The makers of Hyper Light Drifter return with a new 3D platformer that takes influence from Shadow Of The Colossus and Super Mario Galaxy.
For all its influence and prestige, it’s surprising how few games have tried to emulate Shadow Of The Colossus. Elements of its sparse open world and gigantic boss battles have bled into the likes of The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and God Of War, but none have felt directly indebted to Team Ico’s masterpiece, they just share some of the same sense of isolated wonder.
While Solar Ash will be bludgeoned with the comparison for years to come (starting with this review intro), it’s an undeservedly reductive one. In reality, Solar Ash feels like a natural and ambitious step forward from developer Heart Machine’s previous title Hyper Light Drifter, one which embraces 3D space and adds platforming flourishes from, believe it or not, Super Mario Galaxy.
In Solar Ash, you play as Rei, a voidrunner who ventures inside a black hole called the ‘Ultravoid’ that’s threatening to consume her home planet. To destroy the black hole, you have to activate a towering structure called the Starseed, which has been disrupted by anomalies scattered in six different areas. Take out the anomalies, aka seismic creatures built from black goo and bones, and Rei will have a shot at preventing a world-destroying disaster.
However, Rei isn’t the first to be sent on this mission. Throughout the dreamscape black hole, you’ll discover what happened to previous voidrunners through collectible audio logs. Like Hyper Light Drifter, there’s a main narrative which provides a resolution of sorts, but it’s up to the player to interpret the environment and piece together details from journal entries to fully decipher what’s going on.
The narrative intrigue works because the presentation is consistently stunning. Each area presents a new visual marvel for screenshot addicts, from desecrated tower blocks nestled within a sea of blue clouds to ominous caves beneath neon-lit gardens. The bright, luscious landscapes are offset by a subtle, foreboding soundtrack, which captures a calm-before-the-storm dread that keeps the apocalyptic stakes at the forefront of your mind.
It’s all grounded by some great writing and voicework. As a protagonist, Rei is charming, understated and just as bewildered by some of the strange characters you’ll meet as you are. Her connection to an ally AI called Cyd is a recurring highlight, but there’s a surprising amount of humour in the game’s handful of side quests – adding a darkly comic edge and personality to its world, which could have easily coasted on surface-level prettiness.
The movement mechanics are equally well realised. Solar Ash is primarily a platformer, where you skate around areas, bound across chasms, and solve traversal puzzles. While you can simply run around at a slower pace, you’ll spend most of your time skating by holding the left trigger, which gives you greater momentum across jumps and grants better manoeuvrability in combat. There’s a forgiving floatiness to the movement too, so jumping between grind rails feels fluid and less fussy in comparison to actual skating sims.
Before you take on each monstrous anomaly, you have to track down and eliminate black goo pits dotted around each area, to wake up the main beast. These pits, usually hidden at the end of separate platforming segments, are destroyed by slicing a series of attack points in quick succession, before planting a stab inside a creepy red eye at its centre.
These are essentially platforming tests to build up to the main event. When the giant boss creature awakens and starts roaming the area you have to find an opening on to latch onto it (usually by using a targeted grapple mechanic which briefly slows time), much like Shadow Of The Colossus. Once attached, a platforming sequence designed around one of the creature’s three weak spots begins, as you slide, jump, and slice at consecutive points in a timely manner, in what feels like a rhythm assault course around a gigantic monster.
There’s a learning curve to mastering the movement and controls which keeps these battles engaging throughout. You have to time speed boosts, jumps, grapples, and your slice attack in a dance that’s both thrillingly cinematic and highly satisfying to execute. When these escalate in difficulty in the game’s final areas, Solar Ash’s generous checkpoint system and ample supply of health boxes keeps frustration at bay – so even when you’re sent plummeting from the back of a boss it doesn’t take long to regain momentum for another attempt.
While Solar Ash’s design is primarily focused on traversal, there’s some light combat away from the main boss runs. Smaller monsters litter each biome with abstract designs reminiscent of the shadow beasts in Zelda: Twilight Princess, ranging from flying spikes to wall-crawling turrets. They’re never much of a nuisance, acting mostly as finger-twitch distractions, but it’s a shame there’s only a few enemy types. Rei’s singular attack doesn’t evolve in any way either – a decision which makes sense in the context of the game’s overall design but turns combat into a shallow exercise in the later areas.
The movement, however, is complimented by the excellent level design. Similar to Dark Souls, levels occasionally curve back on themselves through grind rail shortcuts, allowing for faster movement around areas you’ve already visited. The levels are imaginative in mechanics and structure too – including gravity-bending slopes connecting disparate islands akin to Super Mario Galaxy, visual centrepieces like hanging acid waterfalls, and environmental puzzles that have you racing between coloured lamps to unlock doors.
At around six hours in length (more if you search for all the collectibles), Solar Ash feels like a perfectly-sized experience. There’s an additional Hardcore difficulty mode after you’ve beaten the game, and with a trophy challenging you to complete it in under three hours it’s hard not to imagine a speedrunning community latching onto the shortcut possibilities.
Solar Ash is an amalgamation of influences pulled together with precision and spades of stylish finesse. It’s a joy to play, visually magnificent, and consistently surprising. While there’s certain areas where a drive for simplicity works against it, it’s hard to fault such a tightly-focused vision which finds its own voice and personality despite having such iconic influences.
Solar Ash review summary
In Short: An excellent sci-fi platformer with exquisite art design and sublime traversal mechanics, which finds distinctive ground among its obvious inspirations.
Pros: Beautiful visuals and consistently imaginative level design. Movement mechanics are a lot of fun. Intriguing world, characters, and narrative which offer greater rewards the further you delve into it.
Cons: Combat does grow repetitive towards the end of the game. Unlockable suits are underwhelming.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), PlayStation 4, and PC*
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Developer: Heart Machine
Release Date: 2nd December 2021
Age Rating: 12
*Epic Games Store timed exclusive
By Adam Starkey
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