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Breaking new ground, July 9, 2021
(I beta tested this game, so this is less a review than impressions of a version of the game no-one can currently plan, biased both positively by having personal interaction with the author and some investment in the game from doing a tiny bit of work to help it come into existence, and negatively by experiencing the game in a buggier, unfinished state. If after seeing this disclaimer, your reaction is ďI donít see the point of reading this so-called review,Ē youíre probably right!)
Thereís an undeniable romance about making a new home after being shipwrecked, pushing civilizationís light into a heretofore-unlit corner and staking a claim: itís a heady mťlange of self-reliance and creativity, of being tested by a hostile and untamed wilderness without the support of society, and then constituting that society anew. Of course, the historical reality at the root of these fantasies is something else entirely, as itís not possible to separate them from settler colonialism, given the common tropes they invoke Ė genocide, land-theft, and the exploitation of indigenous bodies for labor and worse belie the sunny Swiss Family Robinson image (points to Defoe for including the character of Friday in his original novel, making clear exactly how the trick works).
Displacing these fantasies into a science-fictional setting makes a lot of sense, then, as you get to invoke the tropes while starting from a place of relative innocence Ė with our scene laid at a completely uninhabited planetoid, itís possible to simply enjoy watching a plucky hero (or in this case, heroine, as yes, Iím finally starting to come around to the game) carve out a settlement. Foreign Soil does have its moments of darkness Ė given that the protagonist first wakes up alone in a colony ship on the fritz, itís clear that the life she left behind wasnít great, and itís quickly confirmed that weíre in a Botany Bay type situation Ė but itís mostly an uncomplicated good time, as you solve some puzzles to wrest power and sustenance out of an unwelcoming hunk of rock.
That wake-up scene is probably the high point of the game, not because Foreign Soil goes downhill sharply, but because itís a really compelling opening. The main character comes to amidst sleeping coffins, shivering with hibernation sickness and her mind and perceptions disordered. Itís hard to write a scene like this in IF, since you need to convey the characterís disorientation while still giving the player enough concrete information to figure out how to act. The sequence walks this tightrope very well, as the player is kept off-balance and doesnít have a full sense of whatís going in the scene, but is always told about one salient detail or recent change that should be investigated, giving them a thread to pull to keep moving ahead. The game was an entrant in 2020ís IntroComp, and even though itíd been about a year since Iíd last played this bit, I still remembered almost every detail, since itís so strong.
Once youíve got your colonist sorted, itís time to get to the colonizing, and the challenges and puzzles are usually logical and fun to work through. As in the opening, you donít usually have a complete understanding of what youíre doing Ė it appears the government that sent you out here isnít big on briefings or instruction manuals Ė but the game is usually good at signposting what you should be paying attention to, and progress is typically possible with a little bit of prodding and poking. There are places where the implementation could be a little more robust, though, as a few puzzles flirt with guess-the-verb issues (when I replayed today, less than a month after doing my beta playthrough, it still took me forever to figure out how to fill the water bottle the second time), and there are a few errant typos Ė stray line breaks, missing spaces, that sort of thing Ė which is I suppose is primarily an indictment of how well I did my job as a tester.
The prose strikes an engaging tone throughout. Iím having a hard time nailing it down precisely, but I want to call it jauntily cynical, or maybe cynically jaunty? The main character definitely has a personalityóI got a good sense of her as brash and determined Ė and her voice lends color to what could otherwise be a dull environment made of rocky landscapes and generic corridors. Hereís her take on an empty bit of crater, for example:
"This part of the crater gets a lot of sun, soÖ Ok, all parts of the crater get a lot of sun, and yet: This should be a great place for a vineyard slope! But only if the terraforming works. And even then, probably not for another 1,000 years."
This rough-edged but inviting narration also takes the edge off of death when it arrives, as it is possible to perish from a variety of missteps. It also helps that these deaths arenít permanent, as theyíre considerately rewound as soon as they happen (for a reason that makes sense once itís ultimately revealed). And indeed, the plot winds up in a surprisingly sweet place that, much like the game overall, worked really well for me. Foreign Soil has room for more polish, itís relatively slight, and it never manages to top its bravura opening, but if you want to play out an unproblematic colony-seeding narrative, it certainly meets the need.