Sophomore outings can be tricky. Do you build upon a popular base with a sequel, remaining comfortable within familiarity, or do you go all out with a new concept and a point to prove? For Heart Machine, following up their 2016 success story Hyper Light Drifter was always going to be a test, but through dynamic controls, clever world building and beautiful visuals, Solar Ash passes with flying neon colours. There’s no one trick pony here, folks.
Solar Ash opens as a planet and its civilisation are pulled into The Ultravoid, a devastating black hole, with our hero tasked with averting untold disaster. As Rei, a masked Voidrunner with silky skating-like skills, you’ll be flinging yourself across the voids of dangerous, colour-drenched environments to awaken giant beasts and remove them from your path to power the Starseed, an enormous structure at the heart of the map that Rei believes will solve everything. As many others have described it, think Jet Set Radio crossed with Shadow of the Colossus but on a much wilder, neon-tinged scale.
Oh, hi there incredibly tall boss character
The opening area sets the scene, with the Starseed’s conduits and your faithful AI Cyd having been blocked from communication by various abnormalities born from the monsters that call that area home. A quick scan reveals where these issues reside, leading you to discover the general mechanics of gliding effortlessly across the ground and targeting various weak points of the black ooze like structures that block your way forward. A trusty hook shot mixed with a slowing down of time mechanic allows you to both target enemies, reach higher places and pinpoint said weak points which, when combined, feels so damn good once you get the hang of it.
Clear those out and slowly the beast becomes aware of your presence, leading to a final confrontation that has you climbing and sliding across their epic forms and similarly destroying points along them. Do that over a few times and eventually the beast will be felled, unlocking Cyd and the next area that needs to be explored. Each new region brings with it new mechanics, be it giant crumbling buildings that act as epic rails, acid-tainted seas or darkened eery cave structures, each one leads to a similar epic confrontation with the local home owner, as the story and Rei’s desperation grows.
A faithful friend, that Cyd
Here, however, is where I profess my lack of elite gamer skills (I am a gaming journalist after all). At more than one point I had to stop and take a look around to figure out where to go next. One particular place had me completely stumped for an embarrassing amount of time. That’s not a slight on Solar Ash, not at all, as the game does a good job of both making it easy to navigate and figure out your path forward by simply following the landscape of available grind points or climbable areas. It does take a little of the momentum away from skating from one objective to the next, but the ‘oh THAT’S where it is’ moment I had when I eventually figured it out will stand as one of my favourite moments of the year. Those sneaky sneaks at Heart Machine thought they had bettered me, but I proved them wrong!
There are a small handful of upgrade paths for Rei’s abilities that use a currency (of sorts) called plasma, little red blobs of goo that exist out in the open that can be collected and handed back to Cyd to fix shield your containers. Secret collectibles of lore from fellow Voidrunners are littered across each area too and, once all have been uncovered, will unlock new suits for Rei that can provide helpful boosts. Given how important these suits can be in the later half of the game, especially if you want to make life easier for you, it’s worth fully exploring the area and finding as much as you can.
It may not be as big of a challenge as Hyper Light Drifter, but there’s a similar sense within Solar Ash of not just learning the mechanics at play but mastering them. Some may find the dance of targeting, sliding and attacking more difficult than others, but beyond that first boss battle that acts as a tutorial, I never considered any of the bosses to be rage inducing. I’m grateful for that, because it allowed me to appreciate the world and its vibrancy far more, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s not too dissimilar a colour pallet to Heart Machine’s debut, though bright purple and blues eventually give way to rich reds and oranges. If you happen to play in 4K, everything pops in a way very few other titles have this year.
There’s plenty of mystery surrounding Rei’s quest
That visual flair is complemented by an audio landscape that calls back to the 80s with an eery tone, a score that feels both uplifting as you get closer and closer to beating down another monstrous entity to unnervingly peaceful as you contemplate your next move. There’s always a sense that everything isn’t right, not just in the world and its very few remaining occupants but in your own journey and the complementary elements that engulf you. As the story reaches its climax and the twists and turns are revealed, the emotional toll on Rei hits home and brings with it an important message of faith and moving forward through adversity. It’s an elegant and heartbreaking story that builds with each passing moment, leading to an epic finale that must be played to be appreciated.
Few games have left me feel as satisfied as Solar Ash. Though I’ve let out many a happy grunt of completion, most notably in Death’s Door and Hitman 3, there’s an amazing sense of accomplishment when you perfectly string together the right combination of moves to hurl yourself up and along the giants to take them down. One battle in particular had me grinning as memories of the great Super Mario Galaxy came flooding back, you can clearly see the love of those classic platformers within the DNA of Rei’s adventure. That’s where Solar Ash stands out from many other titles this year, combining what we love and remember of the classics and forming them together seamlessly into a world brimming with modern flair. It really is a sight, and one that I won’t forget in a hurry.
Solar Ash will go down as an absolute triumph of form and function, a storytelling masterclass amongst a perfectly crafted visual and audible feast. They left it to the last moment to drop right near the top of my best of 2021, but Heart Machine should be proud of their accomplishments across the board.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Heart Machine
- Annapurna Interactive
- PS5 / PS4 / PC
- December 2, 2021