Charlie loves her video games as much as she loves dumb, charming JRPG protagonists: probably way too much. You can often catch her spending too much time being emotional over LGBT stories in games. She also thinks Yakuza 6 is the best one.
October 7, 2020
Some few weeks after it was announced, the next game from Bithell Games, The Solitaire Conspiracy is here. The people who made hit gems such as Thomas Was Alone and John Wick Hex have gone and done it. They’ve made their own spin on Solitaire. Promising gorgeous espionage aesthetics, a full campaign with FMV cutscenes and additional game modes, just what was I getting myself into? Turns out, it was something magic.
Launching the campaign and being greeted with its opening credit sequence, I was left stunned. Even marketed as a short, and developed by quite the small team, The Solitaire Conspiracy is an incredibly polished product. This much is clear in the opening alone. The game’s credits showcase panning shots of its artful characters, dramatic zooms on decks and hell, even some cards falling in style to throw into the mix. Witnessing this, it feels like I’m about to be in my very own Bond film, all set within the context and confines of the traditional game of Solitaire.
The Solitaire Conspiracy’s story is shown to you in front of your own very eyes, looking upon an in-game futuristic monitor. Its narrative follows as such: a spy organisation by the name of Protega has fallen. You are, sort of, kidnapped and unwittingly are now a spy yourself. Aided by FMV cutscenes that show Kinda Funny’s Greg Miller as Jim Ratio, your companion in the game’s entire runtime, you are tasked with taking down one single man. That man, cheekily, is called Solitaire. It’s up to you to play out the game’s missions, reconnecting with other agencies to inevitably take down the big bad. However, you won’t see these crews assembled in cutscenes, but more on that later. Simply put, don’t expect your narrative beats to come gamified too, those come to you only in the FMV cutscenes.
As a story, The Solitaire Conspiracy is quite solid, albeit trope-filled. This is more than welcome. Soaking in espionage themes and vibes is absolutely my niche and I enjoyed it greatly. The narrative, barring some tidbits of lore in the descriptions at the beginning and end of missions, is told to you through these aforementioned cutscenes. Each mission you complete gives you experience, and earn enough of that and you earn a new ranked level. This level is when you’ll get the next narrative beat and be rewarded with those sweet exchanges between your companion. With plenty of randomly generated matches and experience to go around, this never feels like a grind and instead is a fun thing to work towards in matches.
“Playing and experimenting with the different crews is where the real fun begins.”
What’s unexpected, however, is the level of performance Greg Miller brings as Jim Ratio. Having worked at IGN and later creating his own gaming podcast family, Miller’s quite a known personality in the gaming industry at this point. If you’re cynical, you could glance at this on its surface level and see just another influencer making it into a video game. You’d be wrong. Jim Ratio is a charming, gawky and at times cocky agent, with that role shifting in a predictable, but pleasant way. Inel Tomlinson, the only other actor in this game, does just as wonderful a job but is unfortunately introduced a little too far into the game for my liking.
To satisfy the goblin part of my brain that likes pretty colours, different coloured themes can also be earned upon each completed experience level. There’s something really satisfying about regularly changing the hue colour of both the game’s level and HUD, as well as Jim Ratio himself.
As alluded to earlier, The Solitaire Conspiracy is all about assembling crews within games and utilising these crews to your advantage. Yes, it’s a Solitaire game, mostly closely resembling the Streets and Alleys variant of the classic card game. In each match is a 4×3 grid, with the middle column being where you assemble your stacks. On each side, a shuffled deck appears in each tile. In that middle column, you must get your Ace card from each crew (crews are essentially each suite in a deck) placed down first. From there, you must do what Solitaire does best: wrinkle your brain a fair bit as you attempt to assemble a deck in ascending order from Ace to King. Playing and experimenting with the different crews is where the real fun begins.
You see, each crew (be it Mantis, Scorpio, Blood Legacy and so on) comes with their own ability designed to shift games up quite a bit. Mantis’ ability, for example, explodes a stack the agent is placed on, moving all the cards below it to the top of other decks. Messy but effective if used well to free up previously blocked cards. Maybe you want to just give yourself an inch forward? Royal cards in the Alpha Division can order a stack’s cards they’re placed on, helping you line up more in one go. It’s worth also noting these abilities are only performed by the crew’s royal members (Jack through King).
What these also work well in doing is creating those special ‘eureka!’ moments. Were it the more traditional Solitaire or even the Spider variant, there’s the chance you can back yourself into a corner. Make a wrong move and you can run out of them, having to try again. With Conspiracy, however, these abilities (even the ones that at times can work to your detriment) allow for good means of getting unstuck, creating your own lightbulb moment.
The Solitaire Conspiracy also knows that the genre can be tough at times. It remedies this. Instead of having to worry about stacks’ patterns and numbers in sorting piles, you just need to worry about the number. Maintain the ascending order in your piles and you’ll be absolutely fine. This also helps to relieve quite the stress as well: not once did I run into a dead end where there isn’t a move to make. There’s always a move you can make. Sure, I’m not the best and most strategic Solitaire player. I could’ve absolutely completed some levels in lesser turns than I did. However, it’s a warmly welcome solution for those still relatively new to the genre like I, who unashamedly spent the last few weeks learning Solitaire in anticipation of this release.
Wrap up your time with the game’s campaign, and there’s still a fair amount to keep you going and encourage this to be your go-to for games of the digital card based genre. Two additional modes are on offer: Countdown and Skirmish. The former of the two is a time trial of sorts. You’re placed into a randomised match with a time limit. Complete it and your time gets extended. Survive as long as you can. Skirmish on the other hand is a solid place to do some training or just mess around and knock out a few games. Here you get the choice of up to four of the eight offered crews to play in a game. Mess around. Have fun. It’s certainly a solid tool for practising the crew abilities, something I still don’t quite have mastered down to a tee.
Step into the game with little prior knowledge and you’d be forgiven if you thought this to be a big-budget title. Satisfying electronic chips play when you correctly slot a card or activate an agent. Small explosions of cyber pixels appear when you smash out a deck. Music from composer Jon Everist (Battletech, Shadowrun: Hong Kong) is grandiose and impactful, with songs sounding like they’re from a Christopher Nolan film, building up as you near completion of a match. Character art of the face cards is stunning, popping well in the hue of the in-game screen you’re viewing. Lore offered both in dialogue and in mission descriptions and conclusions is off the chain. It’s a stellar product.
Engage in any discussion in this game and a sentiment that will undoubtedly come up is the calibre of The Solitaire Conspiracy. Some have even gone as far as to reference the game as the be-all and end-all of Solitaire games. I wholeheartedly echo this. Bithell Studios have created a complete and enjoyable experience of the classic card game, just begging for replayability. Add it to other devices such as mobile or Switch, and I can only imagine it’ll thrive even more. It’s without a doubt now my go-to for the genre.
If you asked me at the beginning of this year whether a Solitaire game would be one of my most memorable gaming experiences of the year, I would’ve laughed in your face. Yet it is, and I’m awestruck. From Thomas Was Alone to Volume to John Wick Hex to this, Bithell Games have transcended their already wonderful past. They’ve made an addictive game as quintessential as ever, begging for your love.