to be made, neither in the plot nor the dialogue. Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave much in terms of engaging the player in a traditional gameplay sense.

Thankfully, Fort Solis as a whole is stronger than its weakest parts. That’s owed largely to its writing, which launches into well-tread ground and manages to subvert tropes in unexpected ways, not just with an ending that feels different, but with some narrative-structural alterations it makes along the way. It’s always difficult to write about a game that hinges so much on a mystery I ought not reveal on its behalf, but suffice it to say that, though I could vaguely see its themes coming, the actual unfolding of the plot is unique and satisfying, and it left me with the ethical questions I was clearly meant to ponder–and still do as I write this review.

Through fiction, I’ve traveled to one space station or another more times than I can count across many years and many forms of media. It’s a setting I always enjoy–as an opening at least–and from there, stories may or may not keep me invested depending on what they do with that foundation. Fort Solis places a small but intriguing cast in its off-Earth saga in ways that can be familiar, but it justifies its addition to the subgenre with its own fun twists and philosophical arguments.


Mark Delaney on Google+

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