Solo: Islands of the Heart is a 3D puzzler which throws in elements of philosophy, psychology, and poetry. I know a concoction of those elements should produce something complex, but unfortunately it didn’t here. That’s not to say the game is not interesting, because it is, but it seems at odds with itself as to who its target audience is.
This latest release by Team Gotham had me thinking from the start. The artistic design reminds me of Animal Crossing, and this is paired nicely with calming, slow music that sits nicely in the background. This got me prepared for a puzzle-based game aimed at a younger audience. However, the first question – “which gender are you” – opened my eyes. This game has added a 3rd option “non-binary” which surprised me a little. I admire its boldness to represent a new gender which some in the world now associate themselves as, but it made me wonder where the game is going from here and maybe that the target audience isn’t as young as I initially thought. I did dwell on that question far more than I needed to as I was surprised and interested to see such an option . As soon as I entered that I am male the game asked me “what gender I would like to love”. I wasn’t as surprised to see the same three options again, but I didn’t expect a fourth option which said: “any”. It’s heartening to see games embrace this modern way of thinking.
Once past those questions, you then get to select sprite the Sprite you are going to play as. Finally, one last question before we start proper: “what is the name of your most beloved one” The answer to this question is going to be the focus of your characters campaign. Once entered, you are whisked into the game. A brief look at the controls mentioned a magic wand/staff and a guitar and had me intrigued as to what would they would bring to the game.
We are then treated to a dose of poetry or philosophy about love before being placed at your house, sat outside on an island in which the artwork as I mentioned before does strongly remind me of Animal Crossing. So, I take control and start moving around and the controls feel about as you’d expect. However, there is a lack of instruction on what you are supposed to be doing. So, after having a little runaround and a swim -as well as petting an undefined animal – I found nothing else to do but get on a boat to lead me to the next island.
I thought there might be a bit more instruction here, but still, nothing was forthcoming. The game did highlight a lighthouse on the island with a giant spotlight, so I interacted with it and !voila!; it sent a rainbow beam to what looks like a giant totem pole on higher ground. With the lack of instructions, I just assumed that was what I need to get to which was the correct thing to do. But before I got there, a strange creature that looked like a genie mixed with an Easter island statue head carved out of a marshmallow popped up. Initially, I thought it might be an enemy, but I was wrong as I could interact with it and it what told me was hard to digest. It first seemed like it was borrowed from religious writing and then it a bit more spiritual before leaving me with the line “your biggest achievement was your first heartbeat”. I can’t say I agree, but with those words lingering in my head I passed two more marshmallow demons spouting more odd poetic yet forgettable nonsense, all amounting to the hardest and most powerful words being “I Love You”. Pushing past that whimsy, I finally interacted with the totem who also wanted to give me a dose of philosophy before asking a bit of a personal question about my relationship status, wrapped in words asking how I feel about love. Being married, I selected the option that I am currently sharing my life with someone.
After selecting the option my partner manifested as a different sprite and helped me turn a wheel on the totem pole which raised another island. I was concerned that this was all that the game was. A cutesy cartoon based 3D platformer reading various attempts at poetry and philosophy about love, with no actual gameplay other than interacting with various things for the sake of reading more about someone’s thoughts and questions about love. Fortunately, once I burrowed through the text and made it to the next island, some boxes appeared which gave me hope of some puzzle solving. Thankfully, there was a puzzle to solve, albeit an extremely easy one. I had to move the boxes to get to higher ground and touch the glowing lighthouse which in turn as before pointed towards the big totem pole. Then when interacting with the totem pole, I was once again asked a bit of a personal but this time more sinister question “Would you like your love to be everlasting”. But rather than being a yes/no/maybe structure, they worded it in a way which made me feel a bit uneasy with an example being “No, I think that spending a whole life with the same person is depressing”. I thought that’s a bit much of what seems to be a light-hearted puzzler about love.
But I answered the question and, as before, it opened a new island with more blocks magically appearing for the puzzle of getting to the glowing lighthouse. This is the basic structure of the game as a whole. You have the puzzle element of using blocks to get to the lighthouse and then the totem pole followed by a personal but sometimes disturbing question about love. There is occasionally a side task of helping one creature get to its partner by organising blocks to help make its path, or feeding a creature the food it asks for in its speech bubble, but they are not too taxing.
The puzzle element did get more difficult as you progressed, and it became interesting and fun to play. But every time I solved the puzzle of the island, I had to answer another uneasy question about love, which really affected my mood playing the game – and not in a good way. I think it was aiming to be a journey of self-discovery about your feelings of love but instead, it just comes across as a company trying to get personal information about you to sell on to greedy marketers. Even if you did honestly answer the personal question of love, when you reach the next island sometimes a ghostly spirit of your partner reacts to your answer in a negative or confrontational way.
There is a little bit of spicing up of the puzzle element in the game when you get the magic wand. Instead of having to pick up the blocks you can use the wand to move them, which for the most part is simple enough to do. However, in the later more complex puzzles using the wand to specifically place a block in this 3d environment can become a little frustrating. Trying to place a block in mid-air in 3d is tricky to navigate and I occasionally had some spells of rage as I accidentally dropped a block in the water. When this happens, you have to restart the puzzle as the block doesn’t come back. To do this you sit on a bench and it asks if you want to reset the blocks to try again. Weirdly this option is not there on all islands and there was one side quest I couldn’t complete as goofed a blocked into the water never to be seen again. There was no bench here and leaving the island and coming back didn’t reset it either which was a shame. At the beginning of this review, I mentioned a guitar – well it’s involvement in this game is merely cosmetic. You pick up songs that you can play quite simply by holding a direction down and the outcome can change the weather the colour scheme or make moles happy.
By the end of the game, i found I did enjoy the puzzle side of things a lot. It was just a shame it was packaged with these personal questions about love. I can’t say I absorbed any of the poetry and philosophy about love that it had to offer, even though I am quite keen on both expressions. I felt compelled to see it through to the end due to my interest in the puzzle side, but I really did feel the love narrative made it difficult to enjoy at times. I showed my wife some of the questions being asked and she also found them a bit personal and hard to answer. It just seems so unnecessarily out of place. If you do like puzzle-solving games, then this is a solid choice, providing you can get past the writing.
Solo had the potential to be a fun 3D puzzle platforming game. It has a friendly artistic design and the music accompanies it very well by breaking the silence with its slow calm notes. But sadly, it comes packaged with a thought-provoking narrative around your ideas of love which can make you feel uncomfortable and could be detrimental to a relationship if played with your partner.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.