As shown by countless pieces of media, Mars is a red hellhole where humanity’s hubris and inability to get along are only magnified by unbreathable air, brutal weather, and crushing isolation. Humans can barely make it work on Earth, the blue hellhole. Fort Solis is a narrative-focused adventure that once again makes those shortcomings clear through its intimate story and condensed cast. And while it crumbles at the end, its performances and impressive presentation make it one of the genre’s better thrillers.
Fort Solis sits adjacent to the Telltale Games style of adventure games, but with one key difference: There are no dialogue choices or big splintering paths. It is initially disappointing and perhaps an avenue Fallen Leaf should pursue in the future, but this highly directed experience succeeds because of its exploration and character building.
Players are quickly dropped into the titular Fort Solis and, after picking up a few keycards, given the freedom to wander its desolate halls. Its atrium is as inviting as it is deserted and uses that mystery to encourage players to look into what happened. Preying on the player’s natural curiosity is what makes pilfering through audio logs, video logs, and emails actually worth engaging in since they’re going to offer answers in a way the dead can’t.
Emails and audio logs are brief, easy to digest, and either flesh out the world or succinctly glue the other bigger scenes together. The video logs, while usually a little longer, are animated well and humanize the cast by giving facetime to them. An errant odd movement or two doesn’t detract from how well these monologues evoke the distress and emotion of the subject. They say what doesn’t need to be said through small twitches or eye movements and are a big reason why its cast resonates as much as it does. Having only audio logs or emails likely wouldn’t have been as effective. Keeping it all in order can be tricky, but the main menu lists out every collectible chronologically to make the dots easier to connect.
Walking around and tracking down these notes is rarely a worthwhile part of these kinds of games. Some — Fort Solis included — have very deliberate movement speeds or, in Supermassive Games’ case, awkward controls. Fort Solis avoids that pitfall through its harrowing audio design and spectacular visuals that makes these sections additive to the whole experience.
It’s not an outright horror game, but Fallen Leaf Studio and Black Drakkar Games play with the inherent creepiness of an abandoned space outpost to great effect through the soundtrack. It adds a consistent layer of unease that reflects the horrors that happened there without bombastic screeching or audio stingers. A Xenomorph isn’t going to pop out of a nearby vent, but the ambient tunes make it feel like that could happen at any time. That constant tension makes it a more effective thriller.
Fort Solis is also detailed enough to be worth trekking around. Impressive lighting and stunning textures make Fort Solis more immersive, but its visual splendor isn’t the only reason why Fort Solis is a compelling space. Seeing how these characters lived and worked by walking through and investigating each wing makes it all more tangible. Being shown Fort Solis mostly through cutscenes would not have the same effect.
That makes it all the more puzzling when Fort Solis rips control away from the player and forces them down a hall during a chaotic set piece. There aren’t many of those moments, but they are frustrating and antithetical for a game so heavily invested in immersion. It’s also strange how little of an impact the quick-time events have, yet another way Fort Solis fumbles when it takes in the reins.
Despite the tiny and misleading map, strolling through its many rooms gives it a sense of place that better contextualizes the anecdotes described in the emails and logs. It may rob some beats of their urgency, yet the freedom to meander is rewarding because players get more agency in how they piece together the story. While it’s not packed to the brim with hidden Easter eggs and is still modestly sized, Fort Solis succeeds because it was designed to be explored.
All of these elements support the story that’s anchored by its three main characters: Jack Leary, played by Red Dead Redemption 2 star Roger Clark; Jessica Appleton, who is portrayed by relative newcomer Julia Brown; and Wyatt Taylor, the latest role from The Last of Us’ Troy Baker. Leary and Appleton’s rapport is charming, and their interactions aren’t solely predicated on eye-rolling quip like so many other games. It’s important that they’re likable since they are so pivotal to the narrative.
Taylor, on the other hand, is much more complicated and makes for one of Baker’s best performances. He’s a multilayered man fighting bureaucracy with noble intentions and sometimes questionable means. That breadth of layers is most noticeable in his video logs where his internal struggles are sublimely portrayed and brought to life through the aforementioned nuanced animation. Taylor is an excellent example of the subtle difference between a villain and an antagonist.
Gradually figuring out how this tortured soul unspooled is a fascinating journey and one of Fort Solis’ many secrets. Revelations are doled out well — due in part to its many logs — and provide enough incentive to keep pushing through. Decent foreshadowing and the lack of a forced, hard sci-fi twist also means Fort Solis’ core mystery doesn’t fall to pieces at the end.
However, the actual finale is a mess. It fails most of its characters by speeding through its undeserved finale. Taylor gets snubbed the hardest since the final segment lacks much of a cathartic showdown of ideas that a character with that level of depth begs for. Instead, it opts to go down the quick-time event route where physical altercations take the place of verbal ones. It’s a bad choice for a game with bad quick-time events and great dialogue to go out like this.
Fort Solis Review: The final verdict
While it marvelously blows up during the final moments of its descent, Fort Solis is a mostly successful voyage. Puzzling together what happened at the station is an engaging exercise that incentivizes players to inspect every computer and voice recorder in order to shine light on its dark mysteries. Its narrative doesn’t seem to branch much or push forward in any new directions, yet it achieves its modest goals rather well. Fort Solis was misused as a facility by its staff, but Fallen Leaf and Black Drakkar have utilized it well to tell one effective sci-fi thriller.
Disclaimer: This Fort Solis review is based on a PS5 copy provided by the publisher. Reviewed on version 1.000.000.