I love it when I get my hands on a indie game that I can’t quite fit into a specific niche. Solar 2, by Murudai, is one of those games. Individual screen shots don’t really give any indication of what genre you’ll be playing, and even once you’ve got the controller in your hands it is tricky to decide what sort of game you are actually playing. The only label that fits most of the time is Casual, so we’ll go with that.
The best word for the visuals in this game would be minimalist. The setting is deep space, and at least initially all you’ll be looking at is a few bits of debris floating in front of a star field. Before long, you’ll start to see planets, and then stars, and if you stick around long enough, space ships and black holes. The planets have a bit of variety in terms of color and design, but they take up very little screen real estate, so they don’t exactly draw the eye. By far, the most frequent visual will be the vast blackness of space. At first I felt this was a weakness for the game, but the more I played, the more I felt that the tininess of the asteroids, planets, and even stars, served to highlight the vast scope of the game. We are talking about interstellar distances, here, people. It isn’t supposed to be crowded.
Gradually, as you start to involve yourself in the more challenging parts of the game, the visuals step up slightly. Individual stars, asteroids, and planets may not seem that interesting, but when combined into a multi-star system with eight planets, each bearing life and orbited by asteroid moons, it can get downright intricate, and highly pleasing to the eye.
Perhaps more impressive than the way the simple elements eventual combine into interesting visuals, though, is the highly efficient way in which the minimal screen space is put to use delivering information. Asteroids or planets in orbit are indicated by a line drawn to the center of gravity. A life planet is identified by its little shield and the white status indicator that lets you know what ships are being worked on, or how far along evolution has come. Said ships are simple little specks of color, but their shape lets you know what sort of weapons you can expect from them and how much it will take to destroy them. The simplest ships, by the way, are little triangles that shoot lasers. The ones unassociated with a planet are white, and they have a predilection for blowing up asteroids. Little white triangles shooting asteroids. Why does that sound familiar? Friendly ships are green, and rival ships are red, by the way. Objectives are indicated with small circular icons connected to a split arrow. The closer together the halves of the arrow are, the closer the goal. The data that needs to be more specific is relegated to the corners, showing you your current mass, how close you are to the next celestial stage, and how much evolution or shield remains.
Here and there a few visual effects are thrown in for good measure. Sometimes you’ll see particle effects or fancy light shows, and the gravitational interplay gets to be pretty interesting looking, particularly when you reach the black hole stage, but overall the graphics are simple and efficient.
Gameplay varies greatly depending on the mass of your current astronomical object. You begin as an asteroid, and your goal is to smash into other asteroids to gain mass. Mass, as it does at all levels of the game, plays the role of both health and XP. Colliding with things too big to absorb (planets and stars) or getting hit by lasers and missiles hurled by those pesky lifeforms knocks mass off. Lose too much and you explode and have to respawn. At the asteroid level, the game is sort of like Osmos on the opposite extreme of the size spectrum, or maybe “Katamari Universe.” Once you get massive enough, you move up to planet, and the game changes. Now all collisions reduce your mass. If you want to grow, you need to capture asteroids into your orbit, after which they can be absorbed. You can have loads of asteroids in orbit, using them as a handy health boost when you need it, or as a blunt instrument to shield yourself or pummel your foes. (Yes, you have foes.) Gain enough mass and you’ll rise to a life supporting level. If you can avoid taking damage long enough for life to evolve, you’ll have a civilization on your surface, which has some fringe benefits, including ships (which you have no control over, and attack anything but each other and you), a shield to deflect some damage, and surface mounted laser cannons. Thus armed, you can continue to fetch mass while having a fleet and ordinance to defend yourself. The life on your surface grows and develops as it gets more experience and kills, earning you beefier ships and more surface cannons. Take too much damage, and you wipe it out and have to start over, and if you drop below the “planet” mass threshold, you die and respawn.
Once you grow past life planet, fusion occurs and you become a star. This is bad news for life on your surface, but don’t worry too much, because now you can snag planets into your orbit, either to nurture to life status, or just absorb for more mass. If you get enough life, you get a shield around your star, and a full orbital compliment of hostile, leveled up life forms makes you an engine of destruction. Larger stars can hang onto more planets, and if you snag enough mass for one or more of your planets, you can become a multi-star system.
Once you absorb enough mass, you’ll collapse into a black hole, and the game changes again. Now the only thing that can take you out is a larger blackhole, so the game stops being about getting mass, which at this point is practically unavoidable. Now the problem is avoiding larger black holes, which are periodically indicated by red arrows. Once you get enough mass for the big crunch? Everything starts over. Literally. EVERYTHING starts all over.
Just the game I had described would have made for an interesting distraction, but at the asteroid, planet, and star levels, there are missions for you. They can get pretty clever, too. Some of them require you to move from one side of the map to the other, avoiding damage. Others will require you to protect a planet, or help an asteroid evolve. There will be clashes with evil space dinosaurs, full scale star system vs. star system rumbles, and even a stellar heist! The missions each flow along their own thread, two or three challenges deep. Any thread can be restarted, as well, allowing you to flex your new skills on tests you struggled with last time around.
Enjoyable though it is to gradually build yourself up from “speck of dirt” to “the totality of mass in existence,” sometimes you just want to have a little fun. To cater to that desire, the game gives you a few different respawn options. Basic respawns will bring you back as simple version of any level of celestial object. That means you can revisit asteroid, or skip all the way to black hole, if you want. Likewise, at any point you can save your current system into a respawn slot, so that the three-star system with ten fully armed life supporting planets won’t take you three hours of careful absorption to resurrect.
As a final note, I highly recommend playing this game with a controller. I plugged in my trusty Xbox controller and found it to be perfect, giving me minute control over the steering of my planet, and helping me to cycle through my planets to monitor mass with ease.
There is very little in the way of sound in this game. A quiet, simple sound track, punctuated with the clack and clunk of the odd collision, is what you’ll hear most of the time. There are exceptions, however…
The only “character” in the game is your polygonal guide, who runs you through the tutorial and assigns you your challenges. That said, every challenge set has a small but internally consistent storyline, and they make for some really bizarre plots. You’ll find yourself making moral decisions about a kitten planet, or stealing whole planets to crack some sort of cosmic security. You might even become a star… A rock star, that is, in addition to the massive nuclear fireball.
I really enjoyed this game, and could certainly see myself spending the odd moment jumping quickly in to declare war on some space nomads. Maybe I won’t be so charitable with that kitten world this time around…
8.1 / 10: A short game, but loaded with unique experiences and replay value.