Sol Invictus is the Latin for Unconquered Sun – a deity that dies, descends into the underworld and resurrects as invincible, sending all its enemies directly to hell with no return ticket. A symbolic title for a symbolic book, Sol Invictus narrates of a futuristic sci-fi world that depicts the atrocities of today.
I am more inclined to fancy a good sci-fi read than a fantasy story, so no wonder when Heavy Metal Thunder launched, it was my instant long-time favorite. If you have read and played that gamebook, you know what to expect from Sol Invictus. If you haven’t, you can read our review, or get straight to downloading the game because for a sci-fi aficionado, there is a treasure chest of treats here.
Being a direct sequel to HMT, Sol Invictus gives you a concise heads-up about what happened in HMT – the human progress, the space colonization, the never-ending greed of human corporations, the sickening root of a human society as we build it now – based on individual wealth, physical immortality and exploitation of others as the ultimate self-purpose of the human kind.
And then, the alien Invasion defeated the arrogant human species within a few days, colonizing Earth, and leaving scattered leftovers of human colonies and corporations floating in the void, disorganized, demoralized, not knowing what happened, when and why. Some thought it was a nuclear war that made Earth a graveyard, others thought little of why all communications were lost, and continued mining resources from their colonies. The worst of humans kept doing their dirty business of human, drug, weapon trafficking and military research.
Our hero, Cromulus, is a human fanatic – a death machine raised and trained to extinguish the invaders. He is a part of the Black Lance Legion that seeks out strong humans to train them into the death machines designed to help humanity survive. As crazy, fierce and tough as they seem at first, they turn out to be more humane than any other human. For one, they know humans must unite and stand together to win. That is why they are proud to be humans and admire their own kind.
On the contrary, the humanity itself seems to be spiraling down the evolution pit hole, turning into scavengers, traitors, spineless cowards. Those willing to fight, join the military. All the rest are the invader’s slaves.
I am not sure if Kyle B. Stiff had in mind to draw parallels with today’s state of things in human psyche and society, but I found myself nodding every now and then – I’ve seen that, been there, met these people. Science fiction writers have a knack on sensing which direction the wind of change blows, and Sol Invictus describes the not so distant future, even if humanity does not face an alien invasion it will surely destroy itself.
Just as in HMT, Sol Invictus has you reading. Every now and then, you will be making choices that define how the story evolves – pick a fight or step back, be a hero or a coward, be brave or be cunning.
The narration is fast and smooth, weaving the thin fabric that clouds the words and turns on the movie, where you are the protagonist, the spectator and the critic at the same time. In terms of intensity, I dare say the story is so engrossing I would want to have a Ridley Scott make it a movie some day.
A little further into the first chapter, you will face the organizational moments that will define how well you do in the upcoming challenges.
Weapons, Rewards, Cost
The first serious challenge is to choose your weapons wisely. HMT had you limited by the number of weapon slots you can fill. Sol Invictus adds a Draconian doze of bureaucracy – weapons now cost dollari, the in-game currency. Relax, there are no IAPs, but you will be bound by the price of the weapons and ammo when picking your gear.
Here is when I felt really indignant – the weapons and ammo are divided into three classes – standard, enhanced and advanced. A standard shotgun costs 3 dollari, and so does a standard spear or blade. An enhanced piece of weapon will set you off whopping 8 dollari, while an advanced one is as much as 15 dollari.
Now, if you think since Cromulus is a real hero, whose unprecedented courage and selflessness saved his mates, must be showered in wealth, you are wrong. The dollari thing annihilates your past awards and leaves you with nothing, like a newbie. Well, they give you 15 dollari, but once you visit the weaponry storage, you will feel betrayed and humiliated.
That feeling of being betrayed stung me once again when I saw how the system of dollari accumulation works. You need to collect loot, like scientific tools and weird objects that can be useful to the labs, or kill aliens, and for this you are granted dollari. Now, one killed invader brought me 1 dollari, the next one brought me 2 dollari – not even enough to buy a regular shotgun.
Should I mention how hard it is to kill a physically and technologically superior warrior? With horns! I am walking on the blade here, risking my life, and you pay me one dollari per invader? That is pure robbery, and I understand the move is to create a realistic atmosphere and a tough challenge for the player, but I suggest Cubus Games add more dollari to the rewards. Please.
Cromulus has personality traits and skills you will have a direct influence on. On the one hand, there are personality traits like Charisma, Will, Dexterity, Intelligence and Strength. They are five, but you only have three points by default that you have to distribute among those qualities. By default, you have 2 points per each, which is “meh,” but better than nothing. The more points you have in strength, the more physically fit you are for battle and survival in the wilderness or open space. However, strong Will shall get you through the challenges where others will give up and die. Charisma, on the other hand, will let you convince people, which in its turn may help you avoid potentially dangerous confrontations, or lead your men to victory. So, choosing the personality trait to make a perfect protagonist is hard, but interesting.
