I’ve lost count how often adventure games have let me soar to the stars, leaving Earth behind in search of mystery and excitement. I’ve visited distant planets, explored lifeless wrecks in zero-G, and faced down Lovecraftian horror beneath foreign moons. This year alone has seen me land on Mars on several occasions, with my latest excursion courtesy of Fallen Leaf and Black Drakkar Games’ third-person exploratory adventure Fort Solis, which offers an engaging extraterrestrial mystery to uncover while keeping strained nerves and scary suspense to a minimum. Seasoned space horror vets will probably be left wishing for a little more tension, but it’s the kind of thriller-lite experience that’s easily recommended to those who enjoy atmospheric exploration but don’t relish the scares of out-and-out interplanetary fright fests.
Things get rolling pretty much right out of the gate. Jack Leary is a technician currently stationed at Mars’s Fort Minor; when something goes awry with the delicate equipment dotted around the Red Planet’s arid landscape, he’s the guy that gets deployed to fix it. As the game begins, we join Jack, along with his partner-in-grime Jessica Appleton, on a routine maintenance job in the desert wastelands when an unexpected emergency transmission from nearby Fort Solis comes in and abruptly cuts out again. Since they’re the closest responders, Jack goes off to follow up at the station, leaving Jessica to finish their job before joining up with him later. The investigation of Fort Solis proves to be anything but routine, however, as Jack arrives at a hauntingly quiet and seemingly abandoned facility, with no pressing emergency evident besides the entire crew being missing. Looks like there’s nothing for it: Jack will have to delve into the eerily empty complex in search of whoever sent out the distress signal.
The next four or five hours see you slowly uncovering small pieces of the puzzle of what went down here, much of it via the copious amounts of emails, audio files, and video logs Jack downloads to his wrist-mounted data viewer from various computer terminals and memory chips he comes across. There’s a definite trail of breadcrumbs to follow, and though I wasn’t 100% clear on every little nuance (the hows and whys of it all) by the end, the overall picture (the big bad) was certainly brought into focus. I personally love this type of narrative delivery, and it works very well for this kind of solitary setting. Fort Solis’s story shines most in its build-up rather than its eventual pulling back of the curtain, relaying the final days and hours of a skeleton crew trapped within an alien environment as hostile storms twist and rage outside and seeds of quiet distrust are sown inside. It may not quite be Carpenter-level, but I did appreciate the slow burn here, and it’s what I’ll remember most about the game.
You might be expecting a scary vibe from a game like this, but exploring Fort Solis is actually a fairly stress-free undertaking. True, the atmospheric sound design does its best to add a knife’s edge to the proceedings via suspenseful music cues and the occasional ambient sounds taking over, but the game’s early sections especially are spent engaged in a rather innocuous gameplay loop of searching offices and crew cabins for interactive hotspots and walking through sections of the station that present as calm and serene rather than foreboding by their emptiness. Curiously, there are next to no puzzles to contend with as you progress – at one point Jack finds a Rubik’s Cube you can solve, though it’s not required for progression. The only time I noticed having to put my thinking cap on was to open a late-game numeric lock using a code provided much earlier; a rather simple affair.
The sense of unease does eventually ramp up a bit when Jack stumbles across the first of several bodies, but by then the game has already played its hand that you are never in any real danger, and certainly don’t need to worry about sneaking past threats or fighting off grotesque space monsters or the like. Fort Solis funnels you down a rather linear path with branching sections only slowly unlocked via an upgradeable key card access structure that made me feel safe in the knowledge that I couldn’t veer off the marked path far enough to haphazardly wander into sudden unscripted danger.
Still, the eventual telltale signs of violence hint at there being an antagonist lurking in the shadows, and the way this eventual reveal is handled leads to some deliciously cheesy maniacal bad guy moments that would have made Nicholson’s Jack Torrance proud. It’s the most fun I’ve had with a game villain in a while! As the player, though, the worst you’ll need to be prepared for is the occasional Quick Time Event, which, despite being rather simple, were finnicky enough that I had trouble regularly passing them. However, the story moves on one way or another, with seemingly no penalty for failure apart from Jack or Jessica suffering some extra abuse.
The cast of characters is brought to life with great care and skill. Jack and Jessica aren’t particularly brave weekend warriors out for glory, but rather reluctant heroes who, once the freeze-dried space ration has hit the fan, want nothing more than to get the hell out of dodge. While most of the crew whose video logs you’ll be watching aren’t featured enough to see much in the way of character arcs, I appreciated the quality apparent in their realistic mannerisms and facial animations. Praise also extends to the voice-over performances, including the notable talents of Troy Baker, who manages to instill a lot of personality into several key narrative moments.
The dusty, wind-swept Martian terrain around the station allows only low visibility caused by raging sandstorms. By contrast, though most of it is just window-dressing rather than crucial visual storytelling, Fort Solis’s indoor spaces are meticulously designed and look great, richly detailed with a real lived-in feel. Offices and cubicles are personalized, with notes and framed photos of loved ones placed near work stations; living quarters are made more cozy with wrap-around screens depicting various nature scenes for ambiance; and you can see how the crew’s day-to-day life unfolded in communal spaces like an atrium bar, a fitness gym, and a rec room complete with festive lights strung about, a pool table, and a makeshift movie-viewing area. I particularly loved when the game unabashedly reveled in its science fiction, such as the large-scale Mars buggies or the extraterrestrial research laboratories you frequently pass through.
This level of visual splendor does come with a hefty price in terms of required system specs – I had to tinker with the settings repeatedly to make the graphics behave on my PC. It’s worth noting, then, that a PlayStation 5 iteration is also available, particularly considering how well the game’s free-roaming, third-person navigation suits a gamepad (though it can be played with a keyboard/mouse combination as well). A more minor hangup was the occasionally stiff movements of the protagonists, just sluggish enough that it made little difference in open areas but was noticeable in tight quarters whenever quick pivots were required.
I enjoyed my time at Fort Solis, nosing through its living quarters and following a carefully laid trail of narrative clues through its facilities. In many ways the game brings its A-game when it comes to presentation, with impressive graphics and animation, as well as a formidable voice cast. But I think in the end it lacks enough emotional punch to stand among the very best sci-fi thrillers. I’m not so jaded (I don’t think!) that I can’t enjoy a less harrowing experience for what it is, but for a game that presents as a thriller, a bit more actual peril and distress would have felt appropriate. In the end, Fort Solis is content to be a less stressful stroll through a deserted setting, an enjoyable mystery set in an inhospitable environment. As such, it may be just the ticket for those looking to hop aboard a quick interplanetary jaunt and unravel a hazardous yarn set amongst the stars.
Its compelling narrative and sci-fi environment make Fort Solis a welcome addition to the portfolio of thrillers that have sent us into outer space, even if this particular journey punches a little below the best in terms of emotional payoff and scare factor.
- Well-paced mystery delivered in an intriguing way
- Richly detailed environments and notable facial animation
- Villain carves out some memorable cheesy goodness for himself
- Somewhere, somehow, a little extra punch is needed to heighten the emotional stakes
- Even by the end, I still wasn’t fully clear on all the details that caused the crisis in the first place
Pascal played Fort Solis on PC using a review code provided by the game’s publisher.