Everyone knows that I love a good puzzle game, especially when it a ‘good’ puzzle game that creates unique puzzles to solve, ones that make you think and look at things differently. One genre I’ve really started to enjoy is the narrative-puzzle genre, games that combine an interesting and memorable story with puzzles that you solve in order to progress to the next narrative point. The latest such game is Solo: Islands of the Heart, a lovely game funded via FIG from developers Team Gotham and publisher Merge Games.
What makes Solo: Islands of the Heart different from other games, such as Xing: The Land Beyond, Etherborn and Songbird Symphony, is the way the narrative works. This game is your own personal story, cleverly adapted to your own past and current relationship status with a significant other. It’s this intriguing new approach that makes everyone’s playthrough different and that little bit more special.
Let’s take a closer look…
As stated above, Solo: Islands of the Heart adapts to you and adjusts the story it’s telling, in between the puzzles, based around your current and previous love life (you can choose the gender of both yourself and your lover from the list of male, female and non-binary). But how does it do this? Does it read your mind, data-mine your console for Facebook logins and read all your sordid personal information, or is it magic? Well, none of these; the game asks you a bunch of questions as you progress throughout the story, offering you multiple choice answers which will change the immediate narrative in the world and the final narrative segment.
But, before we talk about just how personal and intrusive the questions get, there is an overall theme to the game which everything is based around, love. Love is unique, people look at it and experience it in different ways, it means different things to each and every one of us, and no one answer to the question, “describe what love means”, is the definitive answer. As such, the puzzles and obstacles you come across within Solo: Islands of the Heart follow a similar pattern, there isn’t a definitive way to overcome the problem before you as there are numerous ways to solve them and the approach you take all comes down to how you look at the end goal and the tools you have to solve it.
This is a game that will speak to many people on various levels, whether you’re with a partner, have loved before, or even if you’ve never experienced what you believe ‘love’ to be. The questions never become too intrusive or seedy, with a question about your thoughts on sex within the relationship being the most personal it gets. However, answer truthfully and you’ll be taken on a journey as you get stronger and wiser the more you progress, all whilst delving deeper into your thoughts and feelings about relationships and where you’re at right now.
The reason? The final area pieces together the choices you made throughout the game and offers a story-like narrative that should be in relation to your own personal thoughts and feelings (provided you’ve answered the questions honestly). I think this is the first game I’ve played where the main focus of the entire narrative is you and your own personal experiences.
Solo: Islands of the Heart has some really interesting, and difficult, puzzles for you to try and overcome throughout your 3+ hour experience. However, the concept of them all is the same, it’s about using various blocks to climb walls, float over long distances, or activate the sprinklers on the crop fields. Although, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Using your strong arms at first, and later using a magic staff, you can pick up and place a variety of blocks so you can climb on them and gain height in the world. Your objective, activate a mini-lighthouse that turns on a totem-pole, reach said totem-pole, answer their questions, then proceed to the new area which rises from the ocean – similar to what we saw in Ascendance when you collected the orbs.
The difficulty arises when you have to use a combination of standard, hover, bridge and sticky blocks so you can climb higher and higher, as you can only pull yourself up one block at a time. You only have a number of blocks at your disposal as well, as moving to a new segment on the island will cause any existing blocks to vanish and only the ones you can use to appear – no hoarding of blocks to make the game easier! As such, the various structures usually consists of using the blocks in a certain way, then re-using the same blocks by utilising the magical staff and either flipping the hover block to create a gust of air and blowing you upwards, moving the location of the bridge, or using the sticky block to create a platform in the distance.
But why would you need a platform in the distance, I hear you cry… Well, because you also have a magical umbrella which allows you to float after you jump off a high height, of course! The umbrella is used in almost every puzzle after you get it, allowing you to hover to higher platforms, fly up with the gusts the hover blocks create, and gracefully float over to distant locations. Aside from climbing and floating, there are also rooms where you have to create shadows that match the ones you see on the floor, this reminded me a bit of Perfect Angle.
Solo: Islands of the Heart has a very interesting world. You begin on a small island, reminiscing of the love you once had/lost/still have/have never experienced (delete as applicable) and then you jump on a boat, which is beautifully named after the thing you love the most in life, towards your first destination. There are three islands in total (not including your home), all of which have their own theme, colours and problems to solve. They start off tiny, comprised of one or two puzzles (areas), but upon talking to a totem-pole, a new area with its own puzzle will rise from the depths for you to solve – rinse and repeat until you get to the lighthouse.
What I loved about the individual segments was the way you could interact with them. As you solve puzzles, help out the ‘locals’ or complete a task, some of the icy and cold biomes will change to a more summery version, whereas others will change their colours and overall tone. It’s like the world is alive and adapting to everything you do. The biggest thing about the new land-masses though has to be the animals. There are a few various animals you will encounter, from a cat-like fatty to a Diglett. I know it’s not a Diglett, but when you see it all you’ll say is, “was that a Diglett?” You can even stroke and pet all the animals as well as feed them (which is required for a trophy).
