HIGH The shadow-puzzle rooms.
LOW The concept
WTF The unambiguously male character is an old dude with a white beard?
I consider it a bad sign when a game has to tell me what it is. As such, I got off to a rocky start with Solo: Islands of the Heart when it told me it was about examining my feelings about love. This didn’t improve when it actually turned out to be about stacking blocks on top of one another.
Solo: Islands of the Heart takes place on a brightly-colored archipelago full of cute, weird animals that want to be fed and charming little creatures that need help watering their gardens. The player’s avatar has to cross the islands, and if that didn’t involve answering questions about love delivered by weird totem poles, I might have enjoyed it more than I did.
Of course, there’s some challenge in getting across the islands, so the player has to stack blocks of various kinds in multiple ways to create stairways, bridges, and high points from which to glide across gaps and reach the next totem pole. Sometimes this is achieved simply by picking up a block and moving it, but most of the time the avatar has to use a surprisingly twitchy magic wand to levitate blocks and then put them in place.
I liked Solo most in a set of rooms where the character had to arrange blocks to match a particular set of shadows. In part, that was because these challenges were engaging and occasionally inventive. Mostly, though, it’s because in these sections Solo didn’t feel like it was pretending to be anything other than a bunch of block puzzles.
Of course, it’s completely natural to ask what block puzzles have to do with deep introspection of romance or a particular relationship, and Solo offers no convincing answer for this question. The closest it comes is in a group of puzzles where the player has to use blocks to create pathways that allow two blobby cat creatures to reunite with each other.
For the most part, though, Solo asks the player to complete block puzzles as a way to kill time on the way to the next Cosmo relationship quiz delivered by a totem pole. Will you learn something important about yourself by telling a goggle-eyed sculpture whether it’s possible to love more than one person, or whether sex is important to a relationship? Reader, I did not.
Solo has only a few other things to do besides stack boxes and answer questions. There’s an in-game camera for some reason, and also a guitar the main character can play to produce certain environmental effects. Both of these features are lightly utilized in the game and don’t seem to have any connection to what it’s ostensibly trying to do.
Maybe the connection between gameplay and theme existed more clearly in the developers’ heads than they managed to convey in the finished product. As it stands, Solo feels like a passable, if slight, puzzle-platformer trying to snag a little extra gravitas by gluing on a bunch of unrelated stuff about relationships. Despite the surface charm provided by the art style, the whole exercise felt disingenuous and gross, and I’m glad I never need to touch it again.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Team Gotham and published by Merge Games. It is currently available on PS4, Switch, and XBO. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 4 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: Reportedly, according to the ESRB, this game is rated T. The content relates to romance and sex is mentioned, but there’s nothing explicit or even really implicit shown. I can’t actually find the rating on the ESRB site, so I don’t know the justification, but this seems more like an E to me unless you’re a really unbearable prude.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There is no voice acting, nor any significant sound cues. Solo features a guitar and I had some trouble figuring out what I had played based on purely visual cues (although in some places there are statues that help make it clearer). The text cannot be resized.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.