As indie studio Fallen Leaf’s debut title, Fort Solis is certainly an ambitious project. Though compact and fairly short, it boasts AAA production values, thoroughly commits to a cinematic style of storytelling, and boasts an incredible star cast of Roger Clarke, Julia Brown, and Troy Baker. Being the debut title of a team of just over 20 people, you’d be forgiven for approaching Fort Solis with caution- however, based on my experience with the game, that the caution is unneeded. Fort Solis is an engaging experience from start to finish, and though it doesn’t necessarily set new standards for narrative-driven games – or walking sims, so to speak – it does succeed in almost everything it sets out to do.
You play as Jack Leary, played by Roger Clarke, an engineer who responds to a routine distress call coming from the titular mining facility known as Fort Solis. After a short hike on the Red Planet’s soil, you arrive in the facility, only to quickly realize that something is not quite right, primarily because it’s entirely abandoned. The first hour or so of Fort Solis is definitely a slow burn, with a lot of time being spent on picking up new clues and pieces of the story that murkily fill in some vague details about the work that was being done by the people stationed in Fort Solis, and how it may have led to whatever went wrong here. The tidbits that it does dole out in that opening hour do an effective job of reeling you in, and once the story gets going, it doesn’t let up until the end.
"Fort Solis is an engaging experience from start to finish, and though it doesn’t necessarily set new standards for narrative-driven games – or walking sims, so to speak – it does succeed in almost everything it sets out to do."
Chiefly responsible for that is the game’s incredible star cast, which I mentioned previously. Roger Clarke, who played Red Dead Redemption 2 protagonist Arthur Morgan, and Troy Baker, who has a litany of iconic roles in the medium, are joined by Julia Brown in her first role in a game, and all three knock it out of the park. The camaraderie between Jack, the protagonist, and Jessica is at the core of a lot of what Fort Solis does, storytelling-wise, and the relationship between the two characters is sold very effectively here. It helps, of course, that the characters themselves are instantly likeable here. Meanwhile, the wildcard of Wyatt Taylor, Baker’s character, sets the narrative’s fuse alight when he’s introduced, and remains a highlight of the experience from that point forward.
There are some occasions in the first half of the game where some of the light-hearted friendly banter between Jack and Julia feels like it’s tonally clashing with the events of the story, and with what kind of frame of mind you’d imagine Jack would be in given the situation he finds himself in, but by and large, the writing is solid, the dialogue is snappy, and all of it is very well acted. That last bit in particular really shines through thanks to the excellent performance and motion capture work done by the developers in Fort Solis, with cutscenes capturing the nuances and mannerisms of the characters and their faces in impressive detail.
Those high production values can be found in other aspects of the experience as well, from its strong audio design, which contributes significantly to the eerie and unsettling vibe of the whole experience, to the impressive visuals. Fort Solis does a great job, on a technical level, of bringing its art design to life. The facility feels like a real, lived-in space and is brimming with a great deal of detail. Whether you’re exploring some of its cleaner, more pristine interiors, parts of it that are more run-down and have accumulated wear and tear, or even its immediate exterior, where you can see the red environments of Mars, Fort Solis consistently looks great. And barring some minor audio glitches and that made some of the dialogue sound a little distorted on a couple of occasions, I didn’t run into any technical issues either.
"By and large, the writing is solid, the dialogue is snappy, and all of it is very well acted."
Something else that also cements Fort Solis’ narrative strengths is the game’s strong sense of place and atmosphere. This is not a horror game, in spite of what its early showings may have suggested to some, but there are definitely some strong horror-esque vibes here. Fort Solis is, on paper, a psychological thriller, and a lot of that ends up going hand-in-hand with how well it builds up its atmosphere. Exploring the abandoned, isolated interiors of a station on Mars with a number of its systems failing, all while furious and hostile sandstorms rage outside on the Red Planet- that creates a very strong and very distinct aesthetic that elevates the experience even further. And as the story progresses and gathers pace, that atmosphere only continues to grow stronger.
Most of what I’ve talked about in this review has revolved around Fort Solis’ story and storytelling, because frankly, that’s the vast, vast majority of this experience. Fort Solis is very light on gameplay. That is, of course, by design- with developer Fallen Leaf’s single-minded focus being the cinematic and narrative experience on offer here, you shouldn’t be heading into the game expecting a strong mechanical foundation or a ton of interesting gameplay.
From its first second to its last, Fort Solis keeps things simple. The vast majority of the game involves walking through environments, interacting with and picking up objects, and reading emails, watching video recordings, and listening to audio logs. There are some optional collectibles that you can track down in the form of posters, and there’s the occasional puzzle here and there, though calling them “series of linear button pushes” instead of “puzzles” would be more accurate. All of it is very simple and straightforward, and does exactly what it’s supposed to do. It keeps things nicely moving along and facilitates the main drive of the experience- the story.
"Fort Solis is very light on gameplay. That is, of course, by design- with developer Fallen Leaf’s single-minded focus being the cinematic and narrative experience on offer here, you shouldn’t be heading into the game expecting a strong mechanical foundation or a ton of interesting gameplay."
There are, however, some issues with the gameplay experience that can be problematic. On the most fundamental level, movement in Fort Solis isn’t great. It’s heavy and lumbering, and more often than not, feels unresponsive. Its slow and plodding nature can not only be a bit frustrating at times, it can also make exploration feel a bit too plodding. Those who don’t like forced slow walking in games will probably be perennially annoyed while playing Fort Solis. Meanwhile, navigating the facility can also get a bit confusing at times. Fort Solis is quite compact, and it’s quite linear, but even so, the poor signposting in the environments themselves and the very unintuitive and unhelpful in-game map can make for the odd moment of meandering confusion every now and then.
It’s a good thing, then, that gameplay is very much not the focus in Fort Solis, because even though it can be an issue at times, at the end of the day, it’s just the conduit through which the game is telling its story- which, after all, is where it really excels. At just 4-5 hours long, Fort Solis is a brief experience, but it fills up that runtime very effectively, thanks to a compelling story, high, cinematic production values, strong acting performances, and excellent atmosphere. If you’re looking for a strong narrative experience, or if you’re a fan of science fiction settings, Fallen Leaf’s debut outing is well worth a look.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Compelling story; Cinematic storytelling; Impressive production values; Excellently written and acted cast of characters; Strong atmosphere; Impressive visual and audio design.
Light on actual gameplay; Slow, clunky movement.