Solar Ash

Solar Ash

Heart Machine has another hit on its hands.

Subscribe to our newsletter here!

* Required field

Solar Ash has style. That much is apparent from the very first frame, which sees Voidrunner and our protagonist, Rei, staring into the black hole consuming her planet. Many games are beautiful - so is Solar Ash - but very few positively drips style like Heart Machines effortless follow up to Hyper Light Drifter. The splashes of red flowing across the screen when you clear the world of corruption; the black & white freeze frame explosion signaling the fall of one of the game's excellent bosses, or just the way Rei skates across the world with such speed and grace it would make Sonic proud. It all adds up to make Solar Ash one of the most stylish games around, but luckily it isn't style over substance. In fact, it's one of the most exciting takes on the platform genre in a long time set in a breathtakingly surreal world.

As implied above, Solar Ash is Heart Machine's sophomore game, the first being the excellent Hyper Light Drifter from 2016. The first game's influence is felt in the extravagant colour palette, which once again makes the end of the world way more beautiful than it has any right to be; the fast and precise way you fight and navigate the world, and of course Disasterpiece's simultaneously ominous and melancholy music. In many ways though, Solar Ash feels more akin to last year's The Pathless. Both games feature a masked protagonist arriving alone in a mysterious, desolate place; a focus on fast, fluid navigation; and a structure which sees you removing corruption from the world in order to lure out a colossal boss, which then has to be defeated to progress to the next area.

But whereas The Pathless - obvious qualities aside - had trouble forging its own identity (a problem developer Giant Squid's first game, Abzu, also suffered from), Solar Ash has no problem carving out a place for itself among the horde of artistically minded indie games. It does borrow heavily from other titles, but it uses those inspirations as stepping stones rather than anklets. It also has an ace up its sleeve in the gorgeous visuals, which time and time again astounds and amazes. Solar Ash is set in a black hole, The Ultravoid, but the colour palette is dominated by strong, varied colours. The Ultravoid sucks up entire planets and before it reached Rei's, it has apparently swallowed up others, the remains of which are scattered across six large open areas only held together by a bright, fluffy pink substance, which Rei can luckily skate freely on. The different civilisations provide each area with a unique identity, which goes a beyond the somewhat tired tropes we often see in platformers in particular, and the way The Ultravoid has torn everything apart and put it back together adds a considerable surreal quality to the world. A quality only magnified by the thick purple and orange light often permeating the world.

This is an ad:
Solar Ash

The opening areas in Solar Ash are relatively straightforward geometrically speaking, but as Rei moves deeper and deeper into The Ultravoid her surroundings become increasingly distorted and fragmented. Some places small spheres reminiscent of Super Mario Galaxy's worlds have even been formed. When the ground you just skated across is suddenly above you, it would only be natural for confusion to set in, but Heart Machine manages to keep track of their levels, so you never feel lost. Like Metroid Dread, Solar Ash's late areas excel in making you feel that you're in a huge and incomprehensible place where you're bound to get lost, but, for inexplicable reasons, never do. A cleverly constructed illusion if you will.

In that sense, the visuals and the level design are in accordance with each other. Solar Ash is basically a pretty simple game with a pretty simple structure, but the precise controls and varied challenges take it to another level. I'm actually not a huge fan of the somewhat formulaic structure of cleansing 3-5 areas of corruption in order to lure out a boss, defeating said boss and then repeat the steps in the next area, but in Solar Ash it didn't bother me at all. For me, it basically comes down to two things. First, Solar Ash is part of a fast-expanding cluster of games where just traversing the game world is extremely satisfying.

By holding down L2 Rei starts skating as if she wore jet powered hover boots, and since she has the ability to double jump, go even faster with her boost and reach hard to get to places with her grappling hook she can get through most obstacles with speed and grace. It makes exploring the world a joy and luckily the ruined world is a place worth exploring. Points of interest are easy to identify, but scaling the various buildings requires curiosity and persistence. As a reward for your curiosity, you're treated with aforementioned areas of corruption, relics from past Voidrunners, which not only provides interesting lore but also alternative suits that look stylish and enhances attack power or lessens cool down time on your slow-motion ability. There are also three fairly involved side missions that provide some insight into the other tragic figures caught in The Ultravoid. The side content prioritises quality over quantity and actually gives more context to your main objective.

