Odds are, most of us will never know the sensation of what it’d be like to surf around the rim of a black hole, offsetting the immense force of its pull for just long enough to witness whatever mysteries lurk inside. Fortunately for us (but perhaps not so much for her) that’s exactly the scenario that Rei, the heroine of Heart Machine’s highly anticipated Hyper Light Drifter follow-up, finds herself in. Stylistically, this is very much the kind of evocative, neon-drenched excursion we’ve come to expect from Alx Preston and his team, but by emphasising fluid movement and tapping into the additional scope offered by 3D, Solar Ash presents a ruined realm well worth thoroughly exploring.
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For as heady as its core concept is, your mission in Solar Ash is deceptively simple: save the world. Your world, specifically: which just so happens to be slowly being eaten away by a black hole known as “Ultravoid”. The only way to save the planet is by activating a device called the Starseed at the dying star’s centre, ridding each unique location of the black goo and colossal beings that have set up shop there. Sounds like a doddle, right?
Fortunately, despite its interstellar trimmings, the game’s universe building is appropriately subtle, and never comes over as intimidating. It also stays straightforward enough to keep you inspired to push on.
Achieving this lofty goal means mastering Rei’s liquid-smooth traversal abilities. As a Voidrunner (one of the few beings able to navigate such an ethereal setting) you’ll be grinding across rails, skating over the cloud floors, and grappling your way from ledge to rooftop – all while trying to maintain a strong sense of momentum. Sort of like celestial ice-skating. These simple actions form the bulk of the game’s 7- to 8-hour runtime. Luckily, it feels great to pull off in that “easy to pick up, tough to master” sort of way, largely thanks to there not being much punishment whenever you do fumble a specific stunt or manoeuvre. Instead, you’re always encouraged to just pick yourself back up. Failing during a particularly challenging platforming sequence isn’t too disheartening either, due to near-instantaneous restarts and various shortcuts you’ll unlock along the way.
While the core act of moving in Solar Ash feels natural, the negative impact of trying to sustain speed and grace in your movements is that instances where you’re forced into combat slightly suffer. This is especially surprising since, in Heart Machine’s 2016 game The Drifter, its main character was gifted with so many combat abilities – ranging from various gun types, a sword, and even a bomb – to dispatch enemies. Rei, however, is a little more fragile by design. Successfully engaging in fights is mostly about getting the drop on foes rather than approaching them directly, tackling enemies from creative angles and using your time-slowing skill in order to launch a barrage of melee attacks quickly.
It all feeds into the idea that Rei technically isn’t supposed to be here; clearly evidenced by the many shattered environments and sights you’ll come across. Everything points towards an ancient society that has vanished. While it can be all too easy to simply skate from objective to objective, enjoying the ride along the way, players who stop to hunt down the various Voidrunner logs and notes from the black hole’s native beings littered around are sure to find a more satisfying narrative experience than what Solar Ash provides on the surface.
Solar Ash may not be a long game, but you move from location to location at a healthy pace. Plus, once all the available relays are activated, you can always explore more in the hopes of finding these game-enriching hidden messages, or suit parts capable of enhancing Rei’s traversal talents. Regardless of how you choose to spend your time, all areas tout a strong sense of finality thanks to the boss-like platforming challenges that punctuate each.
After dispelling much of the black gunk taking over environments and freeing up the relays, the last task that remains is ridding the sections of serpent-like beasts known as remnants, which fall somewhere in between glorified QTEs and a traditional boss encounter – not too dissimilar to the giants you come up against in Shadow of the Colossus. It’s on these occasions where your mastery of Rei’s platforming prowess is tested most, as you must constantly leap around trying to keep these space monsters at bay.
Taking down these giant snake titans initially feels like a real event, and in order to take down these slithering menaces, Rei must hop between a series of weak spots before piercing them in the eye. The route to victory is always telegraphed and pre-determined, but in the moment you’re so focussed on not falling off or losing the required momentum to reach the next node that it continues to be thrilling. That said, it is a shame Solar Ash doesn’t find a way to make these boss battles more distinct in the later areas. The serpents grow grander and more difficult, sure, but you’re ostensibly completing the same actions.
And that final point can somewhat dampen the core magic of Solar Ash. Because for as wondrous and hauntingly beautiful as the six locations you visit are, the mission structure does end up becoming routine. You know there’s always a said number of relays to activate, a serpent to take down, and Voidrunner logs to uncover should you want to. It would have been nice if the game kept a few more narrative or structural surprises up its sleeve.
Luckily enough, sweeping through environments as Rei is so inherently fun and fluid, you don’t tend to miss the lack of revelation while in the moment. Solar Ash might not be the genre-busting experience those familiar with Heart Machine’s previous effort may have expected, but it’s still a beautiful thing. It nails the feeling of what it must feel like to glide through a mysterious, unknown world in the effort to save your own, leaning into its simple yet satisfying control scheme and encouraging you to put into this black hole as much as you want to get out of it.
Full of inventive locations to explore and various creative methods in which to do it, Solar Ash is a mesmerising intergalactic 3D platformer that ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. The mission structure may be a tad repetitive, but it’s easily forgivable the moment you find yourself grinding down a rail into the next neon-soaked cityscape under the shadow of a black hole.
- Beautiful colour palette and art style
- Core traversal is incredibly fun and fluid
- An evocative and engaging world to explore
- Stunning electronic soundtrack sets atmosphere
- Melee combat is a bit simplistic.
- Mission structure doesn’t evolve much.
- Not a lot of true challenge to be found.