2023 has been an unprecedented year for video games. We not only saw some of the finest sequels/installments in gaming’s most storied franchises, but we also received a plethora of other AAA-grade titles, a cavalcade of indie/art-house gems, killer remakes/remasters, and sleeper hits galore. Allow me to add another game to that growing list of indie/art-house gems with sleeper hit potential: Vivid Foundry’s visual novel Solace State: Emotional Cyberpunk Stories.
Protagonist Chloe is a budding 22-year-old journalist with the rare ability to discreetly tap into and influence people’s minds and emotional states without the use of cybernetic enhancements. Her genius-level intellect is counterbalanced by naïvely youthful idealism, flights of fancy, and an overreliance on her mind hacking skills, making her a believable protagonist.
Chloe hasn’t seen or heard from her best friend and mentor Rebecka in over a year, so she takes on a journalistic assignment covering a massive lockdown in the city where Rebecka currently resides. What follows is a journey down a rabbit hole of human drama, corporate espionage, and all manner of seedy, underbelly nastiness.
Solace State’s deliberate pacing and pensive nature might not be for everyone. The game requires a fair amount of reading over its eight or so hour course. Luckily, the text is presented in digestible chunks through a variety of means. Descriptive novel-style paragraphs, digital conversations (e.g. text messages, emails), in-person dialogue boxes, internal monologues, dossiers, and various other ways we interact with text in video games coalesce into a dynamic piece of storytelling that held my attention from its tense beginning to its bittersweet ending.
Imperfections still exist, however. Events sometimes transitioned jarringly or assumed knowledge that the characters or we (the players) didn’t have yet. Stray technical errors also showed up in the writing, as well as occasionally inconsistent name spelling. For example, one side character’s name was spelled Namseon in some places and NamSeon in others. These didn’t tarnish my overall enjoyment, but were noticeable.
A common question visual novel fans ask is, “Is there romance?” In Solace State, Chloe can romance one of three characters, but finding love is secondary to finding answers. Romance can even be eschewed if the player desires. I would say more about the story and characters, but it’s best to go into Solace State as blindly as possible to experience it fully.
Solace State is played using either a gamepad or a keyboard/mouse combination. Both control schemes work nicely, though I mostly played using a gamepad. This is noteworthy, because I normally find keyboard/mouse usage more intuitive in visual novels. Solace State, like proverbial visual novels, does not possess gameplay beyond making choices every so often in the narrative. Every choice has gravity and influences outcomes, but I would have liked to see more interactive elements. For example, when Chloe elects to perform high-risk mind hacks that could potentially cause brain damage, a challenging mini-game would add more tension to those scenarios.
Symbolic color usage punctuates Solace State’s visual design. For example, shades of purple feature prominently because the blend of calming blue and energetic red symbolizes the push-and-pull of people’s emotional states and socio-political ideologies. The expressive 2D character portraits play nicely in their environments and blend bold anime styles with subdued Western ones.
Fluid and dynamic presentation sets Solace State apart from proverbial visual novels that sometimes feel flat with their still portraits over 2D backdrops. Solace State’s 3D polygon environments allow all kinds of cinematic camera angles and motions; the game looks better in motion than in still screens. I felt more like I was actively experiencing a graphic novel than just reading it.
A lovely soundtrack enhances Solace State’s cinematic feel. The moment I heard the evocative vocal theme during the title screen sequence, I was sonically hooked. The EDM-influenced compositions lend atmosphere to locales and deftly tap into the appropriate mood each scene requires. Some of the tensest moments have no music at all, lending to uncomfortably eerie silences. Silence speaks just as loudly as any piece of music in Solace State.
With its cyberpunk setting, emotionally charged storylines, and a relaxed pace that is far from comforting, Solace State: Emotional Cyberpunk Stories really lives up to its name. It also has a compelling soundtrack and a cinematic visual presentation I want to see more often in visual novels. I know 2023 has been a stacked year for video games, but Solace State is something that visual novel fans should check out.