Solo: Islands of the Heart is a 3D puzzle game about moving boxes with different properties in order to traverse a set of islands. It is not, for reasons we will get into shortly, about love, a theme it tries so desperately to establish in the narrative that it entirely forgets to make it a part of the actual gameplay.
You begin by selecting an avatar (cheers to the devs for the NB option) as well as the gender of person you are attracted to. Throughout the game you are accompanied by a ghostly companion, who I suppose is meant to be the object of your love, but you do not get to select what they look like. Instead, your companion’s avatar is chosen randomly based on your preferred gender. This was unfortunate for me, because it meant I had to spend my voyage of love alongside a white-bearded garden-gnome-like personage who also happened to look unforgivably like my father. (Love you, Dad.)
After exploring the small island you begin on, you come across the first of many Totems that each ask you a question about your views on romantic love. You are given three answers to choose from, and as far as I can tell, your answers only affect the dialogue at the end of the game; otherwise the game is linear.
Between Totems, you need to solve puzzles that involve manipulating boxes and blocks with different properties, often to reach higher platforms: some are fans that allow boxes to float above them, or blocks that extend out in one direction. If I made that sound interesting, I apologise, because it isn’t. This, by the way, is what you will spend the vast majority of your time in Solo doing. For a mechanic that centres itself as the main moment-to-moment gameplay, yet has nothing whatsoever to do with the themes put forward so deliberately by its narrative, this is a serious flaw, and is a perfect example of pretention practised in video game design.
Now, I used to see Braid accused of pretentiousness, and I get why. The writing can come off as deliberately abstract, strangely removed from the reality of the game you are playing – not to mention that the writing is literally shut away in a different room from where the gameplay happens. But what Jon Blow got right in Braid was that he always supported what he told the Player via narrative by showing the Player his intentions via the game’s mechanics. Braid isn’t a game about regret, or striving for perfection (or whatever your reading of it happens to be) because Jon Blow says it is, but because those themes are explored primarily through the gameplay itself, avoiding the pretention of making an ambitious statement about his own game without any substance (essentially, analogous gameplay mechanics) to back it up.
In contrast, before you even begin playing Solo you are told, “This game is intended to be an introspective journey about romance relationships”. There’s something to be said for making your intentions clear in art – and for video games, even having artistic intentions is rare enough to be laudable – so I’m not going to criticize Solo for being upfront. However, the extent to which it supports this claim in the moment-to-moment gameplay is limited to the answers you give the Totem’s questions on love. Everything else – the box puzzles, feeding/petting the island wildlife – could be safely cut without changing the core substance of the game, and since the puzzles make up such a large part of the play-time, this creates a glaring dissonance between what the game tells you it’s about, and what it shows you. It was at this point I realised I was playing a glorified Buzzfeed quiz.
So the loop of Solo goes like this: Get to a new island – solve puzzle to activate Totem – solve puzzle to reach Totem – answer Totem’s question to access new island. At some point you meet your companion, who always has a reproachful comment to give based on your last answer, and sometimes you come across campsites where you find notes left by your companion. This was a confusing point, because, coupled with the ghostly nature of your companion, I became convinced that your companion was actually a previous sailor who had already completed this journey, and not a romantic companion. But I’m getting off-track. The writing across the game is vague, presumptive (of the player’s views on love and relationships) and emotionally hollow, due to the above dissonance. You must chose one of three answers to each question, but none of your options ever feel nuanced enough to reflect “your lived experiences” which the game asks you to draw from.
If the writing was supported by mechanics that reflected it in some way, it would have lent a huge amount of emotional weight that is totally missing. At the beginning of one set of islands I was told explicitly that this section of the game would be about hate, and the painful side of love – “you cannot hate fully what you don’t love fully”, apparently. By that point I’d already given up expecting anything interesting to happen gameplay-wise, but with a setup like this I though there must be a change of scenery coming at the very least. But no; just more moving boxes around – unless the game was trying to tell me that stagnation is a form of painful love?
Graphics / Art Direction
I know nothing about colour-theory, but there must be reason why a game like, say, Mario Odyssey can be bright but still clear and easy to look at, but Solo, which is as bright, and not ugly, is somehow flatly bright, so that looking at the scenery can actually become difficult?
I did find the islands to be crowded with decorative plants and other objects, so perhaps this added to the general claustrophobic feel of the game.
Music / Sound Design
The soundtrack is minimal and serene, consisting mostly of soft strings and guitar that go well with the slow pace of the game. You can even take out your avatar’s own guitar and play some chords, which, depending on what pattern you play, changes the graphics (by making the screen greyscale, or by changing the weather) and attracts nearby wildlife. Unfortunately, the midi-like quality of your guitar is, unlike the lovely acoustic guitar in the soundtrack, grating to listen to. Another small quibble was some of the sound effects, for example a popping sound that occurs whenever your ghostly companion disappears, sounding totally incongruent with the background music and intended atmosphere of the game.
Final Score: 49%
While the puzzle design in Solo is not terrible, it’s by no means fun or interesting, and the lack of any thematic relevance to the game’s narrative deprives both story and gameplay of emotional engagement. Still, the gentle atmosphere carried mostly by the soundtrack keeps the game from being an outright bad experience.