Solo: Islands of the Heart could have been the perfect summer game. Its seaside aesthetic is soothing and bright. Its puzzles are thought provoking but still laid-back. And its story can be very reflective. That’s why it’s a shame that technical bugs, a heavy-handed story and an empty world hold it back from the full potential. Either way, Islands of the Heart remains an enjoyable, small-scale puzzle title.
Solo: Islands of the Heart’s puzzles surprised me. Box based puzzles have been shoehorned into so many other games, that I had felt like I had played Solo, without actually playing it. But Solo proves that even an old dog can learn new tricks, as the block based puzzles continue to surprise to the very end.
The puzzles in Solo begin simple enough. Your little sailor needs to stack boxes to reach areas that he’s too short to climb. However, over the course of the game, it introduces new mechanics to keep things fresh. Different types of blocks – like ones that push out gusts of wind – add completely new combinations to play with. Experimenting with them is, perhaps, the best thing about Islands of the Heart. Soon you’ll even get a magic wand that’ll allow you to move blocks from a distance. This allows for some really cool moments where you manipulate and create platforms while you’re already half way up a wall.
The best thing about the puzzles is how they make you think economically. More often than not you’ll only be given a few blocks to get across a wide gap, and it’s up to you to figure it out. The fact that you’re barely scrapping by means you’ll need to think creatively; getting the most mileage out of the few resources you’re given.
Solo makes the most out its novel idea, but there are a few issues holding back this unique gameplay. The magic wand requires you to use a cursor that is way too sensitive, with no option to turn it down, while placing blocks and boxes exactly where I wanted always turned into a struggle. Very often I’d have to reposition the camera to get the ideal angle. Even then the camera can be more than awkward at times, and this means that solving the puzzles just doesn’t feel as intuitive as it could do.
There are also a few optional puzzles that aren’t required to progress. These are pleasantly difficult and fun, but ultimately pointless. It’s a shame how there aren’t any in-game rewards for completing them, apart from the enjoyment, and this is an example of how the Switch’s lack of Xbox-styled achievements can hurt certain games.
Solo makes its central theme very clear from the start: it’s a game all about love. It asks the player’s gender, sexuality and experiences with love and the game never stops questioning. Our lonely, little avatar travels off, away from their isolated house in search of love, moving from one totem to the next. Each one of these totems will ask the player, often, very personal questions about their views, experiences and opinions on love. This can range anywhere from how important you value looks or sex, to hypothetical scenarios, like making you choose between your family or your love in a big fight.
Solo’s contemplative atmosphere, island aesthetic and mellow soundtrack stop these questions from ever feeling too intrusive. The relaxed vibes also create a safe, introspective, virtual space for you to actually mull over these queries while solving the puzzles. Although, it never feels as if any of my choices have any real effect on the game itself. The spirit of your future love might sometimes repeat an answer back to you… making you feel bad for being so shallow. Apart from that, there are no real consequences. Some of the questions are also a bit too personal, coming across as pretentious at times.
Aesthetically, Solo: Islands of the Heart on Switch is an odd mix. Nintendo fans might immediately think of Wind Waker but Solo has more of an Animal Crossing look with its stubby characters. Made on the Unity engine, a lot of the terrain can often seem too jagged, blocky and handmade, rather than a genuine set of islands. If you can ignore that though, than Solo is a pleasantly bright and summery game. With the use of a guitar, players can change some cosmetic things in the world; making the game completely black and white, seeing it rain or bringing back the sunshine.
Apart from the way the game looks, Solo’s world is also filled with other notable sights to try and make it believable. Seagulls, chubby elephants and other wildlife creatures fill out the setting. Feeding and petting them are cute enough until you see them for the tenth time. There’s not a lot of visual variety to Solo’s world, and there is no real reason to stop and take in the sights.
In both docked and handheld mode, Solo: Islands of the Heart has some technical issues – specifically the draw distances aren’t great. Despite the fact that Solo’s archipelagos are quite small, pop-in of textures, terrain and objects are common, while I also encountered multiple bugs that needed me to load up my save to progress.
Despite not reaching its full potential, Solo: Islands of the Heart still succeeds at being a fun, relaxing summer game. It milks block based puzzles in the best way. It has a cute, innocent and friendly atmosphere (even if the world is a bit empty). And though its romantic narrative tries too hard at times – and can even get too personal – seeing developers take on a risky subject matter is always welcome.
Release date: August 2019
Formats: Nintendo Switch (Review)
Massive thanks to: Merge Games