For a game that opens with the Mark Twain quote, “Courage is not the lack of fear, it is acting in spite of it,” Fort Solis plays things surprisingly safe. Where I’d gone in anticipating something along the lines of “Dead Space without the gameplay,” it’s even less of a thriller and more a four-hour (space) walking simulator rendered in cutting-edge visuals that trades in any actual edge for a painfully slow saunter through an abandoned station where tension is little more than a suggestion.
Introducing players to Mars engineers Jack Leary and Jessica Appleton, Fort Solis is set over one eventful night circa 2080 in which the pair receives an alert from the titular Mars research station and promptly arrives on the scene to investigate. On entering and finding exactly nobody around, it quickly becomes clear that something terrible has happened here, and the following hours are spent exploring and investigating the facility in order to piece together the fate of its crew and get to the bottom of what was really going on in Fort Solis.
What follows is a condensed narrative experience split into four chapters, each intended to feel like a self-contained episode that makes the game playable at a television-like cadence. In hindsight, putting some space (heh) between each chapter may have somewhat hidden the fact that none save the fourth and final act feel at all distinct, if only slightly. There’s a slight shift in perspective at the halfway mark that admittedly does work to the game’s favour, but for the most part the entire experience is confined to the same corridors, the same stairwells, the same barren section of Mars’ exterior.
There’s absolutely still some value in exploration, going through logs and emails and piecing together the final days and hours of the Fort’s crew and the events leading up to, well, events, but none of it feels at all original or like it pays off the drudgery of studious exploration. There are occasional opportunities to interact with things you wouldn’t expect, like a fully-functioning Rubix cube, but for the most part you’re logging onto identical computer terminals, picking up identical audio recording devices (would people really use single-purpose audio recorders in 2080?) and finding key cards to progress.
The game dispels any illusion of tension or urgency very early on, explicitly telling the player that nothing can happen out of sequence, even going as far as regularly taking over control of your character to ensure that crucial environmental interactions aren’t missed. There are a handful of stunningly phoned-in QTE sequences peppered throughout, but even these do nothing to imply danger as they seemingly can’t be failed and are so unremarkable that I often didn’t realise they were happening.
I do think that Fort Solis has the right idea. I’m all for the kind of succinct, short-form game experience that it aims to offer, and I don’t think it’s a lack of “gameplay” that hurts it – it’s just that it doesn’t say or do anything remotely interesting and comes off like a one-hour affair stretched out into four. In fact, it probably would have half the runtime if not for the constant backtracking required of characters that amble forward with all the pace of the queues at border security.
There are flourishes of greatness, but they’re bookends to banality. The writing across the board is genuinely pretty good, especially in early-game comms banter between Jack and Jess that helps sell their characters and the situation, as is the voice acting and performance capture from a cast that includes the likes of Roger Clark, Troy Baker and Julia Brown.
The game itself is also drop-dead gorgeous, powered by the Unreal Engine 5.2 to bring the dimly-lit corridors of the abandoned facility to life in stunning detail. The lighting and material work are especially impressive and I had to pick my jaw up from the floor on multiple occasions both indoors and when on the dark and stormy surface of Mars. It’s not perfect – shadow coverage is distractingly fuzzy and there’s some ghosting and weird artifacts present – but the team has done a bang-up job when it comes to presentation.
Fort Solis takes about an hour's worth of ideas and attempts to stretch them out to a four-hour walk through a lifeless Mars facility with little to offer outside of a top-notch presentation. With a distinct lack of thrills, this sci-fi thriller falls disappointingly flat.
Incredible, Unreal Engine 5.2-powered visuals
Decent writing bolstered by top-notch voice acting and performance capture
Attention to detail makes Fort Solis feel like a real place
Walking is painfully slow.
Zero sense of threat or tension despite billing itself as a thriller.
Stuffed with genre tropes in both narrative and gameplay.