Photo voltaic Ash Assessment: Hyper Gentle Drifter Observe-up Retains the momentum going
“Graceful movements and breathtaking battles against colossal monsters make Solar Ash a worthy successor to Hyper Light Drifter.”
Awesome boss fights
Inventive world design
Some poor story beats
Camera can cut the swing in half
Solar Ash is a perfect example of what makes video games such a unique artistic medium: it takes inspiration and design elements from several high-profile classics, but blends them into something that is different from everyone else – or any game I’ve ever played have.
Developed by Heart Machine, the studio behind the indie hit Hyper Light Drifter, some elements of Solar Ash will look familiar at first glance. His gigantic boss fights are reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus, while the reality-distorting space exploration is reminiscent of Super Mario Galaxy. Sometimes the fun of creating video games comes from the digital alchemy that arises when developers start mixing cups. In this regard, Solar Ash is a successful experiment that comes to life with bright colors and unmatched style.
Filled with memorable sequences, Solar Ash is a focused successor to Hyper Light Drifter that repeatedly awakens moments of awe. The fluid cloud skating movement is just plain enjoyable, while towering bosses deliver memorable set pieces that put speed and reaction time to the test. It’s an indie game with full swing that is always on the move, even if it misses a few subtleties.
I’m a void baby
Solar Ash’s world may look colorful, but its story is darkly apocalyptic. A massive black hole appears near a planet and gradually begins to tear it apart. While world government proves useless in stopping it, a group of people called the Voidrunners are deployed to activate the starseed, a device that can stop a black hole. The game follows a runner named Rei who travels around the decaying planet and kills huge monsters, allowing her to use the starseed.
It’s a surprisingly rich science fiction story, full of history and world education. It is most effective when it offers commentary on real issues, such as the inability of our own politicians to come together and resolve life-threatening crises in a timely manner. Audio logs describe a well-known dystopia where the appearance of the black hole somehow turned into a divisive political problem that stalemated the government’s response. Its story is a little less effective when it turns into a comparatively vague meditation on individuals picking up the pieces, but it’s a good use of science fiction as a real-world allegory.
As the name suggests, Voidrunners can run – or more precisely “skate”. The game is all about exploring the world at a fast pace using some fluid mobility tools. If you hold down the left trigger, Rei can whiz across any surface like a skater or drag on anything rail-like, from plant roots to disassembled subway rails floating in mid-air. Movement is easy to understand, but immediately satisfying. Exploration is a fast-paced ballet that rarely requires players to stop moving. Stringing jumps and grinds together to solve platform puzzles feels like performing a graceful dance routine.
Most of the puzzles in the game are timed micro-gloves that require Rei to quickly slit open a few stakes and stick her sword into a huge eye before it is evaporated from the black goo around her. These use the movement mechanics to a large extent and present the players with small challenges in each level, which put their control and speed to the test. There are also some collectibles – including alternate suits and insightful audio logs – scattered around the world that add some optional platform challenges to the mix for players who want some rewards for exploring.
Stringing jumps and grinds together to solve platform puzzles feels like performing a graceful dance routine.
There aren’t many additional tools out there, but that’s because the game doesn’t need them. A time slowing maneuver makes Rei charge targets from a great distance, and there’s a boost to drive around faster. Nothing is arbitrary; everything aids the movement and helps smooth it out even further. Just as Shadow of the Colossus has been known to reduce everything that does not serve the core gameplay, Heart Machine takes care not to complicate what already feels good.
Climb a colossus
There’s battle in Solar Ash, but it’s secretly another mobility tool. Rei can perform one simple blow that can take out slimy black enemies crawling around the world. Attack is more about maintaining momentum than slowing it down to clear out waves of bad guys. This is especially evident when using Reis’ Time Slow Down ability, which allows her to encounter an enemy from a distance. The slash has a surprisingly long range, allowing Rei to jump into an enemy and slash them in mid-air without stopping to fight.
