Solar Flux (Nintendo Switch) Review
Release Date: December 11, 2018 (iOS and Steam in 2013)
Publisher/Developer: Firebrand Games
Platform: Nintendo Switch, Steam
Solar Flux has been around for five years on Steam, mobile and such. Ths year, the game is rereleased on Nintendo Switch. Gamers who have been around on several platforms have likely seen this title before, but new Switch owners may be catching it for the first time.
The game provides a zen-like calmness despite it's stressful plot. The Solar Galaxy Federation has determined that suns and stars around the galaxy are dying, be that they have too little or too much plasma and must be regulated. You are a pilot in a Flux Accumulator vessel designed to collect the needed plasma and help restore the planet's equlibrium.
Within the game, you pilot a small, round ship that can fire it's thrusters in any direction, at any time. Primary goals involve collecting the little balls of plasma and delivering them by firing them at the stars. These large balls of gas may be underpowered, overpowered (and blasting out energy waves) or fluctuating (causing them to slowly drain away and adding more pressure to your time limit). Your ship also has to deal with a foolishly small fuel tank and rather flimsy shields. A successful run of a level will take less than a minute, though you will likely spend a lot more time on each level. Not only will you die of lost shields, float off into space due to running out of fuel, or crash headlong into an asteroid, but there is the traditional mobile "three star" rating to aim for.
The music is zen-like and trance inducing, and the overall pace of the game is slow. You are working with momentum and gravity as you float weightless through space or orbit around surrounding planets. Unfortunately the slow pace of your vessel makes it frustrating to go back and try for that three-star rating. Getting a perfect run requires you to use minimum fuel and skim the side of instant-death asteroids. Find a level where you pass three or four difficult gauntlets and crash on the fifth, and you end up back at the beginning, dying on the first again. It takes a bit for your engine or solar flares to effect your path as well, so occasionally it feels like dumb luck to hit it just right.
Reviews of the mobile edition of the game are by and large more favorable than those for the PC edition, mainly due to the control scheme. Touch controls seem more natural than mouse clicks. In the Nintendo Switch you get two options. Offscreen you can play the entire game on the tablet, and it's easiest to play without even having Joy-Con attached. Press behind the ship to fire thrusters in that direction, or touch a star to fire plasma at it. With Joy-Con or via the television, Solar Flux feels like a completely different game. Push the left joystick to pilot the ship in that direction, aim with the right stick and hit a button to fire plasma. In joystick mode you can physically miss the stars with the plasma much easier, as a tap on a star is a direct shot while you have to aim and fire on the stick. I also find the two schemes to feel backwards from each other, as you touch behind your craft to move forward and move the stick in the direction you wish to go instead of behind like it feels naturally. You can change the directions in the main menu to reflect the other way if it bothers you like it did me.
Solar Flux has a mobile-game level of content, with no real story or cinematics and 80 different missions across four galaxies. The different galaxies really only vary in difficulty and color scheme by and large, and a few bonus missions require you to get a certain number of stars to unlock. You do have to power through each level though as progression is on a level-by-level basis (mobile editions have in-app purchases to unlock the other galaxies early). The budget price of $9.99 does reflect the 5-10 hours of gameplay you may get out of the title, depending on how hard you chase those three stars. I had a hard time going back for more because of the pacing. Two seconds for the start menu, a couple few to get launched and hit the right trajectory, a crash takes two seconds to boot to the retry menu to start the loop again. A few levels frustrated me so much I took my one-star and ran. There's plenty of content and that frustration breaks through to elation once you get a level just right, but it doesn't drag me back to try again.
There are many physics- and gravity-based puzzlers on the market, and Solar Flux is top of the heap. Players can usually see where they went wrong to try again, but the lack of camera control and difficulty in timing momentum takes the wind out of the sails for trying to top the leaderboard. If I were trying to save dying stars I'd much prefer to bring a higher-armored ship with a larger gas tank and show up before we were thirty seconds to impending doom, but I do appreciate the zen-like quality of the sounds and graphics. Getting in the groove with Solar Flux is quite a feat and a fun experience, so long as you can overcome some of the basic frustrations of mobile games. The Switch edition is still the definitive version of the game offering joystick and touchscreen controls. If you have the patience for slow pace combined with instant death possibilities, Solar Flux provides a rewarding challenge.
-Music and graphics are well-designed and relaxing (until you get to the hard levels!)
-Two separate control schemes provide two separate challenges
-Detailed leaderboards show you where you compare to others
-Slow speed of craft plus weak shields, low fuel, and many consecutive instadeath gauntlets can prove frustrating
-Demanding star grades make it difficult for casual players to score high
-In the end, it's a port of a five-year-old mobile and PC game, so nothing new to report
Special thanks to Firebrand Games for providing a code for review!