Solo: Islands of the Heart (Switch eShop) Review
Few games are created which delve into the concept of love. There are games that include love as a plot device or character motivation, but rarely about love. Dating sims don’t count, as their gameplay hooks are about engaging with character archetypes to progress a usually humourous/dramatic story, not to divulge what love might mean to you, the player.
Solo: Islands of the Heart, by Team Gotham, is a puzzle-adventure game that asks the player to look inward and come to terms with how they deal with love and relationships. From the beginning, the game’s disclaimer asks for truthful answers from the player’s own experiences and offers (limited) character options before beginning the adventure.
The created sailor character is important because its aspects are reflected in the game’s dialogue (gender, sexual orientation, etc). The crux of its gameplay is to navigate a series of archipelagos by completing puzzles, activating talking totem poles, answering their queries on love, turning on lighthouses, and then sailing on to the next island to do it all again. The puzzles involve pulling together loose platforming blocks and create pathways to activate totems. Puzzles become increasingly complex when more block types are introduced: stepping blocks, blocks with fans (to propel/hover with your parachute), platform extenders and water hoses, for example.
The early puzzles seemed simple enough until they suddenly aren’t. Some had me genuinely stumped until I stumbled upon the solution, which sometimes had me feeling smart, and others pretty dumb for not having seen the solution sooner. But regardless I appreciated how each forced me to think differently, especially when it became apparent there were potentially multiple ways to succeed.
What intrigued me most about the game, though, was the juxtaposition of its cute, cartoon-like at style, yet mature (like, proper mature and not “this game has cuss words” mature) dialogue. Through-out the adventure, Solo: Islands of the Heart asks the player increasingly deeper and more personal questions about their view on relationships: “Can you love another person while already being in a relationship?” and “How important is sex to you?” for example. I was surprised to be confronted by such personal enquiries, and found myself sometimes stumped for which answers to choose from. I was further surprised by how the game responds; an ethereal avatar reflecting your sexual preference frequently shows up and ponders aloud in response to your answers, allowing you to consider your partner’s perspective (“What if I can’t have sex for a year?”).
All of these aspects made for an interesting and thought-provoking game, however, there were some caveats. Progressing through each set of archipelago felt somewhat formulaic after a while. There are animal critters scattered about the archipelagos, but interacting with them felt like unimportant busy-work, especially when some require fruit to trust you and allow you to pat them, for no real reward. There’s even an Ocarina of Time-inspired musical mechanic, where the player can whip out a guitar and play chord patterns, though it rarely had any real use. Even the visual style, which is wonderfully vibrant and charming, had technical issues: aliasing and frame rate drops, in particular. Frustratingly, there are also too few autosave points, which became apparent when I activated a lighthouse and initiated a cutscene that got stuck. This lead to me reload the game and discover I had to replay about 1.5 hours.
Despite its flaws, Solo: Islands of the Heart is an interesting experiment which weaves its puzzler gameplay and mature themes together well. Some design choices and technical issues hold the game back from being truly remarkable, but going in with an open mind and allowing myself some vulnerability delivered an emotional trip I hadn’t quite experienced from a game before.
- Thought-provoking dialogue
- Brain-busting puzzles
- Beautiful art style
- Frame rate and aliasing issues
- Not much substance past the main story
- Could’ve done with more autosaves