Solar Ash

released on Dec 02, 2021

Journey through a surreal, vivid and highly stylized world filled with mystery, wild high-speed traversal, endearing characters, and massive enemy encounters. The Void beckons…

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The good news about trying out Solar Ash is that it clicked immediately since it was not afraid to wear its influences on its sleeves: you’ve got skating mechanics inspired by Jet Set Radio, boss fights and designs inspired by Shadow of the Colossus, and a woozy ambient soundtrack alongside gooey and ethereal aesthetics captured in deep space. It’s not hard to decipher Heart Machine’s vision for the game. The bad news about trying out Solar Ash is that being so heavily inspired by two of my favorite games meant that I was both consciously and unconsciously comparing the game in every waking moment of my playthrough, and the cracks in the armor really started to show. Right away, the most obvious issue is the lack of subtlety. The game is so in-your-face with its lore and the overarching details that it fails to leave much room for individual player interpretation. The protagonist Rei is constantly commenting upon everything she comes across, and the audio logs that she stumbles upon where her old crewmates vividly describe the world’s demise don’t leave much up to imagination either. This over-explanation is further compounded by all the jargon thrown into the mix and the exaggerated voice acting, which not only confuses me, but also feels like the authors didn’t really tackle the tone properly; instead of sounding desperate, Rei instead comes off as somewhat angsty to me. The amount of effort put into flaunting all this detail feels quite unwarranted, considering that Shadow of the Colossus was more than happy to let players just linger in their own space and judge for themselves: what happened to “show, don’t tell” guys?
Further invited comparisons to Shadow of the Colossus make it evident to me that despite the reverence of its boss encounters, Solar Ash fails to emulate much of their appeal in any meaningful way. Nothing comes close to the volume swells present in Shadow of the Colossus, because there’s no focused build-up of anticipation when the player is too busy looking for plasma and voidrunner caches alongside traversal puzzles for destroying Anomalies, not to mention Rei’s stream of self-narration breaking up any prolonged moments of silence. More importantly, the boss fights themselves lack any stakes. Shadow of the Colossus emphasizes its sense of scale, as you carefully climb this larger-than-life creature while it desperately flails about, trying to shake you off before you snuff it out by plunging your sword into its vitals. Solar Ash on the other hand, may as well just be a casual Sunday drive through a Mario Kart course; the sigils have been replaced with temporary targets and context-sensitive grapple points, and most of the interaction boils down to holding forward on the joystick and jumping/grappling at the right time. You don’t even need to adjust the camera, because the game will automatically do that for you when you need to shift directions. Say what you want about Shadow of the Colossus’ ballistic camera during the colossi encounters, but it really lent the fights a sense of powerlessness and urgency during this desperate dance of death that Solar Ash lacks. To top this all off, consequences of failure are minimized in the latter; falling off or failing to hit a target in time just sends you back to a close checkpoint to the boss with only one hit point missing, and you can usually grapple right back on the boss to retry the phase within a minute or two. Considering that health boxes are scattered everywhere, you have to actively try to get a game over. It is kind of funny that the final boss fight doesn’t even provide you with a health bar for a potential game over: it’s a mere formality at that point.
The weird thing is, despite how streamlined the boss fights are in Solar Ash, there’s a real lack of polish from strange jank and design decisions elsewhere. Rei’s standard attack combo string is three attacks at a time, but the game likes throwing enemy variations at you that require four hits at a time (either a pair of smaller foes that each take two hits, or a singular medium baddy that takes four hits). The result is that you have to actively linger in the same space to completely finish off most enemies, and combat then noticeably interferes with the general flow of movement. Regarding lack of fluidity, I also have to agree with nex3’s point that it’s surprisingly easy to lose momentum altogether from strange collisions from geometry. The strange momentum physics are reflected elsewhere too, such as when I noticed that jumping from the end of a rail resulted in significantly less momentum conserved than when Rei naturally slid off the rail instead. Finally, it’s kind of a shame that despite how much plasma is thrown at you and emphasized as the main collectible resource (to the point where one of the unlockable suits doubles your rate of plasma collection), there’s only one use for it: restoring a block of your health gauge’s max capacity after losing a cell every time you defeat a boss. In that sense, plasma feels rather superfluous, much like most of the game’s mechanics and features outside of its core traversal.
In spite of all this, I liked Solar Ash enough to complete a save file. I can’t help but feel bummed though, because I should have loved this. I had a good enough time just gliding about the surface of a post-apocalyptic wasteland and zooming about from rail to rail, but there’s so much stuff in-between that doesn’t seem to add anything pertinent to the base structure. I can’t see myself coming back to this for hardcore mode unfortunately, since it just seems like an artificially difficult no-hit playthrough with extra steps, though perhaps I’ll return someday to see if a speedrun challenge feels any better than a standard run. I find myself agreeing with quite a few others here: if practically everything minus the atmospheric visuals/soundtrack and core traversal mechanics were removed, you might actually have one of the most compact yet focused experiences of recent times. As it is now though? It’s just fine. It’ll always be I suppose.

I don't really consider 5-star games to be "perfect", but rather they are experiences that stand out to me in a very special way. My main nitpick would be that I wish the suits you can acquire by seeking out collectibles were something more interesting, offering some real benefit to gameplay for doing the extra work. But not that or any other minor issue could overshadow how this game made me feel during the 15 hours I spent with it.
It is simply a masterpiece. Just a spectacular blend of art, gameplay, and existential sci-fi storytelling. Very few games have ever felt this good to move around in or had this satisfying epic boss fights. It challenges you on the controller and in the head. Truly one of the best, most memorable gaming experiences that I've ever had and something I wholeheartedly recommend everyone to try.

I feel like it's a game with a lot of good ideas, but it just doesn't go all the way with them. Movement is cool, but the level design dulls out quickly, the bosses get monotonous and the puzzles start to become very repetitive. It's a shame; I wanted to love this.

Shadow of the Colossus meets Sunset Overdrive here, Heart Machine made something to be very proud of in Solar Ash.
Gameplay flows extremely smoothly, and solve all your problems through extreme feats of balance and finesse. It can feel like a Sonic game at times even. The art direction is top tier as well, so many vast, beautiful landscapes with intense coloration and surreal geometry.
The narrative structure of the game where you go through the main story, one stranger subplot and one voidrunner subplot each level really encourages you to explore the entire level. You really feel for all these characters, too. They're well written and performed.
The boss battles are the real crown jewel here, though. Similar to Shadow of the Colossus, you need to hit multiple points on the giant to kill them, but with Solar Ash, you have to do it three times, with the course changing and getting more difficult each time. Watching yourself sail through these sequences at high speed is insanely satisfying.
Definite recommendation from me on this one

It's pretty astonishing that after Preston made one of the most influential and imitated indie games of the past decade he just went “but what if Shadow of The Colossus was actually just Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater?”.