The Red Solstice. It is an evocative title, I pictured a barren and stormy night on the red planet, dust blowing in my face and nothing but the howl of the wind to let me know I’m still alive. The Red Solstice doesn’t disappoint in any regard, it is an atmospheric, claustrophobic struggle, from the second you start. Ironward have been working on The Red Solstice for a while, Mouse N Joypad previewed the game last year and I for one, am more than happy with the progress the project has made.
In its simplest form, The Red Solstice is an Action/Strategy RPG style game, but it is so much more than that. You will take control of a Space Marine who has been tasked with a mission on Mars, Mankind’s new home. It’s not really a new premise but Ironward make no excuses for using Mars as their setting and the plot is unashamedly inspired by any number of science fiction movies over the last forty years. That’s not a criticism, I think that The Red Solstice is better for it, the inclusion of the red planet ushers forth a fantastic atmosphere, one of unease at being so far from the comforting caress of the home we all know and love.
The Red Solstice is a punishing title, it makes no claim to being anything other than a hardcore, ball-crushingly difficult game. After reading the notes from the developer, specifically saying that I should try the Single Player campaign for at least the first couple of levels, I decided that I had played enough top down strategy games, that I didn’t need my hand held, so I jumped straight into a skirmish mission. It was about a minute into this game that I realised that I did, in fact, want my hand held. The vast array of upgrades, perks and weapon and ammo types was a clear indication that I was in over my head. Needless to say, that first enthusiastic (but rubbish) attempt, left me with an inkling that The Red Solstice wasn’t messing around.
The single player campaign acts as The Red Solstice’s tutorial, the first mission gives you all of the basics you need to know with very little risk to you and your squad. Halfway through the second mission, the training wheels come off and you are plunged into as much fast-paced action and frantic clicking as is humanly possible. There is so much depth in this game that I was in genuine fear of drowning but with a little perseverance and patience, the pieces all start to fall into place.
The minute to minute gameplay has one of the most overbearing and pressurised atmospheres I have played outside of a dedicated survival horror game, but to be fair to The Red Solstice, it’s not much of a stretch to say that it IS a survival horror game. You control a four man team and have to navigate your way through a huge map in order to achieve various objectives, that’s all pretty standard stuff. After the very brief run-through on how to play the game, The Red Solstice doesn’t give you any other guidelines, a vague waypoint will be all the help you are offered, the rest is up to you.
As you play, killing enemies, picking up energy and generally just surviving, you will unlock upgrade points for your squad, these can (and have to) be used during the missions to make sure your soldiers don’t get overwhelmed. Upgrades include specific class skills like calling in an airstrike, healing teammates, close combat moves or special attacks. These skills are vital to your prolonged survival and any player who doesn’t upgrade won’t be hanging around for long. If a teammate gets killed you can revive them but if there is one thing that The Red Solstice has taught me, is that you need to pick your battles. If someone gets downed during a fight it is usually best to wait until it is over before they are revived.
There is a whole bunch of environmental factors that can aid you in the game, from barricades and sentry guns for defence to explosive barrels and power generators to help you advance. The dynamic of any level can change quickly during play and the Tactical mode becomes invaluable. At any time, if you press the Space Bar, it will engage the Tactical Mode. During Tactical mode time slows to 1/10th speed and allows you to issue commands to each member of your team, as opposed to the normal mode in which case all you can do is issue “follow/stay” commands. The gameplay is so fast in The Red Solstice that if you neglect to use the Tactical mode, then you probably won’t last very long. Just in case you thought all of that sounded easy, your soldiers have limited ammo (and I do mean limited). There are ammo dumps dotted around the map but these can often be quite far away or off the mission’s path. Conserving ammo is essential, so setting your character to “auto aim” may sound like a good plan, its best to only do it when necessary. Scavenging is a big part of the gameplay, there are a tonne of buildings that I scoured through looking for ammo, weapons and other useful items. There is no worse feeling than having a swarm of enemies bearing down on you and watch as the ammo counter reads 0/000.
After each successful mission any experience points roll over to the next which will allow you to upgrade your squad’s stats like health and armour, movement speed, damage etc. Once again, there is a lot of choice available when upgrading and equipping your loadout, so you will have to intuit a fair bit of it, but anyone familiar with similar style games should be able to muddle their way through without too many problems.
There is something almost Lovecraftian to the game, something that was always playing at the back of my mind. The environments provoke a real sense of unease and sparse lighting only exasperates this feeling until it started to play with my mind. Vision is limited and flashing red dots on my map are the only indication of what you will face. The enemies are legion. Most of the time (for the early stages at least) I found myself fighting zombie-like creatures, people mutated by a virus to turn everything into a bioengineered killing machine, but the real horror vibe hits with some of the bigger enemies. Scuttling horrors and fleshy atrocities lurk in the dark on the Red Planet, and suddenly four heavily armed and highly trained space marines seem all too vulnerable. The organic nature of the horrors pulls at sources like H. R. Giger and imparts a Lovecraftian dread far in excess of what The Red Solstice could offer with its hammy dialogue and almost b-movie story. I think that Ironward have deliberately not taken themselves too seriously in their approach to the game and in doing so have managed to do something spectacular. The Red Solstice feels like a cult classic already, if it was a person, it would be sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to watch back to back video nasties.
The real replay value comes from the multiplayer, but I only managed to get a few games of the co-operative mode. The gameplay is pretty much the same as the single player, except you only control your trooper and there is no Tactical mode. The experience is reliant on being with a good and coordinated team so waiting to be matched up with random players will be a complete crap shoot. The multiplayer mode will put you and your comrades in a map and provide semi-random objectives while you fight off a constant stream of progressively more horrific enemies. Troops can be upgraded in the same way as the single player and new armour types can be unlocked which works as class selection. It is great when you are with a good team, working together and keeping things tightly controlled but all it takes is one Leroy Jenkins to ruin the whole game, something that I found happened in most of the games I played.
The Red Solstice is a great game, against all odds: it has a weight and gravitas akin to movies like ALIENS and it will always be stored in the deep dark corner of my psyche where such things dwell. It is unashamedly difficult and won’t even look up as you beg for help, but fans of high-pressure strategy games can’t afford to miss this one out. The Red Solstice doesn’t welcome newcomers very well for it has an uncaring heart. There is a menacing and unsettling tone to The Red Solstice that creates tension in the unknown, and in the immortal words of H. P. Lovecraft – The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
The Red Solstice is a title that has a gravitas and a weight far in excess of what it should. The story and voice acting has a true B-movie vibe and can come off as a bit “hammy”. The Red Solstice can afford to poke fun at itself in this area as the oppressive and atmospheric gameplay more than compensates for any perceived shortcomings. It has a brilliant artistic design and players will be on the multiplayer mode for a long time to come. In the beginning it can be confusing to equip and upgrade your squad, but once you realise YOU are the hunted and play accordingly, The Red Solstice becomes a fantastic experience.
- Graphics – 74/100
- Audio— 66/100
- Gameplay— 96/100
- Story— 84/100
- Replayability— 89/100
- Value For Money— 90/100
Overall – 83.1