It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I’ve seen it; an abandoned, often eerily sterile space station set as the backdrop to a mystery always pulls me in with ease. Fort Solis, a sci-fi horror adventure game featuring an impressive voice cast, is the latest in a long lineage of stories set in such environments, and after playing the game’s first chapter, I’m eager to unravel the mystery set on its titular martian base.
Despite being billed as an indie game from studio Fallen Leaf, Fort Solis feels much bigger. This is owed to its reveal at Summer Games Fest 2022, beautiful visuals set in Unreal Engine 5, and a star-studded cast which includes Roger Clark and Troy Baker–who portrayed the main characters in Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us, respectively–as well as The Last Kingdom actress Julia Brown.
That audiovisual experience is important for a game like this, which is billed as Dead Space meets Duncan Jones’ Moon. Atmosphere is key on an unnervingly tranquil fort many lightyears away from earth, and Fort Solis looks to seriously deliver in that regard. Combining its audiovisual feats with its over-the-shoulder presentation, it would be easy to mistake it for the next big PlayStation exclusive.
But a game is more than some household names and lovely textures. Thankfully, Fort Solis has, so far, set its narrative hooks in me, too. The fort in its title is a mining base on Mars, and in 2080, Jack Leary (Clark) is tasked with investigating the base following a mysterious distress signal. However, Leary discovers only a figurative ghost town upon arriving.
The game slow-crawls through its opening hour, giving players the freedom to explore each room across multiple buildings, pouring over notes, videos, and personal computers in a style similar to a Quantic Dream or Telltale game. Just as the setting is so familiar to horror or sci-fi fans, these very video-gamey interactions are nothing new, but the sense of place is strong and I find myself not wanting to miss a single item that might build out more of the world.
A cold stillness envelops the place, only interrupted by robotic voices around the facility or the early wisecracks of Leary and his colleague, Jessica Appleton, via walkie-talkie. Leary’s walking pace is almost comically slow, to the extent that I expect some players to complain of a lack of a sprint (or at least a jog) button. It feels as though the team wants to ensure the story unfolds at its intended and cinematic pace, so players are prevented from speedrunning through the corridors and skipping over dialogue in a way that doesn’t mesh with the tale being told. Instead, they’ll need to find patience as the leisurely strolling protagonist cuts across the red planet.
This wildly slow start pays off, though, as its real purpose soon becomes obvious. As Leary and Appleton chit-chat during his sweep of the area, their jokes and time-wasting soon turn to genuine concern. Leary comes upon blood trails, sabotaged doors, and more I won’t spoil here. The game’s first hour, snail-paced as it is, suddenly breaks away in an instant and reveals a darker, more frantic reality. Like a supercar going 0 to 60, the quiet of the martian base that had just seemed so impenetrable evaporates in the blink of an eye.Leary discovers he’s not alone after all.
The most intriguing part of all this is how, after the first chapter, I have no real idea whether this threat is supernatural, human, or something else. Is it poisonous flora? Hostile aliens? Shady capitalists? With only a few minor hints of what’s to come–none of which I feel I should say here–my mind is racing with the possibilities. It feels like it could go in many different directions. Above the so-far stellar performances and gorgeous visuals, it’s this element that has me most captivated; what exactly is on Fort Solis?
The creepily calm space station setting has been done more times than one can easily keep track of, but taking that foundation and building something special on top of it allows the likes of Moon, Alien, and 2001: A Space Odyssey to co-exist as some of the setting’s greatest accomplishments. I don’t know what secrets are to be found on Fort Solis, but my hope is they will feel fresh following so many similar setups, and in any case, I can’t wait to turn over every stone and find out for myself what secrets lay buried on Mars.
Fort Solis comes to PC and PS5 on August 22.
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