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Visual novels often get overlooked, and it can be tiring to look through the chaff to find grains of goodness. Moacube's newest visual novel, Solstice, is definitely made of grain. The aesthetics are gorgeous and make the world feel more alive than similar games can claim, but its real strength is in its storytelling.

Solstice is a mystery thriller with a focus exposing character motivations as the details unfold, and the developers are really pushing at what a visual novel can do to engage the player. Solstice takes place in a luxurious city owned by powerful merchant families in the far north.

By far north, I mean there is no daylight in winter and it's cold and harsh enough outside that when the city was built hundreds of years before, a lot of money went into erecting a protective dome over the place to keep out the cold, among other niceties. Since the entire city is owned by the merchants, however, they don't allow anyone to live there unless they enter into some contract or another with one of the merchant families.

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The art in the game is the most beautiful I've seen in a visual novel. And it's never still. In the scene pictured above, the water swirls, the hanging lamp sways, and stars occasionally shoot across the sky. None of the characters are completely still, either. A woman might tap her fingers irritably, the male protagonist moves his hands back and forth between his sides and his belt when he's in a neutral emotional state, and everyone blinks now and again. Particle and other effects are used to make sure that even unmoving things never seem perfectly static.

My favorite graphical embellishment, though, is the aurora-colored shimmering that highlights the text as it appears. Not only is it pretty, but it draws one's attention to the fact that the words appear slower or faster depending on how the character is talking. If there's an emergency and someone is talking very quickly, the words rush into the dialogue box with no pause between sentences, while subtle emphasis is made apparent by shimmer-enhanced pauses. This allows for natural dialogue with much more clarity than text typically has, and I didn't find myself wanting to skip through the text as fast as I could read it like I normally do with visual novels.

The game has two protagonists, both new to the city. One has been contracted to serve as doctor for the winter and ends up using his free time to look for an insane archaeologist who has gone missing. The other is a technician, sent to investigate potential sabotage to the technology protecting the city. People keeping an eye out for diversity in their games might rejoice, since the doctor is a black man who seems to be gay and the technician is female. And there's a lot more depth to them, it seems, than is revealed in the preview build.

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Each of the two protagonists gets to make their own relationships with the other people wintering in the city during its off-season, getting different information on the same topics. Even having played through a preview build which is only the beginning of the game, I can see ways in which the two protagonists' goals could come into conflict. Furthermore, every character has secrets and opinions and theories, and sometimes the information one protagonist gets about some topic conflicts with information the other protagonist gets. The game makes it plain early on that every character has layers of personality, and you must wade through them as the game progresses.

You can't take the same type of approach with every character, or even with a single character every time, and expect to always get the best results. On my second playthrough of the preview build, a seemingly insignificant choice got me some very interesting information that I wasn't able to get the first time. How big a difference your choices make down the line is impossible to tell from the preview, but in the short term, you can unearth some interesting gems with certain choices.

The game is still in beta, and the preview build I played is the first part of the game, basically, long enough to get a feel for the flow of the game and introduce the story, but short enough to play through it multiple times and see how different choices affect things. Anyone who preorders the game gets access to the same preview build while they wait for the official launch this winter.

The official release price will be $22.95, with the reduced preorder rate being $19.95. It may seem like a lot to pay for a visual novel, but I really believe it's worth it. If you're skeptical or would just rather play an example of their work for yourself before committing, there is a free demo of their previous visual novel, Cinders, available for download on their web site.