PS4, PC, PS5
December 2, 2021
Five years since Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter, the team behind the indie have a fresh release in Solar Ash. Serving as an action-adventure platformer, with what looks to be heavy inspiration from games like Journey and Shadow of the Colossus, it feels pretty damn close to being on par with those greats. Solar Ash is a gorgeous, mind-bending and brief escape to come at the end of a solid year of gaming. Frankly, it feels like a fitting send-off to 2021.
Exploring the void, finding unique mysteries
Solar Ash pits players in the shoes of Rei, an individual described in the game’s universe as a ‘Voidrunner.’ It’s fitting too — this is an adventure where the lands you explore have been violently erupted from a black hole void. Your ship, the Starseed has crashed here. A dark black ooze has taken over this world, corrupting its nature and creatures. Monolithic monsters that are made up of both this matter and skeletal remains linger around. It’s up to players to tackle both this environment and their foes, escaping this cruel pocket of space. What’s provided throughout this is a slow-burner narrative, gradually building into something that’s killer by its end.
The very reason the narrative is such a slow burn is that Solar Ash is a game intent on presenting vibes through its aesthetic, slowly trickling in engaging exposition and lore every step of the way. Unique characters will be met upon your journey. They all have intriguing and heartbreaking stories to tell, whether that’s your robot assistant Cyd, intent on helping you return the Starseed to its former glory, grieving cat person Lyris or Echo, a Godly figure who seems to know more about the world around you than they are letting on. These characters will also send you on side errands known as ‘stories.’ These are entirely skippable but you’d do well to seek these out and complete them – you’re rewarded with wonderful worldbuilding and some moving moments.
Other information can be found via Voidrunner logs found in caches throughout the world, detailing experiences of other’s akin to Rei, just prior to the opening of the void. Explore the nooks and crannies of landscapes, be that dilapidated temples or crumbled remains of a city, and some engaging environmental storytelling is provided. Just what has happened here in this fractured world? Where are all those that remain? What caused this calamity? Wonderful questions are raised here and keep you intrigued, pondering these very things yourself throughout.
Without detailing spoilers, not all these answers are given by the time credits rolled for me. That’s okay. Instead, this is a game that is deliberately open-ended and leaves the player guessing. This all amalgamated in a thrilling conclusion with just the right amount of closure. Solar Ash is in fact a game that knows when to bow out and it did it oh so well. Not a minute went by that felt long or dragged out. All killer and no filler.
By the end of it all, Solar Ash goes out with a bang, recontextualising the world you’ve been spending the last few hours in. Pieces of the puzzle come a little more together and, if you’re like me, you’re impacted and moved by it, mesmerised. I’m pleased to report here that its because of this that this is a game that is more than just a by the numbers genre experience.
Solar Ash features fluid movement and cinematic combat
Where a large number of comparisons to prior historic games can be drawn from with Solar Ash is in the gameplay. This is a momentum-based action adventure. Rei will skate around the world in a fluid means, with their two nimble feet. Each step, stride and glide players take is animated in such a way that it feels like the ground is light upon their feet. It runs not too dissimilarly to Journey and last year’s Haven in this regard. While the former of the two still remains the pioneer of this format, Solar Ash aptly stands up there in that very group.
None of the ways Solar Ash rings similar to its inspiration is all that derivative though. Rei is a speedy mover, dodging, ducking and weaving their way in and out of obstacles and foes in their path. The animations that occur as you bend tight corners, the slashes of combat you can have mid-sprint and your leaps are all crafted in such a way that you’ll feel entirely in control as our protagonist does their dance of movement. While fast, there’s enough looseness and give in there to correct yourself if you find yourself careening to and from a platforming section in a way you don’t find fitting. That’s another important thing to note here – Solar Ash has set pieces of both movement and combat throughout that can be challenging, but fair. If I made a mistake, colliding with a fall or falling into a pit, I never felt robbed. It was my wrongdoing and I needed to adjust accordingly.
For those that were a little intimidated by Hyper Light Drifter back in the day, that may be the most wondrous thing to know. It’s a good balance of challenging and fair. Those that want more of that greatness like Heart Machine’s original debut…that’s here too. Solar Ash has been confirmed to fit in the Hyper Light Drifter universe. The other thing that is admirable about this experience is that it’s a game that knows what it wants to be. Players throughout its 6-8 hour run (depending on how finely you comb every corner), will be experiencing the loop of arriving in a new area and tackling source spots of this aforementioned black ooze.
“Gameplay that feels fluid and satisfying, moments and cinematography that feel like paintings of art, a story that resolves in an impacting way… this game has it all.”
