Solar Eclipse

Solar Eclipse
Game Name: Solar Eclipse
Media: 1 CD-ROM
Publisher(s): Crystal Dynamics
Developer(s): Crystal Dynamics
Genre(s): Simulation
Release Date: 1995
Serial Number: T-15911H
Region: USA

At first glance, Crystal Dynamics’s early Saturn title Solar Eclipse is a generic offering, with nothing to immediately set it apart from the 3D space shooters that came before. Yet while lacking the uniqueness of some of its kin, Solar Eclipse is one of the most intelligently designed games in the genre.

Solar Eclipse ScreenshotIt should first be noted that while Solar Eclipse is on rails, it often doesn’t feel like it due to how far you can wander in every direction and the way every level is peppered with alternate routes. However, its chief asset is actually its difficulty curve, something other shooters such as Panzer Dragoon I and II struggled with. The frustration of PD1’s limited continues is exasperated by a few unfairly difficult parts, while the Berserk move in PD2 allows the player to essentially skip over any challenging sections. Playing the games makes one wish for a happy medium, a rail shooter that is challenging yet fair.

Solar Eclipse not only achieves that happy medium, it rides it to perfection. The game opens slow as you adjust to the controls, then gradually introduces swarms of enemies and passages to navigate. Though there are plenty of pick ups to restore your shields, there aren’t enough that you can get away with being sloppy. Make it through all that, and you’ll face a boss who throws one nasty surprise after another.

Got that down? Good, because level 2 is much harder. And level 3 is harder than that. And so on, all the way to the end. Each level is a daunting challenge when you first play it, even in light of what you overcame in the previous one. Rest assured, you will die a lot.
Yet the game drives you to keep at it, in large part because the design is so intelligent. Anyone accustomed to the one-size-fits-all strategy of “dive and weave like a lunatic while shooting everything in sight” is in for a rude awakening.

Solar Eclipse ScreenshotMost enemies have distinctive AI, and those without AI bombard specific areas according to their type, so random flying will get you slammed by a stream of fire, while maneuvering around the enemy’s patterns will leave you unscathed. As for shooting everything, some enemies are more troublesome if you destroy them, blinding you with explosions.

In short, the game consistently rewards intelligent flying and knowing your enemies. With the help of the wonderfully responsive controls and hit detection that even differentiates between scuffs, glancing collisions, and head-on crashes, this is a remarkably just shooter. I have died hundreds of times playing it, yet not once could I place the blame for a death anywhere but on my own shoulders. And mercifully, the game employs an auto-save feature, plus check points on each level. As heavy as the challenge is, the frustration level is very low.
The gameplay also has a refreshing number of tricks…

The shift buttons allow you to rotate your ship, and some sections can only be navigated by rotating a full 90 degrees. The viewpoint rotates with it, so you’ll have to hold on to your lunch, but you can return to the reassuring default position simply by pressing both shift buttons at once.

Solar Eclipse ScreenshotYou also can control your speed to an extent. This helps compensate for the draw distance, which is not horrendously bad, but is enough to affect the gameplay at points. You always have time to react to enemies, but a few walls that should have been visible in plenty of time to avoid them are not.

Decelerating lets you more surely navigate these parts. However, there are plenty of more interesting uses of the feature, such as a boss which must be pursued through a maze of tunnels. Deprived of the wingmen who usually warn you which tunnels are dead ends, your only choice is to stay right on its tail. Sometimes you need top speed just to keep the boss in sight, but some passages are too hard to navigate unless you slow down.

Indeed, all of the bosses benefit from unique and ingenious design, with the level 5 and level 7 bosses winning my nominations for Top Ten Best video game bosses of all time. Instead of having energy bars, the bosses reflect how much damage you’ve done in their appearance, which adds to the game’s realistic tone.

But the key to success is effective use of the four special weapons. Grabbing the same weapon twice in a row increases your special weapon strength, which adds strategy to the pickups. Sometimes it may be worth having a weapon you don’t like for a while so you can maximize your weapon strength, then switch to one you like and proceed to slaughter the opposition.

Solar Eclipse ScreenshotThe one flaw in all this frantic gameplay is the lack of a scoring system. Undoubtedly the developers feared it would break the immersive feel, and personally I’m glad to not have numbers cluttering the screen. But many shooter fans thrive on building high scores, and there’s no reason they couldn’t have included a “display score” option. It’s almost puzzling given the extent to which you can customize the sound and controller configuration.

The gameplay itself is enough, but there’s also a solid sci-fi story conveyed by FMV cutscenes which combine live action footage with brief CG clips. The CG often suffers from poor frame rate, but the live action is so smooth that it could pose as an actual movie. Many say this was the best-looking FMV the Saturn had yet seen. And for those of you find the very idea of storyline in a space shooter to be an outrage, relax, because the cutscenes are all skippable.

The story is rather depressing for my taste, but I have to admit it’s superbly done, and I sincerely cared about all of the characters. In large part this is thanks to the acting and directing, which are never short of outstanding. The name used to sell the game is Claudia Christian of Babylon 5 fame, but the strongest performance comes from Gary Hudson, who plays the cocky yet world-wise and compassionate protagonist, Jake “Stuntman” Cross, with genuine subtlety and heart. Christian makes the perfect foil for him as the impassive and stubborn “Raven”, and director Dimitri Logothetis managed to draw great performances from even the supporting cast. The script has plenty of cheesy lines early on(a problem that mysteriously disappears after the first third), but the actors always manage to pull it off.

Rather than being a completely separate feature, the story is integrated into the levels as the pilots in your team fly and fight alongside you, and radio communicate with each other via live action footage in the bottom right corner of the screen. Besides plot points and some light banter to help draw you into the game, pilots often give off tips for dealing with enemies. Some may find this insulting to their intelligence, but it doesn’t subtract from the strategy required, and the game leaves plenty of tricks for you to figure out on your own.

Solar Eclipse is not an easy sell; it doesn’t hit you with a “wow” concept, and shooting veterans may be unhappy to find the strategies they’ve relied on for years aren’t enough. For those willing to get into it, however, Solar Eclipse holds an exceptional level of substance, and truly exhilarating victories await those who persevere.

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