Last day of our indie games special week, and like our first review with To The Moon, it’s time to go back into space, but with a more combat-heavy approach.
Seamless Interactive’s SOL: Exodus is an ode to bygone days of space combat simulators, but without learning all the complicated keyboard configurations. So get enough room on your desk for some dogfights in space with the computer mouse…
After leaving Earth in an overpopulated and polluted condition, mankind is looking for a new home…and finds a religious fanatic organization who offers them salvation or death.
A short journey
Before delving into the gameplay mechanics, let’s first put the biggest problem out in the open: It’s too short with less than 5 hours playtime. Usually that wouldn’t be such a problem with many indie games (as Limbo and To The Moon showed), but with a story about an intergalactic war, it’s quite disappointing to only have 8 missions and many not much different from the others: protecting ships, destroying enemies, repeat. Of course that’s something old-school space sims like Wing Commander had as well, but they also created a world the player felt to be a part of, mainly realized by talk to NPCs between missions.
Characters and story lost in space
SOL: Exodus offers none of these immersive elements. Granted, at the beginning in a very good tutorial mission which becomes something more, an interesting story concept with characters is hinted at, but cockpit communication in later missions becomes too overdramatic and doesn’t provide enough time for the story or characters to fully develop.
Besides the melodramatic cockpit conversations, the story itself isn’t that interesting and the characters less than memorable, so an identification and therefore immersion isn’t the strongest point of the game. This is too bad, because the presentation is rather good. A great soundtrack, good voice acting (despite some exaggerated scenes) and some cutscenes with nicely drawn still images (which are only in intro and outro) complement the graphics which are impressive for an indie game, even if there is some very noticeable slowdown in later levels despite turning off some details or playing in lower resolutions.
Shoot down the stars and play with death
The gameplay itself is usually quite fun despite the repetitive nature of the missions. Controls are responsive as much as the computer mouse allows (joystick or joypad support would have been nice). Only some enemies are a bit too quick and it gets frustrating to hit them. The difficulty of the missions is also a mixed bag: The first ones are quite easy to complete, the later ones become pretty unfair, so that it’s a nice touch to be able to change the difficulty levels. There is also a checkpoint save system which makes things a bit easier. Too bad that it doesn’t work after a certain mothership is destroyed, which means restarting the level.
All in all the level structure is well-done, and it offers some surprises which require a different approach to tackle a new situation, even if it usually boils down to destroying all enemies or defending ships and space stations. Only the last mission fails in giving the player enough hints where he has to go, as the map function is pretty useless in a three-dimensional space. It’s also too bad that it doesn’t show which of the enemy ships the player has targeted. A system which could have needed some reworking.
A space-sim-RPG-adventure hybrid
The space sim doesn’t only borrow from one genre, but introduces some interesting concepts which deviate from the template: RPG-like levelling up is possible after certain secondary mission goals are achieved. This is done by applying points to attributes like the ship’s armor, weapon system or afterburner and helps to make later missions a bit easier to complete.
Another interesting idea is that in some parts of the levels the player has to hack into enemies’ ships: First a core computer has to be targeted by flying very close to the ship and then a code of numbers and letters is displayed, one after another on the player’s small cockpit screen computer. The sequence has to be remembered and then chosen from different options, just like the dialogue-tree in an adventure. Of course this raises the question how much time the player can afford to look at this screen while around him enemies are attacking. It also becomes rather tedious in later missions as it’s usually the same procedure used to the same effect: showing weaknesses in the enemy ships’ armor.
Nice but flawed comeback of a dying breed of genre
SOL: Exodus is not the spiritual successor to old space combat sims like Wing Commander or X-Wing. There are certainly better games out there like Darkstar One with a more polished presentation and story or Freelancer with a bigger world and more sophisticated gameplay, and even the freeware Wing Commander Saga should offer more playtime. Still for an indie development team, this is a rather accomplished game which could become something even more interesting with fine-tuning, better storytelling and more missions.
Note for the Collector’s Edition: I got the German version from Headup Games which also includes artwork in the manual. Voice acting is still in English, only text is translated. But this shouldn’t be a problem since a Steam code is also provided which makes the game multilingual. The version from Iceberg Interactive should probably be the same, except for the manual and ingame-text which is completely in English.