To deal with this black ooze, you’ll face platforming segments with a mixture of verticality and long sprints, involving racing against a clock and striking key parts, until you reach the one vital part — an eye. Clear enough of these sources and you awaken that area’s big bad boss. Clear that boss and you’re on to the next area. That may seem like a loop that gets old quick, though it manages to stay fresh throughout. This is largely due to the ramping difficulty, bits of the world to find and distinguishable environments.
The first boss I faced, a serpent with a skeletal shell, weaving in and out of a sea of clouds and broken structures, was monolithic and intimidating. Comparisons to Shadow of the Colossus aren’t unfair here at all — these bosses are more than a hundred times your size, and the first wonder you have is just how to scale such a beast. Before long, you learn how to grapple (because every good game has a grappling hook) up the monster’s body. You’re in a sequence upon their hard shell, dodging and ducking between debris, skipping over the parts that ooze out and are hot to touch, damaging Rei. Finally, topple that foe and it feels like you’ve run a marathon.
While the approach is the same, when you’re in the thick of it there are a number of other ways battles play out. Some make use of the grinding mechanic, encouraging players to impromptu, grinding on pieces of shell or the environment around them to reach that key part players need to hit. Maybe you’ll take on a bird, flinging and wrangling its body around as you struggle to stay on its back, thousands of meters in the air. I don’t even know how to begin with a monster that looked like it was out of Neon Genesis Evangelion. These boss encounters are incredibly cinematic, breathtaking and guaranteed to get endorphins running at their fast pace.
With all of that said, Solar Ash is also a video game that knows exactly what it wants to be. It’s a third-person action-adventure focused solely on refined movement and combat. Players immediately have all the tools at their disposal to face the harsh world. It could’ve added progression and RPG mechanics (the closest you’ll get is new suits rewarded upon finding all the Voidrunner logs in an area, adding small buffs) but it doesn’t. That will be a bit of a sore spot for those looking to ring every drop out of their games, but it’s entirely forgivable. Instead, Heart Machine has created a game incredibly focused, with a great narrative and gameplay to boot. They’re not interested in barring you with additional needless downtime or mechanics.
Out of this world views and enticing exploration
I talked about it prior, but it needs more stressing. Solar Ash is the prettiest game I’ve played this year. Lava populated environments are entirely atmospheric, making me entirely invested as I tiptoed around large pools, being careful not to fall into the bubbly abyss of liquid below. Grinding extraterrestrial plants roots, reaching new heights and seeing the world laid out before Rei is gorgeous. A highlight for me was an area that is just a graveyard of spacecraft. Backing this was an eery synth-techno soundtrack filled with wonder. Grappling and grinding between fracture points, trying to find any semblance of friendly remains, the dread of ill results and also curiosity I held in every step is unmatched.
Colour in these instances also can be contrasted in both deliberately harsh and intriguing ways. Several instances had me exploring open fields and grounds still vibrant with life, until you reach an edge, crack or corner with that oh so menacing black ooze. Far from an original artistic idea, but still, one that’s refined and worked upon masterfully here.
The art direction is so clear and concise, whether that’s environmental or character designs. The open world that players are exploring in this context offers just enough clues about where to go next. This is done in two nice little ways If you see a tall structure, you likely think to yourself ‘can I climb that?’ You can, and there are enough environmental clues at just how to do so, whether that’s a piece of rubble you can climb here or a pipe to grind up. If all else fails, the world is full of pink little blobs to collect. While these are vital in the sense they are used to gain health, they also offer context clues about the path you’re meant to take. Consider these two next to each other and it’s undeniable the open-world in-game is never all that daunting, encouraging an equal mix of exploration and creativity.
Solar Ash is an experience I hope people reel over just as much as I. I can’t count on my hands the number of times I saw a weird figure or piece of the environment that I couldn’t help but wonder how it came to be. It’s entirely indulgent, I know, but some of it stuck with me to the degree that I’m already personally brainstorming tattoo ideas just to get art from Solar Ash upon my skin, sharing it with myself and any who happen upon it. This is a game that needs to be seen to be believed, and I want its majesty shared as much as possible.
- A slow-burner story that pays off in some brilliant ways
- A jaw-dropping spectacle of colourful and sci-fi graphics and world
- Fluid skating movement makes for some slick and satisfying gameplay
- Monolithic, Shadow of the Colossus style bosses are a joy to overcome
- Plenty of deeply intriguing lore to be found along with weird characters to delight in
- Those after deep progression mechanics may be turned off by its simplicity
I’ve fallen in love with Solar Ash. It proves to be one of the best recent action-adventure games with a stunning sci-fi world, rich with bits of lore and worldbuilding to unravel. It may have come just under the wire in terms of 2021 releases, but it’s still a game that’s a must-play. Step on in and you have an experience with none of the fat and all of the glory. Gameplay that feels fluid and satisfying, moments and cinematography that feel like paintings of art, a story that resolves in an impacting way… this game has it all. Heart Machine you’ve bloody done it again.