Sol 705 review
Where most titles are content to tell one story, Sol 705 gives us at least two. One's about alien infiltrators on a quest to recover a lost artifact, while the other's about a regular teenage boy in 1970s Argentina, living in the shadow of his brilliant older brother and just trying to get by. That's a lot to squeeze into a small handful of hours, and while there's undeniable charm and humour to be found, the two parts also feel disconnected and too many of the puzzles only make sense in retrospect. Patricio Land's maiden outing is boldly different but, for all its potential there's just too little meat on each story's bones.
Meeno Estucco is an ordinary kid living in the sleepy Argentine town of Tucana, sometime in the 1970s. As the game opens, he has nothing more pressing to worry about than a storm that's messing with his family’s TV reception. But then some weird lights in the sky turn out to be aliens, he gets in trouble for shredding his school report card, and his brother blackmails him into finding a new bass player for his progressive rock band – to say nothing of the entire galaxy being in peril due to some misplaced cosmic strings. It's going to be quite a day for little Meeno!
As that potpourri of problems suggests, Sol 705 has a lot of narrative balls to juggle, and while the end result just about manages to hang together, it's more than a bit confusing. It feels like the developer started out with ideas for a sci-fi comedy about teens, wayward aliens and danger to space-time (think Bill & Ted without the time travel), but ultimately wanted to tell a different, quieter story. Setting the aliens aside, at its heart this is a tale about Meeno's mishaps in his quest to skip school, find a phone, and placate his brother before his parents find out. That turns out to be far more difficult than it sounds when the school is run by an evangelical preacher and mobile phones won't be common for about another thirty years.
Sol 705's graphical style is also a blend of disparate elements, though here the results are rather more effective. While the backgrounds are fairly hi-res, beautifully hand-drawn and realistically shaded, the characters look like refugees from a mid-90s point-and-click game, all jagged pixels and flat colours. Rather than looking strange, though, this just helps draw attention to them, much in the way the simply drawn characters in classic cartoons stand out from their lush backgrounds. They're also expressively animated, with Meeno dancing around tearing his hair out in frustration being particularly noteworthy.
The action shifts from Meeno's home, to his school, to the mean streets of downtown Tucana. Despite living in a house that wouldn't be out of place in suburban America, with a two-car garage and a swimming pool, the grey concrete, barbed wire and general neglect at Meeno's school make it feel more like a prison compound. The town is likewise a varied mix of Spanish colonial buildings and modern shops, with building sites shrouded in bright green tarpaulins mere streets away from a railway station that hasn't seen a train in weeks. It's a distinctive and memorable place, and it provides an interesting insight into the contradictions of Argentinian life at the time.
The music is a bit more of a mixed bag, despite playing such a pivotal role in the plot. Things start and end well, with a nice up-tempo groove during the opening scene and a great rock anthem playing as the credits roll. In between, though, it's mostly ... inoffensive. A plodding bassoon riff accompanies Meeno around school, jiving with his depressed mood, and while the backing track does get funkier when he finally escapes, it's more mood-setting than impressive. It does a good job of keeping things bright and positive, but I'd have liked to see at least the game's more significant moments get a similarly suitable score.
Overall, the voice actors do a pretty good job with what they're given. Unfortunately, though, the English translation is often a bit rough and the actors seem confused at times, resulting in either a flat delivery or the wrong emphasis that takes the edge off some of the humour. It's just as well, then, that most of the comedy derives from the bizarre situations Meeno finds himself in, such as getting stranded in a dark basement only to have a He-Man "I have the power!" moment with a cheap, plastic (and now glowing) crucifix. Or finding that the police, taking their "protect and serve" motto literally, have opened an ice cream parlour in the police station and sell pizza in boxes made from old shooting range targets.
