General game information
Game name: Solstice Chronicles: MIA
Release date: July 26, 2017
Price: US$ 19.99
Available on: Steam
Genre: Top down tactical shooter
Solstice Chronicles: MIA is a top down tactical shooter set in Mars which tasks players with defeating hordes of bloodthirsty monsters. It was successfully crowdfunded through a Fig campaign that ended on March of this year, and it’s the follow up to developers Ironward‘s first commercial release, The Red Solstice (a different kind of tactical shooter, focused on online co-op features instead of balls to the wall single player action).
Setting, story and characters
As we said in the introduction, Solstice Chronicles takes place in 23rd century Mars, the last bastion of humanity after a virus called STROL rendered Earth uninhabitable. We play as a marine stationed in a Martian colony, and right at the beginning of the game we find out that the STROL virus is now in Mars, and we have been left for dead. Aside from the STROL mutants, it seems that the Martian government was also under attack from a human guerrilla force, and luckily for us, a drone hacked by this ragtag bunch will soon come to our aid, offering all sorts of useful power-ups, as well as acting as a comedy sidekick.
As expected from a straightforward shooter, the story isn’t particularly creative or interesting but it serves as a good framing device for our actions. I had fun with some of the interactions between our marine and Saffron (the hacked resistance drone) but there is no real character development to speak of, and most of their dialogue is simple banter with the occasional joke thrown in for good measure.
Solstice Chronicles: MIA offers two different game modes, a single player campaign and a survival mode that can be played solo or with a buddy in local co-op.
Players familiar with top down shooters shouldn’t have any problem grasping Solstice Chronicles‘ basic gameplay systems, which include support for up to two weapons at any given time, WASD movement, mouse aiming (with right click to enter precision aim, indicated by a laser sight) and a stamina system that powers either our melee attacks and enhanced mobility options, or the secondary weapons used by some classes.
At the start of the single player campaign we’ll get to choose between three different classes (with an additional class being unlocked once we beat the campaign on the default difficulty setting) each sporting their own skill tree and special perks. Sadly, we won’t be able to experience the full range of benefits from our choice until the tutorial section is over, since the skills and class perks are tied to a combat suit that must be acquired after trudging through a small army’s worth of mutants with just our drone and a few trusty guns at our disposal.
After we get our exosuit, things change for the better, as every class features handy offensive options (my favorite was the flamethrower wielded by the tanky Hellfire suit) and health upgrades. Our drone can also be boosted with spare parts found in downed machines, and we won’t survive Solstice Chronicles‘ toughest scenarios without making full use of Saffron’s abilities.
One of the game’s most interesting features is the “threat level” system, which determines the toughness of every combat encounter. Basically, completing objectives or reaching specific checkpoints will increase the number and difficulty of the enemy waves thrown at us. Thankfully, our best friend Saffron can use her abilities to either increase or decrease the threat level (using the Scout function, which serves as a way to get supplies fast without having to search for them ourselves will quickly increase the threat level, while using the self-explanatory Taunt ability will funnel the enemies towards us, decreasing the threat level) and if we are smart about it, we can also take advantage of the colony’s defense systems, automatic turrets which will shoot at the mutants provided we’ve powered them up.
Once the threat level gets high enough, we’ll have to face hulking monstrosities that can also spawn normal sized enemies from time to time. In these situations we should always look for powerful one-time use weapons such as the minigun or automatic cannon, and if we can’t access those, we should at least try to lead the most powerful enemy units into conveniently placed fuel canisters, which will explode after a few shots, dealing massive amounts of damage and destroying weaker mobs. Ammo management will be key, and during these situations we will also have to make good use of our drone’s Shield ability, which staggers bigger creatures while keeping smaller mutants at bay safely outside the shield’s bubble.
Saffron’s abilities don’t require any resources in order to be activated, but a somewhat lengthy cooldown will force us to think carefully before wasting them on standard waves of monsters. Luckily, we can also take advantage of our power armor’s offensive skills, which include grenades and other interesting murder tools, but require a specific resource in order to be used. Keeping a good balance between the uptime of the drone abilities and our suit’s skills will be quite important in later levels, as Solstice Chronicles never shies away from the opportunity to throw a mutant army at us.
Speaking about our skills, I believe that the developers could have done a better job with the way the skill tree is presented to the player, since there is no clear indication of the requirements for each upgrade path, and some descriptions suffer from typos that can make them difficult to read (I also found a good number of typos in the tutorial screens).
Most of the maps are very linear, and we’ll soon learn to spend our time following the objective arrow instead of wandering in the opposite direction, since there is no real reward for exploration (and the drone’s Scout function can be used to bring hidden supplies if we are running low on ammo). Sadly, this means that once we’ve completed the single player story line there aren’t any real incentives to replay it.
If we choose to play the survival mode, we’ll find out that it follows a structure similar to the solo campaign, and we should use the same tactics. However, I enjoyed the game a lot more when a friend jumped in with me, as the extra firepower served to create interesting situations that wouldn’t be possible during the solo campaign. A roguelike element is also in play here, letting us stay wave after wave for better rewards (while risking death and the loss of our progress) or leave using designated EVAC zones, safely escaping with valuable skill points that can be used to enhance our character.
Graphics, sound and performance
Top down shooters are not the most graphically impressive genre (with the exception of Housemarque‘s output) and Solstice Chronicles: MIA is no exception to this unwritten rule. The environments are nice to look at, if a bit monotonous, and the graphical effects for the weapons and abilities are quite good, approaching AAA level. My biggest nitpick would be that the game’s cutscenes suffer from stilted animations and low resolution textures that wouldn’t be noticeable during gameplay. Audio wise, the team at Ironward did an excellent job with sound FX, and the music serves as a neat way of building up tension as the enemy hordes launch their unrelenting assault.
Sadly, I found out that combat situations that involve a high amount of mutants on screen can bring down the framerate to the low 20s, something that ended up affecting my enjoyment of the game. This issue doesn’t seem to stem from dated hardware, as I experienced it on two different machines (my main i5 3570k, 16GB RAM, GTX 1070 workhorse and our 4K setup, sporting a Ryzen 7 1700, 32GB RAM and a 1080Ti). It’s not something that happens all the time, but it’s not a small detail either.
Solstice Chronicles: MIA is a competent top down shooter that could have used a bit more time in the oven. Gamers who are not discouraged by annoying performance issues, a poorly written tutorial and mostly linear maps will probably get a great deal of enjoyment out of Ironward‘s latest release, but it’s certainly not for everyone.