Story and gameplay must complement each other when they are both the focus of a game. If one falls short, the other must pick up the slack. How many games have you said were “just ok” because one or the other wasn’t to your standards? When they both mesh together well and deliver, it creates an amazing experience.
That is what Heart Machine has done with Solar Ash, developers of Hyper Light Drifter. Annapurna is also a well-known indie publisher with games such as Ashen, Outer Wilds, Twelve Minutes, and Journey. All these games are about telling an artful story with unique gameplay. Solar Ash is a perfect addition to the family.
Solar Ash’s story starts off with Rei, a voidrunner determined to stop at nothing to save her planet from falling prey to the Ultravoid’s path of eternal hunger. The ultravoid is a black hole consuming her world. Voidrunners have technology to destroy them, but the machine is being affected by remnants.
As your progress through each defeated boss, more of the mysterious story unfolds. Why and how did the ultravoid arrive at her planet and how it had affected its inhabitants… and where did these giant remnants come from?
The gameplay is fast-paced and Rei moves fluidly throughout the world. Like any traditional platformer, you collect currency in the form of plasma orbs. These are used to upgrade your health. You will have a need to upgrade often since the mysterious character Echo destroys one health node after every boss. There are power suit pieces Rei can collect as they are strewn and hidden about each level. Each suit gives you special attributes such as an extended Timeslip (bullet time). Rei has a variety of skills that you will use throughout her journey. Timeslip, skating, boost, rail grinding, wire grappling, and her basic sword attack are a part of her repertoire. Skating, even while boosting is fluid but takes getting used to when aiming for accuracy and speed through more difficult boss fights.
There are enemies in each map area to fight through but a far and few in between. Some require a few quick reflexes and wire grappling to close the gap to swing your sword. Luckily, if you do have any trouble with enemies or bosses, the game is generous with health boxes. The focus of Solar Ash is speed and giant remnants, with an emphasis on boss battles. Each boss is a unique platform puzzle event once you destroy smaller anomalies that act as gatekeepers to begin the boss battle. The first boss for example is a long leviathan-like serpent. You start attacking its weak points from the tail and skate your way to the head while avoiding obstacles. Each health point the boss takes, the harder the next round will be.
This is where gameplay excels. I am not the biggest fan of speedrun or fast-paced games unless it brings something unique, and Solar Ash delivers. Other games tend to use difficulty as padding to extend gameplay loops. I love how I felt like I was playing an epic action-packed Shadow of the Colossus with each boss fight. Each boss was difficult but fair and I could not stop until I completed at least one boss each playthrough. Practice those boost jumps because bosses will get harder and demand more accuracy when using speed to get to each weak point.
I love the art style of Solar Ash. Its pastel colors and use of vector art give it a unique look and wild atmosphere. Map traversal is simple with Rei’s speed so each map may seem large, but she can cover a lot of ground once you get used to using her boost ability. You can scan each map area to find the next waypoint for the mission, but I found myself never using it since I enjoyed exploration so much. I just loved how beautiful the scenery was and enjoyed finding secrets on my own. Character and enemy design are just as interesting. There is an aura of mystery with each character Rei runs into since they all wear masks and cloaks. The giant remnants are just as awe-inducing and enigmatic.
No game is perfect so I would be remiss to mention Solar Ash’s faults. While nothing game-breaking, Rei can sometimes get stuck on ledges during intensely fast boss battles. I also found it hard sometimes to slow down for some tight turns when in those fights, so I had to develop a habit of slowing down, which is the opposite of what you’d think the game wants. I found myself frustrated when I got hit once then had to start from the beginning of the boss fight. The game demands perfection all the way through each phase of the battle.
I also found myself not really searching for unlockable suit parts to make a full suit unless I happen to run into it since each suit did not drastically change the tides of gameplay for my benefit. Rather, it slightly made a few elements convenient but nothing I couldn’t play without. Exploring to find hidden rooms and elder characters to evolve the story were the best parts to me.
I feel this may be a hidden gem to most, but I hope this gets more recognition than I assume it would. Play this game! It has a great story, awesome voice acting, and great gameplay. You can be a fan of platforming, action/adventure, or puzzle games and still appreciate what Solar Ash brings to the table. It doesn’t outstay its welcome and can be played for minutes or hours. Machine Heart, give me more games like this, please!
This review was written based on a digital review copy of Solar Ash for the PlayStation 5 provided by Annapurna Interactive.