The ostentatiously titled Pier Solar and the Great Architects is somewhat of a curio, even before getting stuck into the game proper. A crowdfunding fairytale, the title originated as a Kickstarter project – itself derived from a game concept conceived over an online forum. The Kickstarter project aimed to raise funds to bring Pier Solar out on cartridge for Sega Mega Drive (Genesis) as a homebrew release.
In a faith-restoring turn of events, the funding project was successful and Pier Solar, against all the odds, made it onto the now thoroughly matured 16-bit gaming system of yore. That was in 2011, and now the time has come for the latest chapter in this unlikeliest of tales, with Pier Solar being ported in HD for current gen consoles.
A turn-based-tactics RPG designed with the gems of the Mega Drive era fully in mind, Pier Solar channels the likes of Shining Force and Phantasy Star. Despite being entirely original, the game’s setup should feel comfortably familiar to fans of the genre in the Mega Drive days.
Dripping in rose-tinted nostalgia for the bygone days of 16-bit, Pier Solar makes it known early on that this is as much a game for its developers as it is for its audience, full of smug referential titbits and tidily packaged observations about its genre. An altercation with an NPC, which stems from a dispute over your party’s right to be wandering uninvited into the homes of strangers, puts voice to a thought that all gamers have puzzled over at one point or another. Still, where there’s a chest to be opened …
Taking control of the game’s chief protagonist, Hoston, the player is tasked with finding magical medicinal herbs to stave off the illness of Hoston’s ailing father. In somewhat typical fashion, those herbs happen to be found only in the deepest, darkest recesses of a dangerous cave in the woods. Setting out upon his quest with a merry band of friends in tow, Hoston discovers more than he was bargaining for, chancing across an ancient subterranean garden, teeming with mystery.
This ignites a journey that spirits the gang far from home and deep into the mysteries of the titular ‘Great Architects’. Often puzzling, sometimes frustrating and undoubtedly challenging, the friendly aesthetic belies a difficult RPG, which in its best moments channels utterly the feel of its aged and dated ancestors. In recreating the gaming experience of old, it’s surprising how Pier Solar makes you stop and think just how the earth below the gaming world has shifted over the years.
There’s a startling and refreshing naïveté to the characters, a reminder of how innocent games used to be, in stark contrast with the cynically over-exploited violence of today’s games. The starry-eyed nature of the game’s cast of characters serves to swaddle their journey in a sense of true fantasy and wonderment, reviving the player’s inner child and filling them with awe and adventure. That’s certainly saying something for a title so technologically Spartan in its approach.
Visually rewound to the ‘90s in terms of style, Pier Solar serves up its cartridge-era affectations with gusto, whilst also ensuring to take advantage of some of the boons offered by current technology. Though faithful to the pixel-art styling at its heart, the definition of backgrounds, each with an authentic-feeling, hand painted aspect to them, are beautifully rendered in HD and done justice to on a large screen – something which sadly can rarely be said for the titles from the era of gaming that inspired them. The graphics can also be switched to 16-bit mode for those who truly want to wind back the clock; a nifty feature, though not one that appeals to this reviewer.
A broadly familiar, legacy-orientated battle system based around attacking, defending and spell casting is lent nuance with the implementation of ‘gathering’, in which energy is stored by foregoing action for a turn. This gather can then be used to strengthen attacks and spells or transferred to another character to strengthen theirs. This lends a tactical element to the battle system wherein by manipulating the gather system, the character with the most effective spell types for the specific opponent can lead the attack, whilst the other characters act as batteries, generating and sending their gather across to the attacker.
The battle system can, despite its virtues, become somewhat tiresome as the game progresses. Battles can be fled from, and it’s a good job too as the tedium of fighting every single battle would soon bring about foaming at the mouth and rocking back and forth in one’s chair, but fleeing is not always an option because the difficulty curve demands sufficient levelling. The pacing isn’t too out of whack with the story, but grinding tends to become a necessity at certain points, though the need for this can most often be minimised if not eliminated by ensuring the characters equipment is up to scratch.
There are occasional flaws, typos in the dialogue, for instance, but none are more than minor distractions. That such a small, amateur team has put together a work of such quality is a testament to the love that has gone into this game’s manufacture.
The game world might benefit from being fully-rendered rather than being accessed primarily through a travel-map when leaving designated settlements, but as it is Pier Solar is streamlined into a story-driven package with minimal faff.
Charming as much for its nostalgia as it is for its homage and retrospection, Pier Solar is worthy of recommendation both to fans of the games that inspired it and to gamers today who are after a bit of a history lesson. Proof, perhaps, that our adulation of the games of yesterday is not all down to the rosy fondness of memory and that just maybe they had a little something special, lost in most modern titles, which lives on in Pier Solar.