The Red Solstice is about as bland as it is bloody.
One of the great things about small team indie development is the freedom to experiment this production style affords developers. The problem with this is that not every experiment ends up being a success. The Red Solstice is one such failed experiment. The game has a really interesting gameplay hook but little else going on. Unfortunately, The Red Solstice never really delivers on the promise of its strong ideas.
The Red Solstice is an attempt to use Real Time Strategy (RTS) micro mechanics to make mission based action game. For the uninitiated, micro refers to the controlling of in game fighting units, as opposed to macro, the controlling of the player’s base economy. The thing that The Red Solstice fails at is replacing the macro piece of the RTS puzzle with something compelling. The end result is a game that is interesting in concept but fails in execution.
The feeling of playing The Red Solstice is similar enough to playing something like StarCraft in some ways and similar to something like Diablo in others. The Red Solstice is nowhere near as good as either of those games, however. The Red Solstice lacks the depth of a StarCraft and the loot draw of Diablo.
In The Red Solstice, the player is a small unit tactical strategist in control of numerous squads of incredibly generic space marines as they clomp their way through a zombie apocalypse. In the universe of The Red Solstice, humanity has been through the ringer. Immediately after recovering from a massive societal collapse, the human species is hit with a biological zombie apocalypse. The player controlled characters of the game are the blunt tip of the spear of a mega corporation’s defense against these forces. It’s all super grim and gritty and dark and edgy and adds nothing interesting to the game.
The gameplay of The Red Solstice is nowhere near as interesting as it could have been. The chief mechanical hook in The Red Solstice is a bullet time in which the player maintains full control over all units. It’s actually a really intriguing idea, as a skillful player could use different character abilities to deal with more challenging enemies. The potential of this mechanic is never fully realized, though, because of a couple other issues in the game.
First, one of the other mechanics of the game actually works in opposition to the way the bullet time mechanic works. Player controlled units in The Red Solstice are pretty squishy unless they’re in cover. The problem this causes is that what a player wants to do with the extra time gained by slowing the action down is position units so that they can chain abilities onto a single target. The cover system punishes players for doing that by making characters take extra damage whenever they move out of cover. Second, the controls in The Red Solstice are pretty clunky at times, especially when dealing with item pick ups, so much so that it almost feels like the bullet time was added to compensate for the controls.
The Red Solstice is bleak and dark in a way that is often off putting. The backdrop of the game is the second wave of a viral zombie apocalypse. A good shorthand for the game could be Space Marines Vs. the Zombie Apocalypse, which sounds like it could possibly be cool, but in this case the presentation fails the concept.
In terms of innovation, there isn’t much going for The Red Solstice outside of a couple new mechanical ideas. The characters are all bland and derivative, and the setting is overbearing and dull.
Playing The Red Solstice is like standing up to a Zerg rush in StarCraft, except instead of building new units to prepare for the constantly rising tide of enemies, you just level up the same five units perpetually. In a way, the gameplay loop of this game is similar to what a horde mode in a MOBA would be like. The problem there is that The Red Solstice lacks the bombastic abilities of most of those games.
There is potential to the bullet time mechanic of this game. It would be really cool to pull off a one-player team fight, but that never really happens in a way that feels great. Early in a level there’s no challenge to pulling off a chain of destruction because the enemies are usually fairly weak. Later in levels the player’s squad is so swamped by enemies that anything other than turtling and occasionally throwing out abilities results in mission failure.
Adding bullet time to the RTS gameplay is a really innovative idea, but its implementation here actually detracts a bit from the fun of this style of gameplay. Micro in RTS games is a skill that takes minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. The addition of bullet time briefly makes it feel like child’s play, which would be great if the game actually gave players a reason to use it outside of positioning units. The fundamental problem with gameplay in The Red Solstice is the way it lets players slow down time just so they can tab through units and right click a bunch of spots on the map. There are occasionally cool moments in The Red Solstice but they are almost completely overshadowed by the long monotonous stretches of clicking on cover.
The Red Solstice is not a great looking game. Part of that is probably an intentional attempt to evoke the game’s grim tone, but the end result is a game that just isn’t visually interesting. It doesn’t help that a lot of the game’s visual styling is incredibly reminiscent of StarCraft’s Terran faction. The game doesn’t really sound great, either. The music isn’t bad, but the voice quality and sound effects are mostly substandard.
Given that The Red Solstice was released a while ago and can be purchased on sale sporadically, the game might be worth picking up if you’re really into the RTS genre. On the other hand, even if you’re really into RTS games, The Red Solstice is more of an interesting experiment than a fully realized concept. Also of note is that the game crashed to desktop several times during the review process, so it is perhaps not a game for folks with older machines.
Ultimately, The Red Solstice is a great idea for a game that is dragged down by a bunch of poor design decisions. There’s a great game in there somewhere, but this version of it is not fully realized.