Slight undertone of spoilers. Proceed with caution.
If there is anything that Polish development team MoaCube excels at, it's making sympathetic characters. During my playthrough of their last visual novel, a spunky retelling of the Cinderella folk tale, last year, I found myself spending an embarrassing amount of time working to ensure a happy resolution for the protagonist's deeply dysfunctional family. In spite of all of their vitriol and hateful conduct, they were human enough to be cared for, to be pitied - an impressive feat, all things taken into consideration. Needless to say, when MoaCube sent over a preview copy of their 'whydunnit' mystery visual novel Solstice, I was hoping for an encore and happily, MoaCube delivered.
Unlike Cinders, Solstice uses an original setting: a trading post in the arctic wasteland poetically known as the Jewel of the North. At first glance, it's an utopian-seeming location, a melting pot of cultures brought together by capitalism and a need to stay out of the cold but things soon derail. An insane archaeologist goes missing and the two protagonists, both of whom are easily the most unconventional heroes I've seen in a while, go off to investigate. And as they do so, skeletons that probably should have been left buried slowly get unearthed.
For all of the familiarity of the central narrative, Solstice feels anything but rote. The underlining themes are far darker and more complicated than what its fairy tale exterior may suggest. Here, affections are negotiable. Here, indentured servitude isn't just common but a mandatory part of the local culture. Solstice even hints at arguments between religiosity and science. In one memorable scene, players are allowed to either openly or courteously deride a tarot card reader's attempts at divining the female protagonist's future.
As I've intimated earlier, our protagonists are hardly garden-variety riffs on Sherlock Holmes. One is a gay doctor from Caribbean climates, the other is a scrappy, mechanical-minded technician. Neither are white; the medic is dusky-skinned, the leading lady most likely East Asian. While subject to player dictation, both protagonists are strong personalities, bold and informed and seemingly immune to any attempts at curbing their respective styles.
(Another thing of note: the doctor's sexuality, before anyone worries, is treated the way it should be - as a part of the character as opposed to the sum of it.)
But as large and as in charge as our protagonists may be, they're far less interesting in comparison to the NPCs. The supporting cast is a diverse bunch, as varied in personality as they are in looks. However, they share one major commonality: all of them are complicated, multi-dimensional people whose behaviors are completely suspect. Is one woman's hysterical grief a sham or an expression of genuine despair? Is the Master of Kennels' taciturn act a by-product of circumstance or choice? Who or what the hell is Kala, damnit?! Throughout Solstice, there's a lingering sense that you're infringing on somewhere you shouldn't be, that everyone is hiding something truly terrible. The only question is if it's a secret that could harm you.
Gameplay-wise, anyone expecting a trigger-happy extravaganza is likely to be disappointed. Solstice is very much a traditional visual novel. Your interactions with the game are restricted to electing one of several dialogue options whenever the option is presented and, from time to time, deciding where the protagonists should go. Otherwise, it's just a torrent of well-written but lengthy exposition. Great for anyone who enjoys reading, bad for those who don't.
In terms of presentation, Solstice is an improvement on the formula used with Cinders. While Solstice retains the sumptuous, storybook-like quality that characterized the art in the preceding game, it's also a tad more realistic-looking; the denizens of the Jewel of the North look more like painted over photographs than drawings. Subtler changes are also present. The characters are no longer completely static, they fidget and blink from time to time.
I'm keen to see how the rest of Solstice plays out. There are just so many questions to be answered. Is it possible to get the protagonists killed through poor decisions? Are all the hints towards Cthulhu-like horrors pointed towards real threats or merely red herrings? Is the plot really so convoluted that it will require multiple play throughs to understand in its entirety? How many endings do we get? And do we get costume changes? (No, not actually interested in the last bit.)