Sol Invictus Review: Heavy Metal Thunder Sequel Is Heavy On Story, Sparse On Gameplay
The recent explosion in storytelling games has been a great one for fans of more nuanced drama. Not content to simply be puzzles to be solved, these titles have created the kind of 'choose your own' adventure experience you could have only dreamed of growing up. Interactivity, visuals and evolving AI can make for a deep and engrossing tales in which you are less like a passive reader, and more an active participant; as if you are the writer.
So, it is frustrating that Cubus Games' Sol Invictus, a sci-fi storybook game, is so heavy on the former that you often forget you are not in your Kindle app simply reading a book.
Sol Invictus is the second of a planned sci-fi adventure series called Heavy Metal Thunder by Kyle B. Stiff. It is a long and, at a few times, engrossing narrative about a desperate battle against a host of alien invaders. The previous game, Heavy Metal Thunder, was released back in September. Having played the original is not necessary, though it is definitely recommended. The characters recount the events during the opening of Sol Invictus, but there are definitely parts that are missing that would create a more robust and intriguing world.
It is three years after a ruthless alien race known only as 'The Invaders', a humanoid/goat-like species with highly advanced technology, has laid waste to Earth. You assume the role of Cromulus, a human soldier suffering from a severe case of amnesia. Cromulus is not your real name, it was given to you for reasons made apparent in the original game. All the soldiers in your units are known as 'fanatics', human beings who are willing to go to any length to save the race - and whose inclusion I will touch on below. The main scenario of Sol Invictus' five-part structure is the titular Operation: Sol Invictus (Latin for 'unconquered sun') in which your team and others are tasked with taking down five of the Invader's gunships in a brazen act of defiance.
The frustration and disappointment with Sol Invictus stems from one of misplaced expectations: I thought I would be the pilot of my own destiny, crafting dialogue trees, making split second decisions that would have profound effects on the universe. While the game does allow you to make your own choices - the options are limited, often allowing you to 'do X or do Y'. Often that translates to 'talk to this person about this' or 'leave this person alone.' Either option will then start up a thick wall of exposition that is good enough - such as fellow soldier Grishnak's backstory - but lacking in the kind of conversational flow you may find even in Mass Effect on the console, or even my personal favorite mobile gamebook, Sorcery!.
Most of the Sol Invictus' "game options" are little more than options of which way to go down a hall during such and such an event. There are some RPG elements present, a full list of attributes like Strength and Dexterity, plus a number of skills and weapon abilities that can affect the options presented to you during certain situations. For instance, during the end chapter you may be asked to hack into a computer, and depending on whether or not you have the Computer skill, the situation will change subtly to accommodate your play-style.
The gameplay itself is rudimentary. Skills are succeeded or failed by a roll of two six sided die. You have to roll above a certain number and your various stats or skills can adjust the number required. The extent of these gameplay moments involve you tapping on the die and watching what number rolls up. The battles play out in roughly the same way: you have X number of hits, usually two to four and have to roll at or above a certain number. Your opponent does, as well. First to knock the other guy down, wins.
Sol Invictus never tells you how the gameplay system works. Thankfully, this is not a problem because the gameplay is so basic that you would have to never have played any game to at least understand the fundamentals of what's happening. The game is largely the equivalent of playing a very thorough Dungeons & Dragons campaign in which the Dungeon Master rolls every single die for all the players, occasionally tossing a bone and allowing you to travel left or right.
So, it is the story that becomes the basket where Sol Invictus puts most of its eggs. The game is written entirely in the second person, which brings about the previously mentioned D&D scenario of someone narrating a multitude of events to you. As such, though, you never get a great sense of what your character Cromulus is thinking, as Sol Invictus is focused more on telling, not showing. It's as if you're being read a history of some future through the eyes of a two-dimensional soldier.
Nor is the story subtle in its politics and metaphor: it hammers home its agenda, exaggerating to unbelievable lengths the corruption of human companies and governments in the face of the Invaders. To the characters of Sol Invictus, the only worthwhile humans are the 'fanatics', a poorly defined sub-class of soldier that brings to mind frothy-mouthed zealots but in reality are just really well-trained soldiers.
The nomenclature rubs me the wrong way because nothing they do seems unreasonable, and I can't imagine any actual groups of fanatics calling themselves that. Again, it is a matter of telling and not showing. We're told over and over that the characters we're invested in are these rabid acolytes and that nobody else likes them, but the crucial element missing is 'why'. What do these guys do differently than anyone else in a hundred similar stories?
You keep expecting the other shoe to drop, for there to be some major twist towards the end: it's all simulation or a delusion (it's noted in one long section that there is a lot of brain-washing inherent to the military), but nothing ever comes. The end assault is an equal parts exciting and frustrating affair and writer Kyle B. Stiff's at times stiff prose shines here like nowhere else. But the whole thing feels like a B-movie take on a Dan Simmons novel: plenty of action, but little of the mystery and drama. When a gamebook title is mostly book, I hope the story is better than a Gears of War title.
Sol Invictus does offer several replay options, though the choices you make will not change the end result dramatically and will simply alter who lives or dies by the end. The game is a decent gateway title into the storybook genre, as avid readers will enjoy the long chunks of descriptions and interactions. For those searching for a little more control over their story experience, to feel as if their choices ultimately matter, there are dozens of more satisfying options available to them.
Sol Invictus was reviewed for iOS on an iPhone 5S with a review copy provided by Cubus Games. You can purchase it for $.99 on both the App Store and Google Play.