Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Solar Ash Review

I glide serenely through the undulating turquoise sea, enjoying the silky sensation of movement as I cut a path through this landscape of… what? Clouds?! The Ultravoid is an utterly surreal place - beautiful, colourful, yet also broken, desolate. This is all that’s left of a host of forgotten worlds, sucked inexorably into the gravitational pull of a massive black hole. Above me, a monstrous-looking creature known as a Remnant patrols the sky, and it’s so large I’ll literally skate along its back when I confront and kill it; part of a desperate bid to save my home planet from becoming the latest victim of The Ultravoid’s insatiable appetite. Solar Ash has some big ideas, and while it’s not all smooth skating thanks to minor control quirks and a couple of design elements that don’t quite reach their full potential, it’s definitely a journey worth taking.

Rei Crisis

Solar Ash’s vivid colour palette is evocative of developer Heart Machine’s last game, Hyper Light Drifter, but transposed to a 3D open-world, in which momentum is the overriding design principle. In Solar Ash you’re faced with platforming challenges, light puzzles, enemy encounters, bosses, and impossible spaces - and you glide your way through it all, accompanied by an appropriately atmospheric, synth-driven sci-fi score.

You are Rei, a Voidrunner who has ventured inside a black hole called The Ultravoid, and you’re trying to find out what happened to each of your companions and ensure the conduits they set up throughout the different sectors of the void are operational. These are necessary to power a gigantic, monolithic piece of technology called the Starseed - which, in turn, is the only hope to close the black hole itself and save Rei’s planet from imminent destruction. This broad story set-up translates to reaching and clearing out anomalies that are interfering with the conduits, then defeating each area’s colossal boss creature.

Action-platforming is very much the main driver of Solar Ash, but it’s interested in worldbuilding too, and has plenty to dig into via story elements like audio logs left by Rei’s missing teammates, scrawled notes in the environment, a handful of survivors you can talk to, and quizzing Rei’s friendly AI construct Cyd on the details of the mission. This all helps make the overarching plot more impactful as it gradually comes into clarity, leading to a climax that’s punchier than I was expecting; a neat twist for a game that’s so kinetic in focus most of the time.

This kineticism is expressed through wide open environments and platforming challenges that allow Rei to almost always be in motion. You’re able to scan each area for key objectives, while telltale icons on surfaces reveal if a hidden audio log is nearby. The fun here is in working out how to reach objectives, not wondering where they are, so I always felt like I was navigating the world with purpose.

Rei has a slight yet powerful set of abilities, crafted specifically for open-world platforming. She smoothly transitions between running and skating, with an incredible feeling - and sounding - boost ideal for zooming past enemies, hitting a lip at top speed, or just catapulting forward from a standing start. I appreciated having to wrangle Rei’s inertia in order to bring her to a sudden stop from full pelt, but the joy of movement was occasionally stymied by quirks like inexplicably going the wrong way on a rail, missing grinds entirely, or falling off a platform thanks to an unhelpful camera.

This is a world full of swooping rails, of floating platforms, of localised gravity, and of simple but satisfying movement puzzles. 

But for the most part the skating feels great between those hiccups, whether you’re boosting then double jumping to skip across the surface of treacherous acid lakes, leapfrogging through a series of grapple points in the air, directing then riding mushroom rails, or ascending a bulbous column of clouds in order to reach an ancient structure high in the sky. This is a world full of swooping rails, of floating platforms, of localised gravity, and of simple but satisfying movement puzzles.

Sideshow Melee

While there are enemies to fight, encounters with them are streamlined. Rei can time slip to slow down time then grapple in, instantly dispatching smaller foes with a slash or two. When this works it adds nicely to Solar Ash’s flow, and Rei can pull off some pretty sweet moves like grappling to an enemy in the air, and killing it before leaping to a climbable surface. When it doesn’t, however, Rei can feel a little clumsy. She’s very good at closing the gap, for instance, but not so great at handling multiple enemies, and it can be difficult to avoid taking damage in some situations.

These enemies really are a sideshow, however - obstacles to avoid or defeat en route to the main objectives: the anomalies. These are areas of volatile black goo (as opposed to the inert, climbable black goo throughout levels) and each is treated like a movement puzzle. Slashing at the exposed nerve ending (represented by a protruding spike) reveals an energy trail through the gunk and bone to another point, and potentially several more, each of which must be slashed before the anomaly overheats and fries anything on it. In a stylish touch, Rei is always able to grapple to the final point to stab its energy core and clear the anomaly.

Each of these mini-challenges is unique but the quickly familiar structure of them means only some actually stand out. The best anomalies deliver on Solar Ash’s movement-focused foundation to make Rei feel like a bad-ass, but just as in combat, others can leave her feeling a bit like she has two left feet.

Defeating the huge titans that Rei grapples aboard also follows a similar structure of moving from node to node, but are entirely built around skating and grappling, which helps make them feel faster-paced and more streamlined than some of the anomalies. Each Remnant is beaten in stages - usually the same run of hitting nerve endings three times over, but with added steps or less safe areas to skate on each time. These encounters are a frantic dash against the clock, and the sight of riding along the back of a flying, otherworldly creature or dashing up the arm of a lumbering behemoth before grappling across to another part of its body is certainly impressive. That said, they also expose some of the weaker elements of Solar Ash’s gameplay - chiefly, it can be difficult to judge your position and momentum while atop a moving creature, particularly as the camera shifts around.

Generally it’s not such a problem for the first two stages of each Remnant challenge, but I found the third and final sequence - where there’s less room for error - a little frustrating for several of the beasts, particularly as a single slip-up can mean a third stage restart. Heart Machine has definitely leaned into the ability to slow time and grapple during these encounters, which helps make the controls feel more precise without losing the energy and the spectacle, but overall I was typically more relieved than elated when I beat these bosses.

In general, in fact, it’s actually the journey - as opposed to the destination - that I got the most out of from Solar Ash’s gameplay, and that’s probably because this is when you’re most in the world, enjoying its striking aesthetic and the differences between biomes. The Mirrorsea area, for instance, mixes up vertiginous rails and floating space debris with acid pools and ancient ruins. Eternal Garden, on the other hand, is completely different to explore, cleverly using the native fungi for movement puzzles and shifting the mood as Rei ventures into pitch dark caverns.

It’s absolutely worth chasing the collectables in Solar Ash as well, as finding all the Voidrunner stashes in an area unlocks a new suit for Rei to wear that typically offers a genuinely useful new buff. These include doubling your attack power, drastically reducing your boost cooldown, the ability to scan for remaining stashes, and more. It would have been nice if these weren’t either/or choices, however - I’d have loved to be able to equip at least a couple of these bonuses at once. There’s also the fact that by the time I’d actually collected all the suits, well, I had very little left to do in the world.


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