Xbox Game Pass Just Quietly Released the Most Gorgeous Sci-Fi Platformer of the Decade
Skate the infinity.
A soaring synth score. A needle plunged into a monstrous eye. A swirl of pink filling your view.
Solar Ash knows how to build a dramatic moment. At the end of each of its stages — open-world areas filled with floating platforms and ruined buildings — dramatic, high-speed boss fights finish with the above scene. It’s far from a perfect game, but chasing down those moments of pure aesthetic elation are reason enough to keep playing Solar Ash.
Developer Heart Machine’s previous game, Hyper Light Drifter, is an indie all-timer. Its challenging combat, moody world, and gorgeous pixel art add up to a roguelite action game that’s as mechanically satisfying as it is evocative.
It was a surprise, then, when Heart Machine announced a fast-paced platformer with more than a little Tony Hawk in its DNA. Solar Ash, casts you as Rei, a Voidrunner exploring the landscape of the Ultravoid to activate the Starseed. If that seems like a lot of meaningless proper nouns to remember, don’t worry. Solar Ash’s story is more about vibes than lore. The real appeal is zooming through the impossible architecture of its world and admiring the sheer thrill and spectacle of it all.
Solar Ash is a game of simple pleasures. Where much of the 3D platforming space is obsessed with hoarding collectibles and slowly amassing powerups, Solar Ash is about one thing: speed. Hold down a shoulder button and your character’s sprint becomes a quick skate, propelling you smoothly across the ethereal world she inhabits. You’ll spend almost the entire game in this mode, gliding lightly across solid ground and grinding the rails that crisscross its stages like a patchwork of highways made just for you.
The goal of all this is to seek out the sources of corruption in Solar Ash’s surreal world, which show up as pitch black patches of living oil with glowing red eyes planted in them. Once you find a corrupted area, you’ll have to strike at a series of flags that pop up one after the other before time runs out. Succeed and you’ll plunge into that red eye, breaking up the corruption. Do that enough times, and the level’s boss will take note.
Referred to as Anomalies, these gargantuan creatures look like living fossils patched together with an inky black liquid. Taking each of these monsters down is a highlight of Solar Ash. The music picks up in these moments as you skate across the surface of the Anomalies’ bodies, dashing to hit glowing targets on their backs before time runs out and you’re knocked off to start over again. Landing your hits in time can be a major challenge, matched with appropriately showy camera angles and music rising in intensity. Hit the last target in time and you’ll crush the eye at the monster’s core, complete with a stylish dip to black and white, then a wave of pink overtaking the screen.
Between these abridged versions of Shadow of the Colossus battles, Solar Ash is packed with smaller moments of joy and flow. As you scale dilapidated buildings and explore underground caverns, you’ll ride rails and zip to grapple points to unlock new routes and clean up corruption. Nailing a tough sequence of rail-grinding, tricky jumps, and well-timed grapples is a rush the whole way through the game, as the routes get tougher just as you get more familiar with the system.
Despite Solar Ash’s focus on speed, sometimes you’ll just want to stop and take it all in. Though it takes place in a dying world, Solar Ash is gorgeous, made up of vibrant colors and pleasingly puffy shapes. The grandeur of a skyscraper teetering overhead, defying gravity as chunks of it sit suspended in the sky, is as mesmerizing an image as any game has produced, even as you zip by it in the blink of an eye.
Part of Hyper Light Drifter’s greatness stems from its confident silence, its stubborn refusal to explain the world and instead let players pick up on the story at their own pace or not at all. Solar Ash, in contrast, is filled with chatter, from the murmurings of NPCs to quips from Rei herself. It’s the one thing that takes away from the stoic beauty of its ruined world, but it’s not nearly enough to ruin it completely.
With Hyper Light Breaker, Heart Machine’s next game, bringing Hyper Light Drifter’s action into 3D, Solar Ash may be seen as a bridge between the two. Even if it hasn’t inspired the cult following of its predecessor, Solar Ash is still a singularly beautiful journey into the void that’s worth taking.