Witness the birth of a galaxy in Solar

Review of Solar on XBLIG: Try
This cosmic physics puzzler is innovative but difficult to learn.

This cosmic physics puzzler is innovative but difficult to learn.

Solar is a hard game to explain. At its heart, it’s really something of a physics puzzler.  The player flies a sun around the universe which, using gravity, can pick up orbiting planets.  Planets can grow by collecting and absorbing orbiting moons.  Eventually, planets can give birth to life, which will create spaceships that can battle each other.  Of course, there are numerous subtleties to this formula that can really only be learned by getting a feel for gameplay.

Once I got my head around the concept, it’s extremely fun. Mechanics run deep—there are ways to steal planets from other stars, turn planets into stars, and to turn suns into black holes.  A set of modifiers called “Unlockables” are (as the name implies) unlocked as Challenges are completed, and these add other mechanics to the game.  In many cases, figuring out which Unlockables to enable is part of the puzzle.

However, learning the game is its main weak point—it’s not immediately obvious how to play.  Help screens explain the mechanics of the game, but it’s not obvious how to apply them to the game without some trial-and-error. There’s a tutorial mode at the top of the game’s menu, but it only gives the barest basics of how to play.  If I weren’t reviewing it, I would probably have given up on Solar early on.  I suspect most people would give up before fully grasping the game’s full potential.  That’s unfortunate for a game this unique and entertaining.

I found the best way to learn the game was to play through the series of Challenges.  This seems counterintuitive—I assumed I’d want to have a grasp on the game’s mechanics before attempting them.  However, many Challenges are built around one of the game’s otherwise unexplained mechanics, so they were ironically the best tutorials available.  Additionally, each challenge has two levels of completion—an untimed normal level and a timed Master level.  Initially, most Master level challenges seemed impossible, but were usually easily solved once the right Unlockables became available.

Solar gets a Try from me.  It takes some effort to get into the game, but if you like puzzle games and are willing to spend the time it’s worth it.  Once I got the hang of the game, the Challenges were a breeze, but there’s certainly 80 points worth of content. And if you want to play around with the mechanics and create your own challenges, there’s always Sandbox mode.

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