Review: Solo: Islands of the Heart – Love is Harder than Puzzles

Love is an omnipresent feature in storytelling, deeply coloring everything from classic literature to pop music. It’s easy to tell a quick and simple love story, but actually wrestling with the concept of love itself is a weighty and messy task. Team Gotham attempts that very ambitious prospect with Solo: Islands of the Heart, a game that interweaves puzzles with questions about love and vignettes of romantic connection.

Solo attempts to personalize the experience to the player of the game, and admirably includes a non-binary choice among its opening selection of gender. As Solo progresses, it continues to give choices in batches of three. Choices start with very overarching questions about the player’s experience of love and move to more complex situations over time. This framework, however, involves the crucial issue of Solo—the subject is simply too complicated to properly tackle via questions with three answers. The choices attempt to straddle some impossible gap, open-ended enough to hopefully cover all scenarios but specific enough to mean something. They didn’t straddle it successfully for me, and I found myself constantly forced to pick answers that weren’t true, but simply had, comparatively, the most overlap with my experience and perspective.

Solo Gender Choices
It’s nice to see inclusivity right after hitting New Game.

The writers of Solo seem to be aware of the difficulty of dealing with love, and they refrain from making any moves that would be too deeply alienating or prove upsetting. There’s no grand reveal at the end Solo that offers an inspired prescription for the players’ experience of love, simply a bit of cumulative reflection. On the whole, this caution is the better path to take, but it also makes it even more difficult for the game to say anything particularly noteworthy or meaningful.

It’s difficult to ignore this struggle, as it’s one of the key elements of Solo and comprises a large amount of the purpose behind the experience. If we do set it aside, however, the rest of Solo takes on smaller challenges—and here it finds much greater success. As a puzzle game, it’s not truly innovative, but it is good. Progression centers on using different kind of blocks to scale cliffs and bridge gaps. Later brain teasers force the player to accomplish this through incremental steps, as re-purposing blocks to serve multiple roles in a single challenge becomes necessary. There’s just enough of a sense of open-endedness to provide that rush of a clever solution, although a precise design obviously lurks underneath.

Solo Totem
An elusive ghost, indeed.

Solo also tackles love in smaller ways, and these are generally simplistically charming. Occasionally you’ll bridge gaps not for yourself, but instead for small creatures trying to reach each other, and these little vignettes of connection are pleasant to come across. Other toddling animals simply want a bit of food or a pat on the head that you can give them. Solo promotes a continual sense of lightly rewarding appreciation for choosing to engage with its world in these ways. The Switch version lacks achievements, and I wondered while playing if it might have been worthwhile to institute an in-game achievement unlock system, as many of these interactions were obviously meant to lead to such a result. Even so, seeing a little mole-creature beam in happiness is a reward of its own. You can also poke around with a few tools in your belt, including a simple guitar that can trigger some effects in-game and a camera for some basic grainy photography.

The game exhibits a gentle friendliness overall, from the soft music to the cutesy art. By and large, Solo achieves its obvious goal of sucking the player into a relaxing world, where its probing of love and personal relationships will feel thoughtful and kind rather than aggressive. The graphics are effectively cartoony, and bright colors lend the various islands visual flair. The effect is hampered a bit on the Switch by a hit to the resolution, which still, unfortunately, doesn’t quite resolve occasional drops in the framerate. It’s a functional port, and understandable for an indie title. There’s also some nice touches in terms of settings, which offer a few tweaks for audio and camera. Notably lacking in presumably all versions, however, is a quicksave system, and I found myself frustrated when one chunk of progress was lost due to inconsistent autosave placement and my own hubris. Regardless, if portability isn’t important to you, you’d be better off with less aliasing and more achievements on other consoles or Steam.

Solo Creature

Ultimately, whether or not you should play Solo comes down to what you want and expect to get out of it. As a charming puzzle game that will fill a few hours, it’s certainly successful. As a way to approach and unpack your thoughts and experiences with love, the results may be more situational. I have little doubt that, for some people, the progression manages to stumble upon options that do reflect accurately on their experience. It might be worth experiencing for you simply in the hopes that it does. But as a key element to the game, it’s too inherently unreliable, and the exploration of love never gelled into something meaningful for me. Perhaps the key is to think of it as Solo: Islands of Peaceful Puzzle Solving, and the game will more fully deliver.

Ben reviewed Solo: Islands of the Heart on the Nintendo Switch with a code provided by PR.

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