A few hours in
‘Jarenth, are you actually any good at city saving?’
So I ‘saved’ the city… sort of. I saved the people in the city, not the city itself; I feel that counts for something. But that’s not a satisfying result, so I tried again — and this time I saved the technology, at the expense of allowing people to live in it. Also not optimal. And the less said about attempt number three, the better. All I’ll say here is to never trust a desperate terrorist who has just said they’re willing to die for their liberation, no matter the cost.
So, how was my time in the City of Ice, Jewel of the North? Before I managed to save and/or destroy it? The short summary is this: I think Solstice is a decent whodunit story in an interesting original setting. Worldbuilding and character development take front and center, presented mostly organically through character discussions and the right lines of questioning — as well as the occasional info dump. It looks really pretty, the way Cinders did, and its commitment to actual diverse representation is laudable: the small cast of characters runs the gamut of skin colours and sexes, which the characters take as simply the natural state of the world. There is some casual racism, as I’m sure you’ve seen on the previous page…
…but on the other hand, one of the two optional romance paths peaks at this scene:
That said, enjoyment-wise, I though Solstice was good, but not great. I felt that my choices only had some limited influence on the way the story resolved, which doesn’t particularly engender replayability. The whodunit nature of the story in particular means it’s not going to be tense and mysterious a second time around — and you’ll quickly run up against the fact that you can’t actually use your knowledge. Far as I know, there’s no super-secret ‘you somehow identified the saboteur in advance’ ending. Finally, while the character perspective-switching is an interesting idea, I don’t know if it’s used to its full potential here. Mostly, it sets up contrived-feeling moments where one character doesn’t know something the other character does — and often, by extension, the player already knows too. I figured early on the journal might be used to keep track of which character knows what, but nope: Galen’s notes and Yani’s notes are thrown together haphazardly. Hence ‘good, but not great’: I had fun playing Solstice, but there’s definitely room for improvement.
But let’s start with positive, okay?
For me, Solstice‘s biggest draw was and is its clever approach to mystery and worldbuilding, both of which primarily advance through character stories. This marks the third game in four weeks that I praise for good worldbuilding, next to VA11 Hall-A and We Know The Devil. The three games have interestingly different approaches, though. VA11 Hall-A focused on casual world-building through character dialogue, slowly unveiling the setting as the game went on and we came to care about the characters. We Know The Devil is primarily an exercise in character-building, with world details slipping in through the cracks and between the lines. In contrast, Solstice takes a more heavy-handed approach. The world and the setting steal the spotlight, particularly the City. Knowledge is advanced through character stories, but in a very directed way: the nature of the narrative means it makes sense that our two ‘outsider’ POV characters, Galen and Yani, actively try to learn as much about the city as they can. Even in more character-focused stories, though, the City and its rules, concepts, and strange techno-magical origins take front and center. We learn about the characters, sure, but we learn about them almost exclusively in the context of the City. What brought them to this place? Why do they continue living here? What’s their history with the City, and how do they see their future in it? We hardly ever learn that, for instance, Sem likes to play cards, or Constance used to practice origami, or Slava and Lev got married in the early summer. All we learn is that Sem came here after his past caught up with him, Constance is willing to go far to be an informant for Istvan, and Slava and Lev’s marriage was good — until they came to the Jewel of the North.
It’s clear that Solstice is more interested in selling its setting and developing a world and mythology than it is in establishing this particular cast of characters. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: there is an interesting set of ideas on display. The idea of an advanced city in an arctic climate raises a lot of logistic and physical questions, and Solstice is happy to spend the time needed to explain all of that — not in the least because it’s germane to the plot. And on a geopolitical level, factions that you almost never directly interact with — the Academy and the Families and the Faculty and other Young Adult storytelling style Capitalized Nouns — played a role in the City’s past and have designs on its future, and Solstice wants you to feel how even grand ideas and good intentions can be warped by greed, secrecy, and the failing ethics of those who think of themselves as better than others.
And what better way to exemplify this crumbling of great ideas under the strain of normal life, and the clashing of different agendas with various degrees of transparency, than by focusing the story on a small cast of characters with various personal ties and agendas and ideas, and then putting them in a setting that they literally can’t escape from?
It’s a particular style of storytelling that you like or you don’t. If you were hoping to see likeable characters go through interesting and meaningful arcs, then maybe keep looking. Almost everyone in the City is some gradient of asshole — I’m willing to make an exception for Kasiya, who I see as merely a jaded idealist, but even he’s got a few closet skeletons. And the character arcs… there are narrative arcs, dramatic arcs, wherein things happen and statuses quo are shook up. But the characters themselves don’t really change much until the very end. It’s only at the end of the game that a Cinders-reminiscent slideshow tells you how your choices changed the lives of everyone important enough to warrant an ending slide.
No, if it’s character stories you want… let’s just say that Solstice is more a game for people who get really excited by new journal entries.