Although simple in nature and also rather simplistic in its overall design, the pieces of the world slot together perfectly, as we saw in Etherborn, and nothing distracts you from the main focus of your experience, the narrative you piece together and the crafty puzzles – oh, and stroking the chubby cat-like ‘things’.
There are two other interactions, from what I can recall, which I’ve not mentioned above – your ‘soul mate’ and the guitar. Your ‘soulmate’ is literally a spirit, hence a ‘soul’ of sorts, who’ll provide various interactions throughout your experience, offering a customised narrative based upon the choices you made. For example, if you’ve answered that you feel you lost the person you loved but felt things were drifting apart between you both, you may see them sat on the edge questioning if it was their fault that you both began to drift. It’s small things like this that makes this game really interesting to play and experience if you’ve answered everything truthfully, as it’ll touch on things you may need to hear if you’ve suffered in the past.
One of the biggest missed opportunities within Solo: Islands of the Heart has to be the guitar. There are five songs you learn as you search the various campsites you come across, each one having a unique effect on the world. Some of the effects are draining the world of colour or making it rain. These effects are really cool but they serve no purpose other than to get a trophy and change the environment if you want to take a picture (like a camera filter, but in real life). I don’t know if there was ever supposed to be more to this mechanic, such as puzzles which required the use of certain songs to be played, pathways you could only access if you made it rain to make things rise, or even find secrets by removing all colour, but alas there was nothing.
The guitar is fun to play through, it’s like the Ocarina in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, you equipt it and push in one of the four directions to play a note. I just wished there was a more definitive purpose for this, other than a trophy or achievement.
Another fun side-quest (and trophy requirement) is to build pathways to reunite two fat cats with one another so they can go into their little homes and make babies together. These honestly reminded me of Viva Piñata, when you had to get the two worms to meet each other at the end of the maze so they can procreate – only there’s no maze, just broken bridges which you have to creatively fix with a variety of blocks.
Although the game is quite simplistic – there’s no God or War levels of realism here – I feel it fits the game perfectly. The cute and colourful aesthetic makes solving the puzzles much more relaxing and tolerable (when they get difficult), with the cartoon-like visuals balancing out the realistic and possibly emotional narrative with a surreal world in which you’re the visitor. What I really enjoyed was the addition of a photo mode via the use of an in-game camera. However, there’s no filters or options, other than front or back camera, and the images you take are shown as square polaroids rather than saved to your console. Personally, I would have liked auto-save and full-screen images, but it’s a nice feature nonetheless.
Sound-wise, I felt the music was a bit too subtle at times and a touch too repetitive. There would be some parts where I would hear nothing but the same few bars over and over. Don’t get me wrong, the music is nice and relaxing – something that works great in a game like this, but more variety would have been nice. Nothing is voiced, you’re required to read the questions and answers both during gameplay and throughout the final segment, but that never bothered me.
In regards to the trophies, as I know a lot of you will want to hear this – it’s an easy platinum. You can technically get all of them in a single playthrough but there are a bunch of missables. However, should you miss one or two of these, you don’t need to replay the whole game, just start a new game and complete the aspects you missed and it’ll pop. For example, if you didn’t feed all the pets, as you missed one of them, if you feed this particular pet on a second play, it will now unlock for you. I highly advise you play for yourself, picking the answers which resonate with you and try to solve all the puzzles on your own, but should you wish to use a guide, the experience will take you around 90 minutes to complete.
Solo: Islands of the Heart stands out as one of the only games I can think of which alters it’s narrative towards your own personal experiences. As such, it was really interesting to play through and receive a personalised story at the end which was built around my past situations and feelings towards an old relationship. If this was it, I would be happy with it, but it’s not – there’s also a lot of clever puzzles which require you to think and perform a lot of trial and error in order to solve. I love how each puzzle can be resolved in a number of ways, just like how our feelings aren’t always black and white as well, things can be moved about and adapted in various ways in order to proceed both in the game and in life. This really is a delightful title that everyone should play.
If you’re looking for a puzzle game that isn’t too easy, but not too hard, which has a narrative built around you and your own feelings, Solo: Islands of the Heart should be on your console downloading right now.
Solo: Islands of the Heart£15.99
- - A narrative which is based around your experiences
- - Clever puzzles which will make you think
- - Simple design yet really fun to play and experience
- - Although pointless, the guitar effects are cool
- - You can play with the fat cat-like creatures
- - The music was a bit too subtle and repetitive, I would have liked more diversity
- - I wish the guitar effects were incorporated into puzzles
- - At around three hours (if not using a guide), maybe some people will think this is too short for the price?