He who controls small talk controls the universe?
That’s the entire premise of Sol Trader. And I could honestly just end the review here because that was 90% of the gameplay, but you came here to read a review, so I’ll just fill in the rest of the word count with how I made small talk with an algorithm for the next 1250 or so words.
Sol Trader is a...relationship simulator? Set in the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond. You begin in the year 2815-ish, the game generating hundreds of years of history that lead up to your birth. You then pick from some choices that will determine who you are, such as your parents, your strengths, weaknesses, and life goals. After an abrupt end to these choices in the form of a mid-life crisis, you decide on a new life goal and are on your way to accomplishing it - whatever it may be. I played a few different times, choosing to hopefully be Space Pirate and then President one day (in no particular order).
And like that, Sol Trader begins.
You’re dropped off on a random planet/moon (depending on choices you made) and can be in exotic places like Io, Neptune, or Cape Town. You have your father’s last recording to guide you that serves as a tutorial mode; he tells you that the key to success is not what you know, but who - and that “who” can probably lend you a ship...maybe even one that can make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.
Anyway, getting a ship is essentially the first step. But man, are those guys not cheap! You can rent various ships for various prices with the cheapest being something like $44 with a $300 deposit, but your father reminds you that you can probably find someone that likes you enough to lend you one if you small talk your way into their good graces.
Being the cheapskate that I am, I took this as a challenge and decided to make someone like me enough to let me borrow their ship. Really, truly, frustratingly easier said than done.
For one thing, most of the conversational topics are randomly generated, generic, and written in the third person. This is fine when the player is reading them in the bio format, but when the NPCs are speaking to you, they don’t reformat the text and it just sounds...bizarre. One of my characters was aspiring space pirate Grace MacKenzie, and when she would speak to someone, anyone - say, Norman the Dude - the conversation would go something like “Norman the Dude listened as Grace MacKenzie talked about the time Faith Mackenzie met Grace MacKenzie. Norman the Dude doesn’t feel like opening up right now. Your relationship with Norman the Dude has deepened”.
And it NEVER changed. There were probably hundreds of NPCs to talk to, but literally every conversation was the same. Each NPC had a limited amount of “energy” to be able to speak with you, and so I was trying my best to be able to get enough words in before they dismissed me, hoping that would garner positive attention, but I could never seem to make it past “casual acquaintance”. Getting shot down every single time with the same single response is really irritating and makes you question life choices (real and in-game).
One eternity later, I still hadn’t sweet talked my way into a borrowed ship, so I finally gave in and decided to rent one. After all, what kind of space pirate would I be without a ship? So I got the cheapest hunk of junk out there (since I only had $1000), fired that baby up, and left Io for the greater beyond - maybe another moon, maybe a space station...maybe even Earth? Who cared. I just wanted off that rock and onto more variety…
...except I got FREAKING LOST in space!
Unless I’m mistaken, there’s virtually no way to know where you’re going. You can go up, down, left, and/or right for DAYS and never know when you’ll hit the next pocket of civilization. I couldn’t even find my way BACK to Io after an entire in-game day. Why is there no map? It’s 2815, people! Where’s our Google Maps: Galaxy Edition? I just shut the game off and restarted at that point because I was so beyond lost that I didn’t know what else to do.
So now I’m a banker-turned-aspiring president. Awesome. Maybe I can use my perceived wealth and influence to make people lend me a ship?
Nope. Same results. It didn’t seem to matter who I was - I wasn’t going to borrow anyone’s ship anytime soon.
So TWO in-game days pass and I finally relent and rent another ship. Instead of launching from the planet Earth and getting really lost again, I went from Tokyo to London and…did the same thing?
I don’t know. I don’t care. I shut it off.
What was the point of all this? I mean, sure there are missions, but there’s literally too many people without any unique variables to make it seriously interesting. If anything, it was really overwhelming. You can do favors for people to make money, but most of them involve finding someone on some other celestial body and it’s like...I don’t know if I’ll even end up in the right neighborhood, let alone find your guy. I can’t.
Despite the frustrating experiences, I have to give Sol Trader credit where credit is due. It’s still a really unique concept - space games are done to death and really don’t interest me, yet here’s a game that breathes a new life into the genre that legitimately excited me. Sure, it didn’t meet my expectations, but there’s still no other space games like it so it still gets a few points there.
The graphics, music, and voice acting are also very well done. They’re incredibly simplistic, but simultaneously really work for the game. Nothing was distracting, and you could really focus on the task at hand. It may have been a pointless task, but at least the layout and characters looked and sounded good.
So...is it bad?
No. Yes. No yes. Yes no. Yes no yes no. No?
I can’t tell, quite frankly. Part of me thinks I just don’t understand the game - that I missed something really critical early on and that would make a world of difference. The other part of me feels that the entire focus is on relationships and people, yet the mechanic is almost underdeveloped - too robotic and soulless to even remotely resemble people. I’m so torn.
I guess, at the end of the day, I’d still recommend this game. Despite all my frustrations, it’s still unique, it’s still interesting, and I still felt really engaged. I was so hell-bent on borrowing a ship that I spent literal hours just building relationships. I refused to give up until I had exhausted every NPC, even though the responses were so wooden and repetitive. That level of investment could have arguably been considered “fun”, so I suppose I can’t truly knock it.
Sol Trader really is something else. It’s new and innovative, so it’s sure to have its hiccups. I still think it’s worth the purchase because my frustrations may admittedly be chalked up to individual differences. It may be that you’ll succeed where I failed and find the joy in this game. But by Grapthar’s hammer, I wanted that borrowed ship!