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Solar Ash Review: "Exciting, Compelling, Lightning-In-A-Bottle Brilliance"

Solar Ash Review: "Exciting, Compelling, Lightning-In-A-Bottle Brilliance"
Images: Heart Machine

Written by 

Joseph Kime

Posted 

3rd Dec 2021 16:29

There are certain things we've come to expect from high-concept sci-fi these days. We've seen much of it all before, with simple space travel, easily discernible races of aliens, even broad allegorical rejections of war taking centre stage in many of the space-faring adventures on the market. The likes of Mass Effect and The Outer Worlds often fall back on this, and even the upcoming Starfield looks to carry the torch for the sci-fi games we know. But some games are ready to change that.

Enter Solar Ash, the first outing by indie developer Heart Machine since 2016's Hyper Light Drifter. Since its gameplay reveal during a PlayStation State Of Play conference earlier this year, the game looked to be a curious title that carried a lot on its shoulders - namely a movement system that would have to be perfect to avoid scrutiny, and a story that far exceeds even the grandest blockbuster titles in scope. Plus, a pushed back release date cast doubt over the game's final release. Heart Machine's ability to manage it was brought into question pretty quickly - but the game proves we never had any reason to doubt.

I Wanna Voidrun To You

Solar Ash Review

Solar Ash follows Rei, a Voidrunner on a mission to traverse a black hole filled to burst with sinister and evil beasts. This is all in a bid to activate the colossal and infinitely dangerous Starseed, a device that can alter the flow of time, in order to save her home planet from destruction. As you skate across the cloud-borne landscapes of the black hole in order to take down the looming behemoths known only as Remnants, and as the mysterious Echo threatens your goal, Solar Ash gradually unravels to suggest that, maybe, your journey could cost more than you'd ever expected.

The game is immediately recognisable thanks to its incredible art style that blasts the players with incredible contrasts and colours, making the supposedly dead surroundings feel like they're fighting back against decay. The disorder of the world is stunning, and the way it visualises some of its more avant-garde ideas makes every concept feel like it belongs on the landscape battered by mysterious forces. This style defies any traditional presentation of the genre and makes Solar Ash feel truly unique on the surface alone - but it runs so much deeper than that.

Starseed Gazing

Solar Ash Review

The game's peculiar narrative takes a lot of beats from the strange and sinister, turning it into a cocktail of ideas that is truly unlike anything else. The huge and deeply unsettling Remnants seem to take beats of visual influence from the likes of Neon Genesis Evangelion and Shadow of the Colossus, and its slick, spry movement and rail-grinding feature have the zip and pep of Jet Set Radio. Each of these elements come together to create a game that feels grand in its scope, and uses this to intentionally make Rei's journey intensely lonely.

Solar Ash is a cold and eerie game that forces introspection, but many games of its kin often forget to be fun in the process. This game does no such thing; movement is deeply satisfying, using momentum and shifting gravity to keep you skating smoothly, and letting you hit a huge speed boost whenever you like. It's this freedom that makes Solar Ash's atmosphere so impressive, giving you all the tools to do anything you like from the moment you crash land, but never holding your hand as you do so.

The game practically leaves the player to their own devices, forcing them to figure everything out as they go. This can be a blessing and a curse, with each puzzle you complete swiftly feeling all the more satisfying, but leaving the tougher ones with a bitter wish that the game had helped just a little more.

Kaijooze

Solar Ash Review

Solar Ash's most fun feature, though, is allowing the player to take on the Remnants - huge hulking beasts that stand between you and the activation of the Starseed. You'll have to deal with at portions of ooze around their section of the game's map to get to them, chipping away at ethereal pins that protrude during speedy traversal puzzles. These are exhilarating for the most part, but the Remnants are the stars of the show - you'll hook onto one soft spot on the beast's body and dash around on them, chipping away at gaps in their bone-like armour in order to topple them.

Much like Shadow of the Colossus, taking these monstrous foes down is tough and with very little margin for error. The game's speedy skating mechanics will make you feel truly unstoppable in the process though, and when the monster has fallen, you'll be itching to handle the next one.

More interesting still is what comes afterwards - every defeated Remnant comes with a conversation with the mysterious Echo, a pure-white ethereal being who questions your intentions and implies that you only really know half of the story of your planet's imminent destruction. Though each encounter with her will deplete a portion of your upgradable health every time, the real damage she does is to your understanding of the game's narrative, plunging you into an uncertainty that only makes the stunning world feel more isolated.

It's a genius implementation that tackles the player's psyche to amplify the game's core themes, and it all comes together in a breathtaking climax that answers every question you didn't realise you were asking yourself. Every moment leading up to Solar Ash's finale coalesce in a final encounter that blew me away and left my jaw hanging open - an absolute firework of emotion that goes off with an introspective message rarely approached in the genre.

A Galactic Triumph

Solar Ash combines complex ideas with simple and exciting gameplay in a way that few games are able to, and the final product is nothing short of remarkable. The visual style and soundtrack create the atmosphere, and the excellent writing of Rei and her journey use it to tell a story of grief, and how we can use it to build something better.

Heart Machine's passion is clear, and Solar Ash is a triumph that manages to be incredibly fun despite its deeply emotional core. The game's world may be cold and unfeeling on the surface, but that'll only make you want to connect with it more. Solar Ash is an example of Heart Machine's exciting, compelling, lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance, and more than deserves to be considered among 2021's greatest games.

 

9/10

Reviewed on PS5. Code provided by the publisher.

 

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