Solar Ash finds itself in the unenviable position of following up Hyper Light Drifter, one of the best games in recent memory. Despite an occasionally similar color palette and ethereal, dilapidated world design, Solar Ash stands tall to Heart Machine’s last hit thanks it part to its smart level design and understanding of speed and movement.
Your playground is a doomed world slowly disappearing into a black hole. Rei, the protagonist, recognizes the gravity of the situation, but not the challenge—she’s dwarfed by the scale and design of the world and the odds stacked against her. She glides on, determined to save her planet from the unbreakable hold of a world-eating black hole.
Solar Ash’s world design and art bolster its cosmic premise. Fluffy clouds loom over the remnants of the places that were. Some areas feature the wreckage of a fallen imperialistic civilization, complete with vast reflection pools and grandiose architecture. Others are former cityscapes or dark forests. All are twisted by the approaching black hole, contorted by its unbreakable pull.
Despite the game’s cohesive visual design, each area has a distinct feel to it. That’s due in part to the unique setting of the world, but also is a result of each area’s distinct mechanics. Since none of the game’s individual mechanics are particularly deep, these small changes help keep the game from growing stale. This is also really helpful since the game’s structure relies so heavily on repetition.
After a brief prologue explains just how dire the straits are for Rei, she’s immediately thrown into the void; the game’s name for the supermassive black hole. The tutorial feels wrong, but it does what only the best open games do: it puts players through a series of smaller rooms for a few minutes, ending in a long corridor, only to open up into the game’s vast hub.
It’s an effortlessly satisfying moment to delay the gratification that comes with exploring an open space, even if only for a moment. Is it also a cheap trick? Perhaps, but Solar Ash justifies the decision. Movement is at the core of Solar Ash’s gameplay loop, and it flaunts that here. As you hold one button down to glide at high speeds, moving from smaller, more linear spaces to a wide field of clouds feels freeing and exciting.
Beyond that, even just the simple act of gliding feels great. Sitting at the core of nearly everything you do in Solar Ash, gliding functions as both a means of traversal and a gameplay mechanic. It allows you to build up just the right momentum to perform a tricky jump or zoom over to an objective in one of the game’s platforming challenges.
Of course, a mechanic can’t just feel good; it has to be utilized well within the game or else the total package will make for a disappointing experience. This is where Solar Ash’s world design becomes deeply important. Speed is important to the feel of the character in any number of Sonic games, or any game that heavily relies on speed and momentum, but that’s not always reflected in the level design.
It’d be one thing if it just felt good to go fast. In Solar Ash, the levels feel perfectly engineered to be sped through. That’s not to say you’ll feel rushed, though—instead, there’s plenty of open space for Rei to skate around in between landmarks and objectives. The open spaces in Solar Ash beg to be sped through in-between the tighter areas, recreating the feeling of entering an open area for the first time over and over again.
The objectives that dot Solar Ash’s open arenas introduce a majority of the game’s critical path. Each area has a set number of distinct platforming challenges required to wake up the area’s boss. The challenges vary from just climbing on black goo until you’re within slashing distance of an exposed nerve, to skating across wide-open areas in speedrun-style challenges.
Needless to say, in a game whose strength draws from its ability to make going fast feel thrilling, the challenges that force you to slow down come as a bit of a letdown, making the journey often more desirable than the destination. Of course, that doesn’t take away from the challenges that double down on speed, but it does make the game’s primary objective more compelling.
After Rei slashes her way through a few of these objectives, a boss for that specific area will appear. The bosses in each area are deeply reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus’ bosses, but with their own individual flair. Each abomination lends a unique scale to the game’s world, while also providing some of the most exciting moments in the game.
The bosses of each area do little to evolve the new mechanics introduced in any specific part of the game, which feels like a missed opportunity since many of the mechanics introduced at any point in the game add so much to its ever-important flow. Regardless, they almost all provide an exhilarating, climactic conclusion to each chapter.
Their size isn’t just an homage to the PlayStation 2 classic, either. That size justifies itself repeatedly by combining the game’s kineticism with its more fast-paced challenges to make Solar Ash a late contender for some of 2021’s best boss fights. While I found the fights both deeply exciting and generally badass, they weren’t particularly challenging beyond the game’s occasionally frustrating controls.
Boss fights are punctuated with brief narrative beats that hint towards Solar Ash’s overarching narrative. It doesn’t provide enough narrative backbone or change its stakes or characters enough to bolster the story until the very end. Its primary strength comes from how it hints at the game’s conclusion, which comes in bits and pieces thanks to some environmental storytelling and the few NPCs scattered throughout the world.
Despite the comparisons it might draw to Shadow of the Colossus, Jet Set Radio or Hyper Light Drifter, Solar Ash delivers a wholly unique experience that combines a smooth, unparalleled sense of speed, incredible level design, and a gorgeous art style. Even if the same can’t be said about its narrative or controls, Solar Ash skates in at the last minute to become one of the year’s most interesting games.
Solar Ash was developed by Heart Machine and published by Annapurna. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for the PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4.
Charlie Wacholz is a freelance writer and college student. When he’s not playing the latest and greatest indie games, competing in Smash tournaments or working on a new cocktail recipe, you can find him on Twitter at @chas_mke.