The best combination of combat and movement comes from the game’s boss fights. In each level, Rei faces a huge black monster covered with plates of bone called Remnants. They’re some of the greatest video game bosses I’ve ever seen, and even tower over some of the greatest beasts on Shadow of the Colossus. A snake-like whale, for example, hovers in the air and circles dilapidated apartment buildings. It’s a fascinating sight that only gets more impressive when you realize you are about to skate the length of its bony back.
It’s a spectacle that never gets thin and only gets more fascinating as the monsters get bigger.
In boss fights, Rei must find a way to face a beast and then complete a version of the game’s time trials spread over his body. In a fight, I draw towards a huge flying creature. I pull up my wings and slit stakes before reaching the top. It turns around and sends me down its bottom in a perceptually distorting moment. It’s a spectacle that never gets thin and only gets more fascinating as the monsters get bigger.
Sometimes the game just can’t keep up with its ambitions. The camera can get a little unwieldy when the beasts turn and reset Reis’ position. There were a couple of fights that I had to repeat simply because I got lost in a nauseating camera transition. Repeating battles can also be a pain as Rei has to run back to a monster, grab it again, and repeat the exact same battle sequence until she makes it. I’ve also had a few instances where I got stuck in the area and forced myself to reset.
The small technical defects do not detract from the spectacle. The Solar Ash bosses gave me the same “wow” moments that I got when I first played Shadow of the Colossus. It feels impossible to go seamlessly from skating through a swamp to sliding a 300-foot-tall giant bone sword on its way to the soft spot on top of your head. It’s still a mind-boggling magic trick, even 16 years after a PS2 game first did it.
The colorful art direction makes Solar Ash stand out immediately in an indie game series. While the graphics are simple, even with limited textures and detail, bright colors add a true sense of afterlife to the science fiction world. The planet is bathed in bright pink as Rei dances across seas of pale blue clouds. It’s a surrealistic mood piece – a strange world wrapped in a neon sign.
While its influences are clear, it doesn’t look or sound like the games it is related to.
However, it’s less the vivid graphics and more the actual world design that make Solar Ash pop. It takes hints from Super Mario Galaxy to create seemingly impossible spaces for players to spin. In a later biome, I drove up and around a winding pillar of cloud and got myself into an area hundreds of miles above what I believed to be the ground. Elsewhere, deconstructed railroad tracks obscure the city’s sky, allowing me to skillfully climb to the top of skyscrapers. The game makes the most of its black hole premise by using the science fiction threat to literally tear apart the environment and reassemble it into platform paradise.
The sound is just as impressive. Solar Ash features fantastic music from Disasterpeace that adds to the creepy sci-fi atmosphere. It’s a disturbing collection of music that highlights the heavenly catastrophe that is tearing the world apart. Strong voice actors give life to the inhabitants of the world and add to the apocalyptic stakes. Rei is especially strong as her collected demeanor begins to tear apart as panic sets in over her worldly reality.
It is these aesthetic accents that give Solar Ash its own identity. While its influences are clear, it doesn’t look or sound like the games it is related to. Heart Machine’s signature style is completely intact here, even after abandoning the 2D pixel art that Hyper Light Drifter fans are used to. The studio has created a complicated alien world that is so bright and welcoming that I can’t help but be mad at the forces of this universe for failing to protect it.
Solar Ash is a stylish sci-fi platformer who skillfully interweaves influences to create something fresh. The emphasis on fast, fluid movements makes exploring a dance-like pleasure. The boss fights inspired by Shadow of the Colossus also take advantage of this mechanic and create exciting action set pieces on a mind-boggling scale. Technical problems can hold back the momentum, but it’s never enough to completely distract you from an inviting sci-fi playground that needs to be rescued.
Is there a better alternative?
If you’re looking for other motion-based indie games, Celeste and Ori and the Will of the Wisps are both great options. If all you want is the giant bosses, the PS4 remake of Shadow of the Colossus is a must see.
How long it will take?
It’s just under five to six hours in total, with a few collectibles on the way for extra playtime.
Should you buy it?
Yes sir. Solar Ash is a fast paced and fun platform game with a meaty science fiction story and a handful of unforgettable boss fights.