Cosmic adventure ‘Solar Ash’ dazzles without delivering an emotional payoff

Heart Machine’s long-awaited follow-up to Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t quite hit the heights of its celebrated debut.

Heart Machine

It’s a sequence that repeats across Solar Ash’s approximately eight-hour runtime, and yet, somehow, never gets old.

Throughout each of the game’s biomes, you’ll find Dregs, a viscous gloop you must purge and, in doing so, get the attention of the game’s cataclysmic bosses. These are essentially time trials — you strike what looks like a flag planted into the black sludge and then race to the next before a timer ticks down. It sounds rote but in motion these moments are thrilling — chaotic races that crescendo with a monochromatic finisher of you thrusting a blade into a single red eye. As this is happening, the game’s electronic score swells and trills at precisely the right moments, synchronized perfectly with the action on screen. The end arrives with a stylish swirl of pink, Solar Ash’s version of a fade to black. Finis — you can breathe again.

That Heart Machine’s latest game is a striking marriage of motion, audio, and visuals shouldn’t be a surprise. The Los Angeles-based studio’s previous title, 2016’s Hyper Light Drifter, excelled in precisely the same ways, albeit in pixel-art 2D form as opposed to polygonal 3D. That game carried a wonderful sense of friction (even as you mastered the game’s oh-so satisfying dash), as if the titular drifter would snag on the pixels themselves, or perhaps even Disasterpeace’s seminal saw-toothed soundtrack. Solar Ash, in contrast, is filled with smooth-surfaced environments designed to facilitate nearly frictionless traversal — Heart Machine wants you to move as quickly as possible through its astral plane.

The open world of Solar Ash (there are no loading screens between its interconnecting environments) stretches both beyond the horizon and high above it, curving with a wonderful dream-like logic that recalls the inventive planetary platforms of 2007’s Super Mario Galaxy. Navigating this space, you play as Rei, a so-called Voidrunner tasked with saving her home that’s being pulled into a black hole known as the Ultravoid. To do so, you must find the aforementioned Dregs in each biome before ridding areas of their enormous bosses. You have a scanner which shows where to head but waypoints only appear momentarily before fading away. This means your attention is always locked squarely on the environment, even as you blur through it on Rei’s cosmic rollerblades. You’ll follow trails of plasma-like red orbs while reading your surroundings, swivelling the camera gracefully as you attempt to maintain flow.

This frequently spectacular world is designed purely with player movement in mind, stitched together like a giant, acid-dipped Tony Hawk's level. Floating platforms ascend skyward with green goo cascading from them, billowy blue clouds let you bounce as well as glide, and gigantic mushrooms sprout amidst lava. These physics-defying landmarks are often linked with interconnecting rails which let you soak up the stirring psychedelic vistas as you grind them. You might be reminded of 2020’s The Pathless, another title of fast-paced movement within a unique open world, but there’s greater personality on show here — it’s more confident, in less aesthetic thrall to the masterworks of Japanese game designer Fumito Ueda.

And yet, in the transition from 2D to 3D, and Heart Machine’s clear play for a bigger, broader audience, a certain magic has gone missing. Unlike the wordless Hyper Light Drifter, Solar Ash is filled with chatter — from the quips of Rei to the long-winded exhortations of NPCs, and, most frequently, the grating babble of your robot sidekick, Cyd. Wordlessness, and often silence, in the studio’s previous game, sustained a remarkable level of mystery and intrigue — there were no names given to anything, the world just existed as it did. But the universe of Solar Ash is over-explained by its characters — we hear too much of the Ultravoid, Starseed, Eternal Cycle, and Remnants. When this limp lore dominates, it threatens to bring the wonder and weirdness sustained elsewhere in the game crashing back to earth.

The universe of Solar Ash is over-explained by its characters.

This extends to the dramatic thrust of the story which sees Rei reckoning with the consequences of her actions as she attempts to save her planet. At one point, the wispish protagonist has a moment of self-realization while facing off against an adversary: “Her hate, her sorrow, her— my guilt… I can see myself.” But the revelation is so over-telegraphed that when it finally does arrive, it grates rather than illuminates. There are other ways the story doesn’t quite hit the mark. After defeating the game’s bosses, Rei has a segment of her health knocked off, a means, creative director Alx Preston told GamesRadar, of reminding the player that “this journey has a cost.” But the cost barely registers, not least because you will likely have accrued enough orbs to replenish your health mere seconds later.

These boss fights see a welcome return of the flag-hitting time trials used to dispatch the Dregs. You’ll slalom across the back of a gigantic bird that soars above towering ruins, and weave over the body of an armored giant that makes Rei look like a flea, all with a delightful snap and force elsewhere lacking in the game. Unlike Ueda’s sixteen colossi (the scale of these bosses nods to his 2005 classic), there’s nothing naturalistic about these creatures — they shudder and judder mechanically like robots trying to execute a slow-moving dance routine. Crucially, the threat they offer is only ever theoretical — if they do happen to land a blow, you simply return to the start of the combat cycle with little more than a dent to your ego and a pang of frustration.

What you’re left with is a world Rei traverses mostly as if she defies gravity, but a game that could have used a little more of that very force’s grit and abrasion. Solar Ash is bigger than Hyper Light Drifter in every way — the size of its map, the length of its playtime, and the number of people who worked on it — but this doesn’t translate into greater emotional resonance. Indeed, as she glides along the Ultravoid’s clouds, it’s difficult to sense the real weight of Rei’s journey.