As the Earth is engulfed by a horrible virus called STROL, humanity scrambles to colonize Mars, establishing a new world on the hostile red planet. The race to find a cure for the STROL virus ignites a battle between the hegemony of the massive corporations that rule Mars and the Insurgency as they both fight to cure and reclaim Earth. Unfortunately, STROL seems to have followed us to this new world. Dispatched to a deserted colony, our protagonist finds himself stranded amidst the horrible STROL-infected beasts and left for dead. Welcome back to Mars – welcome to Solstice Chronicles MIA.

Kicking things off, Solstice Chronicles has six difficulty levels: the first two, Recruit and Soldier, are unlocked at the beginning, with Veteran, Aetriden, and MERCS being unlocked by subsequent level completions at the previous level of difficulty. These higher difficulty levels raise monster damage and HP, and that’s all they need to overwhelm you.

Like a good RTS, the storyline teaches you how to play, but the Survival mode is where you’ll really put your skills to the test. In Survival mode, you’ll be given objectives to tackle while overwhelming forces look to stop you. This is where the interplay of risk and reward shine brightest in Solstice Chronicles.

Shortly into the storyline, your character picks up a drone named Saffron. She has capabilities that grow as you pick up modules for her, but each one is a candy-coated timebomb that will save you in the moment, but may screw you in the future. As an example, one power, Shield, pushes an ever-widening blue arc of light around her, burning any enemies that come near it, and slowing the larger ones that are able to push through. Unfortunately, deploying it also unleashes a Behemoth into the field that you’ll have to contend with later. Similarly, the Tactical Scout will send your drone off to gather supplies and upgrades to drop at your feet, but it will raise threat level dramatically while you are alone and most vulnerable, causing even more foes to spawn and at a faster rate. You will pay the piper, eventually.

In Survival (and in the story when you find the Howell-Barrex Lab — the 5th level of the 22-level campaign), your character has a skill tree split across three branches: General, Class, and Drone. Like any good tech tree, there are far more exciting possibilities than you’ll have points to spend, each one bumping a small percentage of the power’s capability. As an example, putting your first point into Tactical Scout increases the chance of a Suit Upgrade by 3%, whereas spending a point on Tactical Taunt increases damage done while a taunt is active by 5%.

Under the General tab are, naturally, the more general upgrades. Maximum health, health regeneration, reload speed, and similar are the staples of the first two tiers, but in tier three, things get interesting. Steroids that increase health and speed, a healing bot, and even homing rockets await you if you spend the point currency.

The smorgasbord of weapons in Solstice Chronicles: MIA have a “the more you use it, the more it levels up” system normally reserved for games like Skyrim. Starting with a pistol and a submachine gun, you’ll soon find other weapons at your disposal, including a Gauss Rifle, a few varieties of shotgun ranging from basic to explosive, light machine guns, a piercing sniper rifle called the Strike VI, and a high damage / lower ammo energy weapon. Each one can upgrade a whopping 75 times, incrementally upgrading bullet spread, movement speed while using that weapon, critical hit chance, target acquisition, skill cooldown speed, and of course, damage output.

All of the weapons in Solstice have a firing arc, as well as an effective range. This firing arc can be a tight choke for something like a shotgun, but that same gun may only go half the screen in distance. A larger weapon like the LMG may fire the full length of the screen, but the arc may widen as the weapon fires in a sustained fashion. You can reduce this by spending points in the tech tree, making the weapons more accurate and effective.

All soldiers have two selectable skills and a class-specific skill. Skills examples options might be grenades, flares, and a rocket launcher, with class skills being claymores, sentry turrets, bullet conversion, and suppressive fire, and that’s just for the Assault class. That said, there are four classes available in Solstice Chronicles: MIA – Assault, Demolition, Hellfire, and Terminator, with the last of the four unlocking after completion of the story mode.

Each of the four classes have distinct advantages and disadvantages. The Assault class increases damage the longer he sustains weapon fire, using a powerful energy blade for melee attacks when ammunition runs low. Demolition is the only class capable of assigning class-specific skills to all three of their skill slots – a distinct advantage when you want to drop turrets, as well as utilize the rocket launcher. Hellfire players will find themselves a powerful tank, capable of dishing out and taking a great deal of damage, but his secondary weapon is permanently bound to a flamethrower. The last class, the Terminator, is unique in that the more you use his skills, the more it depletes his life, but the class can dish damage at an unprecedented rate. This means healing becomes twice as important. These latter two classes work best in a multiplayer environment where their weaknesses can be offset by another character’s strengths.

The bosses in Solstice Chronicles: MIA are no joke. They will exhaust every round of ammo, push you to use your skills and consumables, and still demand more. They are a real highlight, as it requires a solid understanding of your character class, as well as a good bit of skill. The four of them are larger than life, and punctuate the four major acts of the game, which will easily take 10 to 12 hours to complete, with secondary playthroughs with other classes extending that number.

Solstice Chronicles: MIA runs on Unreal Engine 4, and it looks gorgeous as a result. Shadows from your flashlight distort and elongate as the creepy landscape stretches out before you, and no matter how many critters end up on the screen, framerate wobbles are non-existent. The team has also built a great deal of detail into their character designs, and the in-game cutscenes are so much the better for it. Solstice Chronicles: MIA is the best looking twin-stick shooter up close, and is equally gorgeous when it’s running in its native isometric norm.

While it doesn’t support online play, Solstice Chronicles: MIA supports couch co-op. With one player using a controller and the other on mouse and keyboard (both control equally well), two players can tackle both the story or survival in cooperative mode. At launch, the developers patched in support for two controllers, and the developers are looking into adding the sorely-needed online multiplayer capabilities, but even without it Solstice shines pretty brightly as a couch co-op twinstick shooter.