Solar Ash Review – Ash Wins-day

Solar Ash is built like a skatepark in a lucid dream. The ground you skate across looks and acts like an ocean-sized mattress pad–blue and bumpy and bouncing as you pass. Floating islands are connected by grind pipes, which only emerge after you transport glowing spores from one mushroom to another. Red, bulging eyeballs act as the locks on gates made of black ooze, which you slash to gain passage. Much of what you see in Solar Ash makes little sense, but you move through it so quickly, the boss battles you fight are so exhilarating, and the puzzles you solve to reach them are so satisfying, that the dream logic of this world’s construction feels like the necessarily slight distance to keep the good times rolling as you move from Point A to Point B.

The second game from Heart Machine, the developer of 2016 indie gem Hyper Light Drifter, retains that game’s color palette–expect plenty of pastel blues, pinks, and purples, with the occasional threatening red–but changes just about everything else. Hyper Light Drifter was a blisteringly difficult Zelda-like which presented its glitching neon overworld from a top-down 2D perspective. Solar Ash, meanwhile, is a 3D action-platformer in which you traverse its world on some futuristic version of inline skates, cutting up enemies with ease. Solar Ash presents its dreamlike world and asks you to explore it by jumping, skating, and grinding along pipes. What the two games share is a structure that, while fairly open, is constantly funneling you toward show-stopping boss battles. In Hyper Light Drifter, that open-ended structure applied to the entire map, with four sections that could be tackled in any order. Solar Ash adopts a more traditional linear structure, unveiling six increasingly wide levels one at a time. In each, you must hunt down multiple puzzles that, upon completion, let loose a massive boss. In each, there are plenty of audio logs and armor pieces waiting to be found if you take some time to explore.

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As you set out on this quest, you take control of Rei, a “Voidrunner” who has traveled into the “Ultravoid”–a massive, world-destroying black hole–in an attempt to activate the “Starseed,” a device the Voidrunners have created in an attempt to destroy the Ultravoid. When she arrives, her home planet is in the Ultravoid’s grasp, but Rei hopes that if she can restore power to the Starseed, she can save her home planet. The game sets up too many Proper Nouns early on–all those terms are hurled at you by way of an introductory slide–and it struggles to communicate what exactly the stakes are and why we should care. But the basics are simple enough and will be familiar to the denizens of an Earth currently staring down the barrel of climate emergency: The planet is in imminent danger, the people in charge have squandered every opportunity to fix the problem, and, though it may be futile, our hopeful character is trying to do what she can to undo the damage the ruling classes have done. Where Rei’s path diverges from climate change efforts in our world is that her quest involves fighting screen-filling boss monsters called “Anomalies.”

This is the heart of Solar Ash and where it takes clear inspiration from Shadow of the Colossus. Maybe too clear, honestly. There’s a bird-like Anomaly that soars above the map, a sword-wielding Anomaly that drags its skyscraper-sized blade along the ground, and a serpent Anomaly that flies just above your head. All of this will be familiar for fans of Team Ico’s melancholic boss rush, but Solar Ash trades in that game’s challenging sense of clumsily climbing up a living, hostile creature in favor of fights that feel like playing a 3D Sonic level on a monster the size of a city block.

Each is covered in black ooze that will become lava-hot after a short amount of time. To delay that moment, you need to skate across the beast, slashing at flashing pin markers as you go, which will create more pins down the line, which you must hit in time, and so on. Each boss takes three hits to go down and, while these battles aren’t nearly as difficult as any of the boss fights in Hyper Light Drifter, they will push you to learn the patterns and get a solid handle on the controls. That can be frustrating at first. It sucks to fail repeatedly and feel unsure about how to improve. But the exhilarating sense of speed, and the cinematic grandeur of your actions playing out atop a creature that towers over the world below–a world that you just explored thoroughly in order to reach this moment–is impressive.

The process of puzzle-solving in that lower world similarly pushes you to learn and put to use a firm understanding of the space. Before you can fight each Anomaly, you need to take out multiple oozy eyes scattered around the world below. These platforming puzzles require the same kind of timing as the boss fights: You hit a pin to start the trial, then must make it through the obstacles before time runs out. The solution isn’t always obvious, and figuring out how to use the tools at your disposal in concert with the specific mechanics of each level makes these puzzles consistently satisfying to solve.

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In one level, for example, the ground is covered in acidic slime. Once you touch it, a green meter appears on screen. You have until it turns red to reach dry land, and must wait for the meter to disappear before entering the slime again. A subsequent level ups the ante with instakill magma. These aren’t new mechanics–games have been doing “the floor is lava” since practically the dawn of the medium–but, implemented here it makes for compelling puzzles that ask the player to constantly think about the construction of the space they’re inhabiting in order to successfully navigate it.

There’s a reason this space is so dreamily built–Solar Ash takes place inside a massive black hole, after all–but the game is at its best when it isn’t treating those reasons as if they matter all that much. The late game leans a little too heavily into the story, including swapping out the strong boss battles in favor of a binary choice in the game’s climactic moments. But, most of the time, that story is where it belongs: in the background. And, thankfully, Solar Ash has some gorgeous backgrounds.



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