In addition, the book lets you save three game instances, so you can create several copies of Cromulus with different combinations of traits and skills and see which one is more successful.
Next, come the skills, and you can only choose 7 of them, for starters. Computer science, navigation, piloting a ship, or knowing the first aid tricks, or being good at spears and shotguns, or having the sixth sense, or knowing how to manage your super-awesome space suit – choose wisely.
My personal inclination is always to choose skills that make you smart, and a few combat skills. I have gotten through the first chapter successfully with those, and all my men are alive and well, and mission is accomplished.
As in HMT, Sol Invictus regularly throws fights at you – be it with human scumbags, or alien invaders. The outcome depends on the weapons you have in your backpack, but also on the dice. I know, gamebook fans must be really fed up with those, but I haven’t felt annoyed in the case of Sol Invictus. For one, the outcome still depends on your skills and weapons, and even if you draw 7, but have sufficient ammo, you still beat the baddies.
Not to mention the good looks of the dice design.
The style in Sol Invictus is the same as that of HMT, and the artist Marc Gonzalez does a great job of conveying the atmosphere – grim, gloomy, disgusting or desperate at times. His colors are deep and beautiful while the faces and scenes are memorable.
This level of art seems to be the name card of Cubus Games, and I am convinced of this time and time again with each new entry they release – HMT, Necklace of Skulls and now Sol Invictus. The art work, and writing, is not some mediocre attempt at cliché coolness, but a work of real art. You may like it, or hate it, but you will most likely admit the illustrations are unique and a real deal.
There is one thing I dislike, though – they are fewer than I’d want. Having played the first chapter only, I have a few scenes in my mind that are in a desperate need of an illustration, such as that creepy bar filled with human corpses – some slain by invaders, but most victims of human perversion. I suspect Marc Gonzalez might have something to show off here, but on the other hand, that scene might be rated as inappropriate by app stores.
The faces are somewhat sketchy, but I can see Adrien Brodie as Cromulus, Natalie Dormer (Cressida in Mockingjay) as Grishniak, which makes me think the artwork does an excellent job of helping the reader play a movie.
Just as in HMT, the music is dark, ambient and quite gruesome. For me, it was perfectly fitting and atmospheric while my girlfriend asked me to put on my headphones or turn it off, because it made her feel ill at ease, but she was not playing. Hence, my conclusion – the music does its job. Again, I wish there was more to it, like those tracks Grishniak plays when the lancers land on Pluto.
The menu is simple to sort out and eye-pleasing – the button at your bottom right corner takes you to the five options – your profile (skills and personality traits, life meter), journal (saved checkpoints you can go back to), weapons and items, both limited slots. Settings let you turn off the music and sounds, among other minor, less exciting stuff.
The book consists of about 5 chapters and preludes to them, as well as a prologue and an epilogue. Each prelude and chapter has different number of scenes, and of course, you won’t go through all of them in a single go, since you only follow the branch you choose. Some have 20+, others 100+ sections and more.
I’ve only gotten through the first chapter once, and it took me about three hours. As much as I am hooked, I don’t see myself walking all the way till the end in one day.
You may die at some point, and you will be able to go back to the earlier checkpoint to take a different turn, or choose a more fitting skill.
Alternatively, you can begin a new gameplay from scratch – the game lets you save up to 3 instances simultaneously, and take different choices in each, exploring every nook and corner of this interesting futuristic world.
I also found engrossing exploring the individual stories of Cromulus’ friends, and I will surely replay the same chapters just to explore more options and combinations, as well as get to know the people behind the space helmets – their pre-Invasion lives, their paths to Black Lance Legion, their humane side.
- Wonderful dynamic narration
- Engrossing and intense sci-fi story, great characters
- Amazingly deep branching
- Unique, creepy artwork – love it or hate it, but it won’t leave you indifferent
- Ambient, gloomy sound score
- Fluid, easy to manage system of skills, weapons, ammo, loot
- Intuitive UI
- High replay value
- Flawless performance
- The possibility to save up to three gameplays
- Long-term entertainment for an avid sci-fi reader
- Works fine even if you haven’t played the Heavy Metal Thunder Gamebook
- Dollari! I hate the name. How about Amero?
- Too small a reward for killing an alien
Sol Invictus is a real sci-fi treat for a thoughtful reader. The adventure gamebook is not only a solid read, but also a work of art in every aspect – illustration, music, performance. The combination of polished standalone elements creates that effect of watching, and directing, a movie when in fact you are reading an interactive book. Once you get through the introductions, the action-packed gameplay engrosses you until the moment you either die, or accomplish the mission. There are characters and motivations you can relate to, and situations full of symbolism that draw vivid parallels with the present-day flaws of society. It won’t be your casual gaming purchase, but if you let it work its magic, it will be your long-term affection.
However, if you don’t like too much reading, and prefer FPS, there is nothing that can convince you to give it a try.