The interface is mostly standard for a modern point-and-click, with a bag icon in the bottom left of the screen bringing up your inventory and a tape deck icon in the top left calling up a menu screen. Clicking on a hotspot pops up icons for look and pick up/use (for some reason a microscope and a mechanical claw, respectively), and items can be combined or applied by dragging. Frustratingly, however, there's no way to speed up movement, say by double-clicking on an exit icon or fast traveling with a map. Tucana's not a huge town, but I did wind up traipsing around quite a bit so some assistance would have been welcome.
Oddly, although there is a hotspot highlighter, it's only available if the hint system is enabled. This is another area where Sol 705 goes its own way, with painful results. Rather than providing puzzle-related assistance, hotspots related to important tasks are highlighted with a brain icon. At least, I think that's how it's supposed to work, and it's not a bad idea in theory. The problem is that it misses things at times and includes red herrings at others, making it fairly useless in practice. One particularly awkward example involves a metal sheet resting against a wall. You have to move that sheet to make progress, but the hotspot is restricted to one tiny corner (making it almost impossible to find without the highlighter). It is marked as being important, but so are half a dozen other nearby objects, none of which do more than provide some jokey dialogue. I annoyingly missed the smallest but most important one in the shuffle and was nearly ready to tear my hair out by the time I figured it out!
The (almost entirely inventory-based) puzzles likewise often sound good in theory but are needlessly frustrating in practice due to a profound lack of hints or direction. Once you've solved them, the cartoon logic sometimes makes sense in retrospect, and occasionally leads to entertaining slapstick comedy sequences, but I generally got there by trying everything possible and hoping for something to happen. As an example, Meeno starts out with a small rocket in his inventory, but no mention is initially made of it, how you can ignite it or why you would want to (beyond showing off to a fellow rocket enthusiast). Maybe I was just being dense, but I only fully figured out the why after I'd sorted out the how and gazed upon the devastation I had wrought. That puzzle chain begins with examining a nearby albatross and later involves a recitation of the entire Argentine World Cup team and something suspicious in a jar, which should give you some idea of the logical leaps involved, and why a few gentle nudges in the right direction would have gone a long way. It also doesn't help that, more than once, a character tells you to do something that later turns out to be impossible and irrelevant.
Finally, we come to the characters and plot. As with so much else about Sol 705, there are quite a few good ideas here but they're confusingly presented and all too often wasted. For example, there's Professor Romaniak, a celebrity UFOlogist who's driven around in a golf cart by his dog, responds witheringly to his ardent fans, and casually eats bugs. He's gloriously batty, but after you take control of him for a scene, helping him to set up his alien-spotting telescope, he's never seen again. Then there are the aliens themselves, who, after spending twenty years learning Earth's universal language (Esperanto) and making their way across the vast deeps of space to Tucana, wind up sidelined until near the end when they get one short scene to explain themselves. But even that scene’s so brief and information-packed, it took me a couple of playthroughs and some thought to piece together what the aliens were all about. At first I wasn’t even sure whether the aim was to help them or stop them!
The developer was clearly not short on ideas; the hard part seems to have been fitting them together, particularly in a game that only lasts 3-5 hours. And I haven't even mentioned the talking cats and suspicious moles, a romance between two members of the band, or biting comments about music piracy and the prejudices faced by women in rock. There's easily enough material here for a game three times as long. Or perhaps even two or three different games. And indeed, early gameplay videos showed whole scenes that were later discarded, and major characters who wound up relegated to background art in the finished game.
Overall, then, Sol 705 is a lot like its teenage protagonist: charming and full of potential, but also messy, confusing and underdeveloped. The graphics look great, the music hits some high notes, the characters are endearingly eccentric, and even some of the puzzles lead to some entertaining moments. But all the good is undermined by an overstuffed (but short) plot, opaque logic, and a tendency to waste its best characters. That's a real shame, because the Argentine setting and people are both refreshingly unusual, and it's clear that a lot of love went into making this game. You’d best keep expectations modest going in, but if you're patient and looking for something a bit different, you might find Sol 705 worth checking out.