“Solar Ash is about speed and movement and flow, and so that’s what our challenges should be about, too,” says Heart Machine’s founder and creative director Alx Preston. At one point, Preston says that the game is some lonely amalgam of Shadow of the Colossus, Super Mario Odyssey, and Jet Set Radio – it’s all action platforming, stylish traversal, and skirting the shadows of looming, monolithic entities.
In Solar Ash, you take on the role of a Voidrunner named Rei – a protagonist that could have been plucked right out of the ’90s with that scarf, those spindly proportions, and those slick movements – who is tasked with traversing through myriad vaporwave biomes in a desperate bid to save her homeworld from the Ultravoid (Solar Ash speak for a massive black hole that swallows entire worlds, Galactus-style).
In a hands-off gameplay demo, a well-versed QA staffer from Heart Machine nimbly jumped and deftly slid through a couple of the game’s barren and broken regions, showing off how important movement is to the core concept of the game. All the while Preston, energetic and clearly proud of his latest creation, narrated the experience and gave some insight into why the cyan, magenta and gold landscapes of Solar Ash exist in the first place.
Oddly enough for a game that looks like Soul Reaver via Sunset Overdrive – and drips with this apocalyptic, cosmic-horror tone – Preston keeps coming back to Super Mario 64. “Super Mario 64 had this depth and expressivity of character control,” he says, “that we really want to communicate in Solar Ash.” Preston went on to explain how, even today, you can pick up a Nintendo 64 pad and immediately know the limits of what Mario can do in Nintendo’s remarkable platformer. He notes that every jump, every ability, every iota of movement, is perfectly telegraphed and presented to the player with such expression, it’ll basically never age.
To that end, main character Rei is all about speed – gaining momentum, understanding your jumping angles and making the most of your traversal skillset is key to understanding how to navigate Solar Ash’s imposing universe. Her delicate frame, at once powerful but vulnerable, has been agonizingly refined to make sure she telegraphs her moves and her place in the world as much as Mario – though she’s far less spongy and carefree than the Nintendo mascot in his first 3D outing. Rei has been designed to be able to boost her speed, and she’s all about momentum and inertia. Preston and Heart Machine have done everything they can to inject as much of the myopic, hard-to-define ‘flow’ into everything Rei does – and it shows.
You can see, in action, how speed is integral to Solar Ash: watching the QA play the game, we see Rei deftly mantle up huge ledges, slide down rails apparently made from the bones of dead giants, and hop and jump up cliff-faces like some sort of hyperactive anime goat. At one point, Rei mistimes a jump (almost certainly for the benefit of her virtual audience) and lands with feline grace before skating off again, unimpeded and agile.
Solar Ash takes all the lessons learned about gratifying, empowering movement learned from Heart Machine’s deeply personal previous game, 2016’s Hyper Light Drifter, and renders them in 3D – and watching Rei deftly skate around this decaying world, it’s no surprise to hear Preston routinely namecheck Super Metroid and Mario’s 3D outings.
Unlike its inspiration, though, Solar Ash’s progression and challenge come, largely, in the form of time-trial tests and big, Shadow of the Colossus-like boss fights: small sections per biome are woven together thoughtfully with traversal challenges and collectibles that knit the world together like sinew, leading you to creatures that’d put even Final Fantasy X’s Sin to shame with their scale. “The whole team is drawn to these lonely, broken, busted places,” says Preston, “and they find something positive in them.”
Sure, there’s combat in the game, but it’s seemingly only ever used to punctuate the flow. “The focus here is on exploration and action platforming, not combat,” Preston explains. There are light skirmishes with body-horror abominations dotted around the world like punctuation, allowing you to more easily digest elements of the game whilst making everything easier to parse. “Ultimately, you gotta go fast!” Preston jibes, calling on the motto of one of gaming’s most famous speedsters as Rei skates up the spinal cord of an Evangelion-like monster, ready to tear it limb from limb.
Even the action is speedy, and centered around making Rei feel powerful and agile. Bosses – “gooey, chewy, boney creatures,” per Preston – also adhere to the two speed settings Preston has invisibly applied to every aspect of the game. They are ‘go’ and ‘go harder’, and ripping the cartilage off some cosmic space whale (‘go’) before slicing off chunks of its central nervous system in a flurry of anarchic fluidity (‘go harder’) certainly plays up to that mentality.
In action, the game looks seamless and fun. It’s a title designed around making you, the player, feel completely in control – like Rei herself is an extension of you via your fingers. She will dance, slice and glide at your beck and call, much in the same way Mario would hop, skip and jump for you back in 1996. The difference here is that Heart Machine has somehow spliced Jet Set Radio Future into the plumber’s DNA, and ensconced him in a CMYK 3D world of decaying stars and lonely holograms.
Solar Ash is everything a successor to Hyper Light Drifter should be, and then some. Watching Heart Machine shrug off the pixelated confines of its 2D cage embrace everything that makes 3D platforming so compelling is enthusing stuff – and we just hope they can keep that momentum going for a whole game.