Solar Ash is the second game from Heart Machine, the studio lead by director Alx Preston and the creators of the award winning 2016 game Hyper Light Drifter. Players will find a surreal, vivid and highly stylized world filled with wild high-speed traversal, endearing characters, and massive enemy encounters. The Void is calling…
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Reviewed on: PC (Intel i5-9400F, @2.90GHZ, RTX 2060, 16GB RAM)
Also available for: PS5, PS4
Cast: Fryda Wolff, Pilar Uribe, Zeno Robinson, Todd Haberkorn, Troupe Gammage, Janellen Steininger
Developer: Heart Machine
Creative Director: Alx Preston
Game Director: Chelsea Hash
Writers: Evan Hembacher, Tyler Hutchinson, Alx Preston, Zoe Quinn
Just as its excellent movement system has you moving up and down through some gorgeous vistas, Solar Ash is a game that has many ups and downs. Excellent movement, traversal and an excellent art style are the core pillars of the experience and are some of the best of the year for each category. However, the experience is weighed down by an uneven and too easy combat system.
Movement is a core pillar of the Solar Ash experience, and it wastes no time in giving you all the tools available so that you are jetting out right from the start. The main component is the skating, which has you gliding across all but the most corrupted surfaces. The skating feels good enough that you only choose to walk when required for some traversal puzzles. Your skating momentum can be built up quickly, with a boost on a short cooldown (and can be made shorter with the right equipment) and the trusty double jump, allowing you to both get up ledges and traverse long gaps with ease. Rails and grapple points in the environment add extra layers to the movement and slot in effortlessly to the flow of your movement. For large portions of Solar Ash, the character Rei moves with grace and with the simple beauty of the environments, exploring them never feels like a chore.
The environments and colours of Solar Ash are unique, and they lead to some quite beautiful vistas and moments. Each zone you explore has its own visual identity down the colour, and the only constants are the soft blue clouds connecting the environments. Each area is the remnant of a lost civilization, and the unique architecture to each zone also helps the uniqueness of the spaces you explore. One of the first such areas is filled with highrises, and the places to explore are up the towers sticking out of the clouds. Meaning there’s a much higher verticality to your exploration, with some opportunity to zip between buildings at a height. This contrasts with some of the later areas that are much flatter but throw other obstacles in your way, like avoiding the poisonous water, but mainly being flat, you can build up speed in your traversal much easier. Textures are less complex, but the overall art style of the game successfully sells you on the strange worlds that you explore.
Within each area, your objectives are twofold. Firstly remove the signal interference for Cyd, your AI companion, to activate the Starseed, the massive pillar in the centre of all the zones that will hopefully divert a black hole from its crash course with your planet. The secondary objective is to find out what has happened to your fellow Voidrunners, who also made the perilous trip into the black hole with the hope of saving their planet. They seemed to have completed part of their mission before leaving behind little chronicles of their experience within the black hole. Finding these Voidrunner Caches is optional, but they reveal more about the mystery behind the game and give you further incentive to explore these spaces, which you will generally be happy to do as exploration and movement are the main joys of the game. No quest markers are telling you where to find these caches, but environmental clues, as well as subtle environmental design, will lead you to see these as you go with the flow of the spaces you explore. There are also more beings you meet in the black hole that offer missions that rely on you exploring the environment and taking in these clues to complete their quests.
Among all of the exploration and cloud surfing, you encounter enemies, smaller parts of the anomalies and corruption in these areas. The combat of Solar Ash is a bit of an oscillating experience; when it hits right, it feels just a part of the guided flow of the game. However, there are just as many times that it brings that flow to a grinding stop, making you wish that you could keep surfing the clouds. Rei’s attacks are quite simple, with only one attack button to be used, and the complexity in the system comes from the enemy variety, as they all have to be dealt with separately. Some are melee-oriented and easy enough to deal with, but their ranged counterparts throw a different spanner in the works as you work to dodge their attacks, maintain your movement speed and get close enough to finish them off. Some encounters are structured in a way that this is an easy proposition, with plenty of walls to duck behind on your way. When this comes off, combat feels really good, mainly owing to the great movement system already in place, but other times when the flow of your movement is off, combat feels like an unnecessary addition.