"This pretty little oasis is a powder keg ready to explode. "
Solstice is the latest visual novel from MoaCube, the company who brought us Cinders. My top game for 2012, Cinders turned the straightforward fable of Cinderella into a truly ambitious entity. Most striking for me in that game was the gorgeous art by Gracjana Zielinska, the evocative music by Rob Westwood, and the lush writing of Hubert Sobecki and Agnieszka Mulak. Well, the Cinders team is back and aspiring to even greater heights in their latest visual novel Solstice. Solstice weaves an original story with compelling characters and has nothing to do with the Landstalker-esque, isometric NES adventure game Solstice from 1989. Anyway, the long and short of this review is that MoaCube's Solstice is a fantastic game and should be on every visual novel fan's playlist this year.
In the middle of the unforgiving northern wastelands lies a marvelous city, referred to as Jewel of the North, that some would say is a slap in the face to natural order. An oasis such as this should not exist in this icy desert, but human greed knows no bounds and if a port of trade and commerce can be built somewhere, it will be. Despite its lovely appearance and limited number of residents, the city has more than its fair share of scandals, corruption, lies, secrets, etc. to drive anyone insane, provided the sheer isolation doesn't invoke madness first. "True Winter" is afoot, and for the next three months, the city's ruling class has flown south leaving a scant few locals behind. And just in time for True Winter, two newcomers arrive who have some measure of business with the city: a doctor and an infrastructure technician, both of whom are taking over for the previous doctor and technician who finished their tours of duty up north.
Gregarious doctor Galen and taciturn technician Yani are the two mysterious protagonists who've just arrived to Solstice. Both have the youthful zeal of recent college grads who want to change the world, but express that vigor in their idiosyncratic ways. Unlike most dual-protagonist games where you select one and play through their scenario, Solstice functions similarly to EVE: Burst Error where you switch between both protagonists as the story progresses. Because both characters have such wildly differing personalities, attitudes, and stations, their interactions with the other characters bring out different sides of the townspeople. For example, those turned off by the doctor's idealistic joviality may be more receptive to the technician's more cynical straightforwardness. Even you, the player, will eventually ask yourself: is the technician as forthright as she lets on and is the good doctor's congeniality genuine?
The game progresses in a linear fashion and switches between protagonists at specific times, but there is a nice push-and-pull where you, the player, can decide how much they cooperate with each other. There are four general endings depending on the decisions made throughout the narrative, but each of those four endings has multiple variants to them, giving the game immense replay value. I finished a single playthrough in about a day, and subsequent playthroughs are much faster since previous seen content can be fast-forwarded. I saw variants of all 4 endings in one weekend.
This character-driven story is filled with intrigue and compelled me to play multiple times to simply figure out, "what the hell is going on in this cursed utopia?" Dialogue and exposition are nicely done and no matter what choices are made at key junctures, all responses flow well and read in a genuine fashion. No one is who they seem, lies and deception flow like water, and this pretty little oasis is a powder keg ready to explode. While romancing people is not the main focus of Solstice, it is possible to do so, and one of the romances is a same-gender coupling. The story is quite good and definitely requires several playthroughs to uncover its myriad secrets, but some of the event scripting feels mildly abrupt.
The concepts of frozen wastelands, tainted oases, broken people, and superficial beauty masking an ugly truth are stunningly brought to life through the game's aesthetics. Composer Rob Westwood and visual artist Gracjana Zielinska are incredible talents that deserve your attention. The classical-inspired music hauntingly captures all of the aforementioned concepts in a depressingly beautiful fashion. The graphics, too, are quite evocative. The use of softer colors and organic textures give the game's chilly environments a surprising measure of warmth and humanity. Unlike the static cardboard cutouts that most visual novels use for character portraits, every character in Solstice has multiple portraits with several poses and facial expressions. This gives the characters far more vitality than text alone ever could. The subtle animations used throughout the game are also well placed and artfully done, giving a sense of movement in both characters and environments.
If you are a visual novel fan, Solstice needs to be one of the games you play this year. With its twisted storyline, sumptuous graphics, and evocative music, it's everything a genre fan could want. For more incentive, the collector's edition offers bonus content like posters, wallpapers, printable playing cards, an artbook, and the soundtrack. Admittedly, Solstice's heady and often depressing nature do not make this a "fun" experience, but it is a very captivating endeavor that you will want to play and replay until you discover all its sinister secrets.