Ludically, mechanically, Solstice strains against its framework format a little. It works exactly the same way as Cinders — if you’ve played that game, you don’t need me explaining this one to you. But if you didn’t: Solstice is a VN defined by a few dozen choice moments, which steer the story — sometimes in overtly visible ways, sometimes in less overt ways. There’s one choice at the end of Act III that might as well be titled ‘which of the three non-bad endings do you want to go for’. Like its older sibling, Solstice visually indicates important choices (with that little plant branch icon), and also clearly tells you when the on-screen text has been influenced by your earlier choices.
Here’s a tricky thing, though: Solstice is very overt about all this, but it’s not overt enough.
If you’d asked me at the end of the game how many of my choices ‘actually mattered’ for the endings I got, I would have said… I don’t know, four or five or so. Obviously what I had Galen do near the end was important, and he wouldn’t have hooked up with Kasiya if I hadn’t flirted with him, then forgiven him after… well, after a thing that happened. And I’m guessing the choice I made as Yani to not throw Galen in prison helped with that too. But the other choices? All those times I chatted with people in ways that didn’t advance the story or my journal? How much does it even matter if I’m friendly to Slava, standoffish, or an outright jerk?
It matters. I had to dive into some Steam reviews to find this out (while achievement-hunting), but apparently Solstice tracks a ton of character stats under the hood. Not just overt stuff like ‘did Yani kiss on Sem’ or ‘did Galen apologize for giving the wrong medicine’. But also covert, aggregate stuff: ‘Galen’s niceness’, for instance, or ‘Yani’s growing obsession with Kala’.
And these stats influence the game in invisible ways. For instance, remember how I had Galen forgive Kasiya at a certain junction? If your Galen is more of a jerk to people in the preceding, that’s not actually an option anymore. The choice never pops up, and the story proceeds with Galen rejecting Kasiya — presumably with you, the player, shaking your fist at the screen. I know that’s what I would do, if I hadn’t been such a sweetheart before. Or, another example: in one of the endings, Yakone approaches Galen and Yani and offers to show them a secret route out of the city, a way to bail before whatever bad thing is about to happen, happens. Now, my Galen and Yani were both duty-bound goody-two-shoes, so that moment literally was a no-brainer in my play. But if you make your POV characters rail against the shitty sleeping terror that is the City… well, you get where I’m going with this.
I understand why Solstice is relatively quiet about all this. It’s a valid design choice to not broadcast every numerical value and missed branching option to the player — if that’s more your thing, stuff like Long Live The Queen exists to scratch your itch. But I actually think Solstice is a little too quiet about its inner workings. It’s one thing to shout this stuff from the rooftops, but I would at the very least have appreciated an end-of-game curtain tip. ‘Hey, now that you’ve played the game once entirely in the uncertainty that was intended, let us show you a few ways your choices steered what happened on-screen’. As it stands, I had no way of intuiting that things could have been majorly different — aside from generally being VN-savvy, I guess. It hurt my desire to replay.
Not that that desire was ever very large to begin with, mind. As much as I enjoyed Solstice, it’s just not game that engenders a lot of second tries. Its intrinsic whodunit nature (god, I love writing that word) means that once you know the twists, you’ll know them forever. And there’s no way to deviate from the core three or four beats that make up the major story. There are four different endings — sorry, ending categories — but as I said, it’s simple enough to identify the exact moment you choose one of these and quicksave on beforehand. From that point on, it’ll take you about an hour to see all four of them at least once.
And after that… I guess the only way to really see the different ending variations is by playing again from the start. And doing what you normally wouldn’t. No shade to anyone who wants to do this, but it’s not my cup of tea. Playing Solstice again from the anti-me perspective would mean making Galen be a jerk to everyone. And where’s the wish fulfillment in that? I’ll stick with the three endings in which he and his new boyfriend live happily ever after, thanks.
It only struck me during the process of writing this review how much Solstice strains under the Cinders framework. In retrospect, this whole system is tailor-made for a fairy-tale-meets-dating-sim story. Cinders had secret under-the-hood variables that tracked things, but most of the time these made obvious intuitive sense. Of course the game tracked Cinders’ relationship with her sisters and mother, that sort of stuff. And while Cinders headed to a predetermined outcome as well, it wasn’t actually a problem in a game based on a common fairytale — and the actual range of possible ‘endings’ was a lot wider, too. Though, looking back, Cinders also had the ‘three clearly marked ending choices’ problem. I’d forgotten about that. I guess MoaCube knows what kind of story they like telling.
Solstice is a decent game. In comparison to Cinders, but also generally. It looks great, it has an interesting world-before-characters mode of storytelling, and it employs a genuinely diverse small cast of characters to good effect. The story is somewhat tense and uncertain to play through the first time around, and for a story that revolves around solving mysteries and catching an unknown criminal, that’s honestly pretty good. Don’t let the variety of different endings fool you: this game is best played once, from the heart, and then… well, achievement-farmed if that’s your thing, but otherwise put aside. It’s not one of the genre’s greats, and the 18 Euro price tag is steep. But if you can get it on the cheap, or if you’re just a visual novel aficionado, Solstice is definitely not a bad addition to your collection.
Jarenth personally prefers equinoxes as far as celestial events go. Compare and contrast on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?