This is an ad:
Solar AshSolar Ash

The other thing keeping the structure from becoming too repetitive and formulaic is the way the corrupted areas are designed and how Heart Machine manages to iterate on and evolve their design. Each area is a small navigational riddle in which you have to hit a number of syringe-like items in order within a certain time limit so you can bury your spear in the eye of corruption - literally speaking. Initially, it's quite easy to figure out the route to success, but the challenges in especially the last two areas require you to analyse your surroundings first. Throughout the game Heart Machines introduces new elements such as mushrooms that form organic rails for you to grind on in different directions depending on the angle from which you've stricken them. Thereby you get to reshape the world, so it fits your needs. Figuring out the solution to a challenging area and then executing the plan using precise jumps, dashes and strikes never gets old, but even the best laid plans risk getting obstructed by the game's enemies.

There's only a handful of enemy types and combat feels more like a part of the traversal system rather than a central mechanic, but Rei's one type of attack is satisfying to pull off and the ability to slow down time, take aim and close the distance to an opponent using your grappling hook works as intended. At times, the biggest challenge is simply getting to the challenge area itself. On one of the aforementioned Super Mario Galaxy inspired spheres I literally hit my head against the wall trying to scale a vertical rock face on one side of the sphere before realising it might be possible to travel through the sphere rather than around it. At first glance it didn't seem there was a way but by changing the direction of one of the aforementioned mushroom rails a new and more useful route appeared. Those little eureka moments where a seemingly small discovery leads to the solution to a problem or access to a whole new part of the world appear regularly in Solar Ash and the game is so much better for it.

Whereas the majority of challenges feature navigational puzzles, the climatic boss battles are pure platforming tests. Just like in Shadow of the Colossus you first have to scale the hulking beasts standing in your way, but that's actually the easy part. The real challenge lies in hitting the syringe-like items spread across the beasts' body fast enough to reach the eye of the beast in time to plunge your spear into it. In that sense, you're not battling the creature in a traditional sense but rather jumping, dashing, and pulling yourself across it. Each boss has three phases and the path to the eye changes every time, making a minor calibration to your muscle memory from the previous phase necessary. As a culmination to your time spent in an area, they more than do their job. You hunt several of them across the entirety of an area; one is, of course, airborne, and my personal favourite is set on a separate sphere resulting in the strongest Super Mario Galaxy vibes since... well, Super Mario Galaxy 2. I won't ruin the surprise of some of the encounters by going into too much detail. Instead, I'll just highlight Disasterpiece's excellent score, which really shines in these encounters, and the smile appearing on my face time and time again from the hectic and satisfying sequences.

High speed platforming through surreal worlds inhabited by enormous beasts isn't all there is to Solar Ash though. Fittingly, Heart Machine imbues its game with a healthy dose of heartfelt storytelling. Whereas Hyper Light Drifter relied on imagery and mood to convey its story, Solar Ash is more explicit and features a surprising amount of dialogue. As a result, the game loses some of its mysticism and poetic touch and a few lore dumps from AI sidekick CYD are somewhat clumsily presented, but the approach also works in favour of a richer universe - the side content focusing on the former Voidrunners and the stranded creatures in The Ultravoid being particularly engrossing. Themes of God complexes, sin and forgiveness, and climate change give weight to the narrative and while everything doesn't stick equally well, hats off to Heart Machine for their ambition.

Solar Ash is one of those games you have to play in order to really understand. It just feels right when you boost just before a bottomless crevice, take a leap of faith, save yourself from oblivion by extending the jump using a grappling point and land on a rail taking you up in the clouds. It's hectic and fast but also understands the importance of letting you meditate on your journey and surroundings. Unlike so many of today's games it doesn't rely on a steady stream of new abilities and systems in order to keep fresh, but instead relies on its core gameplay and ever-evolving level design. A brave design choice that impressively pays off. Heart Machine has now hit bull's eye with two very different games, and I can't wait to see what they do next.

Solar Ash
Solar Ash
09 Gamereactor UK
9 / 10
Excellent controls, fantastic level design, a beautiful and surreal world, great score, epic bosses.
Combat is a tad too simplistic, storytelling is at times uneven.
overall score
is our network score. What's yours? The network score is the average of every country's score

Related texts

Solar AshScore

Solar Ash

REVIEW. Written by Ketil Skotte

Heart Machine has another hit on its hands.

Loading next content