Solo: Islands of the Heart Review
Release Date: August 1st, 2019
Developer: Team Gotham
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC
Love is a topic that can be as divisive as it is uniform to society, humans, and animals all across the planet. Love is something that heals us, hurts us, binds us, and breaks us all at once. Regardless of how one feels towards romance and "how" it should be "treated", love ultimately is something we all grow and evolve with through speech, touch, sound, and environment. Life, as much as some of us try to fight it, is very much centered around love - the idea of experiencing your limited days with someone as you adventure, finding solitude, and continuing your legacy through the generations that follow through embrace. Solo: Islands of the Heart explores the theme of love on a personal level, starting off the game by asking you a few questions to set up a tailored gameplay experience tuned for the player by a scenario of likely events, feelings, and philosophy. As you choose between three different avatars to play from, Solo will take you through multiple archipelagoes as you face and come to terms with past experiences, good, bad, and ugly, while trying to recover one's sense of self and passion.
Solo: Island of Hearts recognizes the ubiquitous nature of companionship and makes sure to have anyone that plays the game feel welcome by having the options available to them for the best possible identification. It put a smile on my face to see that, after selecting New Game, not only were male and female options available, but so was non-binary. In addition to that, regardless of what you choose, your avatar can be that of any style as well and isn't indicative of your initial choice. Once the preferred identifications have been made, players answer a few questions before they begin their trek through various archipelagoes, experiencing a tailored experience that grows and evolves with your past and future responses. There are three "main" routes overall you can choose from, going from "Yes, I'm in love", "I've been in love but am not currently", or "I've never been in love". After choosing whichever identifies best with you, you're given a choice to put the name of a beloved or someone near and dear to you. Out of curiosity, I wanted to see if I could continue the game without putting in a name since there weren't any "skip" buttons, and sure enough it also allowed me to continue with the field blank. Solo: Islands of the Heart does well to be understanding and accommodating for everyone's lifestyles and doesn't penalize the player for the choices they've made, instead opting for a painting of a shifting world that guides you into a trip of remembrance, confrontation, and actualization.
Starting off with a beautiful view of the sea and a quick pan down, you gain control of your character and can freely walk around the archipelago. Here you'll get a basic sense of input commands and the like - the most fun being the basic yet innocent selfie mode - before you jump into a boat and head into distant lands each with their own theme of sorts. You'll quickly realize that Solo: Island of Hearts isn't just meant to be a serene game, but one that has a lot of puzzles implemented. These puzzles are mostly constructed by waving a magical wand you receive around to grab items and creating platforms to reach higher terrain and initiating basic commands afterwards to trigger small lighthouses that connect to larger, statue-esque structures that ask you a question to be faithfully answered before revealing more land allowing you to progress. It's a simple approach to the gameplay, but it's one that I feel Solo would have actually benefited from not having. The puzzles never once felt fun or thoughtful, but maybe that's just the game replicating my past relationships. The more I went through the game I kept feeling like they were getting in the way and that it would have been better as a walking simulator or at least something that could have had a replacement for the puzzles. There were a lot of vibes I got from Solo that reminded me of the likes of RIME with its colorful and stress-free environments, but rough animations, low resolutions, and multiple instances of stutters made the game overall feel less like love and more like a divorce.
Solo: Islands of the Heart is a well-intentioned game that explores love on a level more personal than other games that have tackled the subject by having player choice through a series of questions shape the islands as well as the trials and tribulations ahead. Overall I rather enjoyed what I played and the route I took, getting cubes from multiple puzzles and reaching the gigantic lighthouses from the archipelago before setting sail to the next island full of its own events and tests, but Solo: Islands of the Heart is also a game that purely from its mechanics doesn't exactly feel like it knows what it's trying to execute. Solo: Islands of the Heart is undoubtedly accepting of fates and backgrounds by being inclusive with its multiple genders and sexes to identify with, and I appreciate that Solo: Islands of Heart didn't want anyone to feel left out, especially after the following prompts asking players where they currently stand romantically at the start of the game. My biggest complaint is that I wish Solo: Islands of Heart didn't suffer from so many performance issues, and most of the puzzles you ultimately run into feel forced with a set of mechanics that are rough in feeling, animation, and input that hinder the overall experience. It's a situation of damaged goods that should have lent itself well to the Switch, but under-performs and leaves you at the end feeling more empty than fulfilled - with more animosity than endearment - though, again, this could be the game giving its outcome through player choice and experience. It's possible Solo: Islands of the Heart is so well designed that all the faults are mine and mine alone, but I'd consider myself rather stable in functionality.
A cute and colorful art-style that's inviting and serene
Choice gives the game multiple branching narratives tailored for the player
Selfies with cute animals and a guitar with four simple chords to play at any given moment, some which are needed for certain puzzles
Frequent performance issues hinder the experience
Puzzles aren't particularly rewarding and can cause things to become stagnant with its lack of variety
Would have been better as a pure walking simulator as the puzzles and mechanics feel forced and get in the way
Solo assumes you have someone you love in mind when playing despite the introductory options, and some of the narrative can miss marks if that's not a situation you find yourself in
Thank you to Merge Games for providing us a copy of the game for the purposes of this review