Solo: Islands of the Heart is a “contemplative puzzler” which we haven’t seen much of leading up to its release. The intention is to demonstrate how differently people can experience love, and what that may mean for those who are not on the same page. Does the experience match up to these lofty ideals?
A Fluid Gender
In Solo, players assume the role of a sailor, though most of the game takes place on archipelagos. Players can choose to be a man, woman, or even non-binary. But this boils down to playing as a man, woman, or older man avatar. This may be the result of developer Team Gotham being a small indie team, unable to really flesh out all the different gender identities that are out there these days. What’s more, players are able to change their gender at will. However, one choice made in the beginning of the adventure, who they wish to love (man, woman, or someone else, along with their name) is unable to be changed without starting the game all over again.
The person whom the player chooses to desire to love shows up throughout the adventure, to help out. A ghost-like avatar of the love interest can often be seen at random spots on each archipelago, and they appear on benches that are used to reset puzzles if needed. Occasionally, they also exist to occupy the player’s attention for a few moments, for simple pleasures such as gliding on a swing together or simply looking at the clouds together. These moments serve as a reminder that Solo isn’t necessarily about completing the game as quickly as possible, but rather to enjoy the journey.
Make Your Choice
The majority of progress in Solo is performed by solving puzzles. These puzzles involve using various boxes to make a path to a lighthouse, which activate a totem. Each totem asks the player a single question about love, and some of them are deeper than others. For instance, one question asks something along the lines of if the player expects that love’s intensity naturally fades with time, or if it can possibly be sustained throughout an entire lifetime. No matter the answer given (there are at most three options to choose from per question), the game advances. The love interest usually has a response to the player’s choice, all of which serve to attempt to get the player to think of things from the opposite perspective. There are no right or wrong answers, just different ways of thinking of things.
Without getting into spoilers…Well, actually, there aren’t really any spoilers, as the story is personalized in the sense that the avatars that represent the player and the love interest stand in to represent the player and their love interest, and nothing more. So, if you have never been in a relationship, you may not be able to relate all that much. However, if you are in or have been in a relationship in the past, then there will likely be much to relate to. The finale of the game boils down to two choices, though this may not be clear for those who tend to just run through games without really looking around.
Take It Easy
But by the time the player has reached the end, the general pace of Solo’s world should have taught them to slow things down. There are no timers to speak of, and no enemies to thwart progress. Falling into the water that surrounds each archipelago is no problem, as a ladder to climb back onto dry land is always nearby. There is some wildlife to interact with, most of which fear the player until they have been fed with fruit laying nearby. The animals let the player know their current emotional state via emoji. Not just any emoji, but Android blob emoji, from before Android 8.0, otherwise known as “Marshmallow.” It’s funny to see something from our modern world in the surreal world of Solo, but it works to convey emotions of creatures that cannot talk.
A few pairs of animals have been separated, and can be reunited by using the boxes that would otherwise be used for the level’s puzzle to make a temporary path for one animal to walk across, Lemmings-style (though they do stop when they reach the end of a path, thankfully). These puzzles are completely optional, though they do unlock trophies if completed. They also serve as a way to think about using some of the boxes with extra attributes, such as fans, in creative ways.
The story-progressing puzzles are fairly challenging, but most will only take a few minutes to complete. While there is no set solution for any given puzzle, most will be completed in a general way, such as stacking two boxes in order to stand on a fan-equipped box that is hovering due to being flipped upside down, which is otherwise too high to get to normally. A lot of the puzzles require players to remember that after obtaining a special staff partway into the adventure, blocks can be moved remotely. This opens up some interesting solutions, and results in some nice “aha!” moments.
Those “aha!” moments aren’t too rare, as there are a good handful of levels to complete. There’s even some puzzles that play with light and shadows towards the end. But just as a new type of box gets introduced, and just as the puzzles start to really get the noggin thinking, the adventure is over. Most players will finish Solo: Islands of the Heart in 4-6 hours, and many in much less time than that. It’s a shame, because the mixture of different boxes could have led to some much more involved puzzles. Perhaps a level editor would have helped things, but that would likely have prohibitively increased development time and resources required of the small team.
The Unity Engine runs things in Solo, and since the most action in this game involves Diglett-type animals burrowing towards or away from the player, it is a good engine choice. Generally, things run smoothly, though occasionally the player character can be difficult to maneuver subtly when scaling up walls on blocks. Some visual effects do occasionally seem to load without textures, though the issue is never as bad as in a certain notoriously terrible game that shall not be named.
Solo: Islands of the Heart Review - A Little Love Analysis (PS4) | PSLS
More Like an Online Quiz
The end of the game gives you a summary of the choices you made, and then a short analysis of what this means for your style of giving and receiving love. From my experience, it was fairly accurate when I answered honestly. On the other hand, because only a dozen or so questions were asked, the analysis ended up feeling like an online quiz, as it lacked any real authority on the subject.
Solo: Islands of the Heart is perhaps the most introspective game to release this year. The gameplay may not have much to do with the story, but the puzzles are decent roadblocks on the journey. The whole adventure will only take most gamers 4-6 hours to complete, and while that may feel like enough for the price ($19.99) for some, just as the puzzles start to get more challenging, the game is over. Fans of puzzle games may want to check out Solo: Islands of the Heart, but those who are expecting a major challenge will probably want to look elsewhere.
Solo: Islands of the Heart review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a PS4 Pro. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy.