Solstice is a mystery visual novel from MoaCube, which previously brought us Cinders, one of my all-time favorite games. It’s been highly anticipated by myself and others since being announced about three years ago. As advertised it replicates the immaculately painted art style of Cinders, with the addition of small animations that enliven the sprite interactions. The writing style is similar to Cinders, but much more polished. With complex characters and a more complex plot, it’s at least as engaging and replayable as its predecessor, with the promise of good and bad ending in multiple variations each.
The central conceit of Solstice is its setting, a magical eco-bubble that lives in the heart of a frozen tundra, like a massive hothouse. The city, known only as the Jewel of the North, is the source of mystery and intrigue that pushes the plot along. Throughout the game, it is almost invariably referred to only as “the city”, which serves to underscore how central it is to the narrative, as well as to the lives of the characters living in it. Their suffering, whether self-inflicted or at the hands of the ruling merchant families, always seems to trace back to the city and its strange, compelling power. In this way, it is set up to serve as the game’s speechless but menacing antagonist.
The story opens just as the True Winter is rolling in, the season of deepest cold when anyone who can escapes to milder climes, leaving behind a skeleton crew of caretakers to keep the city alive and breathing. A closed ecosystem trapped under a shimmering magical dome, its warmth and flowing water keep tropical plants alive and people marginally safer than the icy desert outside. Into this hothouse of secrets and lies come two strangers, inevitably getting swept up into the city’s web of intrigue, and forced to declare sides. In this inauspicious environment they are each implicitly tasked with solving an ever-growing pileup of mysteries.
First, the mystery of a missing man, whose disappearance early in the game instigates much of the plot. Second, his cryptic speech to his doctor, our first protagonist, which marks his mental illness as well as his fascination with the city’s esoteric origins. Piled upon these are the many secrets kept by the city’s people, their sins past and present, their hidden motivations. Deepest of all is the threefold secret of the city’s creation, which is the one that the player strives to earn by solving all those other ones.
There is nothing especially magical about people, trapped in close quarters for months at a time, going a little stir-crazy. Likewise, the gossip and petty rivalries of a small settlement where everyone knows everyone else are only natural. Solstice’s cast are divided in their opinion on their hometown’s preternatural characteristic. The two protagonists are divided as well; Galen, the physician, seems comfortable from the start acknowledging the possibility of magic, while Yani, the mechanic, pronounces herself a skeptic. And neither of these positions is exactly what it first seems to be, as the protagonists themselves lie to the townspeople, to each other, and to the player.
How can one solve a mystery when there are so many lies in the air? The game journal helpfully keeps track of the information which the player has uncovered, as either Yani or Galen. Each character has a tab shaped like a folder divider where bullet points list all the facts that have been unveiled about them, with new tabs appearing periodically as the supporting cast gradually makes itself known. The topmost tab is reserved for facts about the city, its ecology, culture and history. In case you were wondering who the main character was. No, it’s not you.
But here’s what you need to know if you’re wondering whether you should play this game or not. It is a beautiful game. The art is refined, the music is beautiful and gently atmospheric, and the writing is intricate and thoughtful. While the game’s themes run dark, even the more violent developments never seem lurid or self-congratulatory. The genre of the game is not readily pinned down, with mystery and detective plot elements, and a strain of psychological horror in the characterization.
Like Cinders, Solstice features multiple endings built upon the player’s many, many choices. The protagonists come with their own baggage, but are in many ways shaped by the player’s choices. They can be secretive and paranoid, or open and trusting, and each of them is free to pursue or ignore a scripted romance arc. The many dialogue options and the wealth and depth of characterization make Solstice a highly replayable game, and the quality of the writing means repeated play isn’t doomed to be just a rushed completionist achievement-hunt. There is so much to enjoy in the game other than unlocking every possible ending variation.
Solstice is a game that delighted me, surprised me, and left me thinking. I recommend it to fans of visual novels and mixed genre spec fic. For primarily readers, the narrative experience is enough like a gorgeous picture book that the interactive elements are likely to enhance, rather than confuse the experience. All in all, I can only hope that, alongside their more gameplay-intensive titles, MoaCube keeps making games in this vein.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.