Earlier this year, Hyper Light Drifter studio Heart Machine introduced players to its sophomore effort with Solar Ash: A game that has players running, jumping, and skating cosmic clouds through a black hole realm and facing down the twisted landscapes and terrors within. Now, just before the end of 2021, Solar Ash has arrived, and with it comes one of the most stylishly moving action platformers I’ve seen in some time.
Solar Ash casts players in the role of Rei, a Voidrunner. She and her kind use a special technology to enter inside of a black hole known as the Voidspace. From the outside, it’s an ever-expanding cosmic force that threatens to swallow Rei’s planet and people, as well as other worlds and lives throughout their universe. Rei and other Voidrunners were dispatched inside the Voidspace to unleash a technological device known as the Starseed that was supposed to collapse the black hole and save their planets. However, something went wrong. The Starseed never activated, contact with the other Voidrunners was lost, and it’s up to Rei to figure out what went haywire and fix it to save everyone.
Amid this story, Heart Machine’s visual style for Solar Ash is easily the star of the show. The Voidspace is a collection of scattered and broken natural worlds and civilizations hanging adrift neon clouds that Rei is capable of gliding upon like a seasoned ice skater. Geography between clouds is an array of broken skyscrapers, hillsides, temples, castles, and more to traverse. Your goal in each area is to get to objective points that summon a massive anomaly so you can destroy it and free energy that goes to the Starseed. These anomalies, too, are visual spectacles, made up of inky black energy girded in bony plating.
Solar Ash’s stakes are heavy, what with Rei’s planet and the status of her fellow Voidrunners at stake. There are also individuals trapped throughout the various areas that help the player understand the full weight and cruelty of the Voidspace, but the sheer style of Solar Ash’s environment definitely helps keep the journey moving forward. Rei’s effort to end the Voidspace takes her through a menagerie of beautiful landscapes and pits her in gorgeously stylish and fluid fights against the Anomalies at all turns.
Solar Ash is an action-platformer and, besides being beautiful, it’s a spectacle of fast-paced open-world gameplay and exploration. As a Voidrunner, Rei is capable of not only walking, but skating across the clouds and terrain of the Voidspace. Speedy movement is only a button press away and much of the game is spent gliding through the terrain in a highly accessible, well-handled, and stylish way. Her goal in any given area is to get to activatable objective points that will awaken an Anomaly in the area. There are also little anomaly monsters throughout each area that will give her trouble as she wanders about.
To meet her goal, Rei has several tools at her disposal beyond speed and agility. For one, she has a light sword for dispatching small anomalies or striking pressure points on the big ones. She also has use of a tether that can be used to grab hold of hanging points throughout the Voidspace and whip herself through the air. The tether can be used in combat as well to lock onto an enemy and whip directly at them for a stun attack. There's a time slow ability that allows her to make otherwise impossible jumps between ledges manageable and also line up targets for her tether ability. Finally, a booster rounds out her gear that can be activated for a quick burst of speed when she needs just a little bit of extra oomph in her glide.
These are the tools that you use almost entirely throughout Solar Ash, but the real fun is in how the game’s environments have you use them. You might grind some broken train rails through a tunnel and up a building or use a latch point to whip yourself between vast towering structures to reach some of your objectives. Just as well, you might come across an enemy that requires you to carefully use your time ability and tether to clear space quickly and dispatch them before they can do you harm. The game is full of neat environmental gimmicks that make you use this small kit of tools in regularly new and interesting ways.
The only thing I take issue with is some jank on the tether ability in slowed time. Most of the time it worked appropriately, but there were more than a few moments where I found it inconsistent with the distance at which it would lock onto a grab point or enemy for tethering. It was at its worst when a grabbable point and enemy were close together and I couldn’t get it to recognize the right object I wanted to tether in a pinch.
Even so, your exploration culminates in battles with these massive Anomalies that also kind of bring out the best of your kit. To fight the colossal Anomalies, Rei must tether onto their bony structures and strike various nerve ends around their bodies before finally striking a target point, all before they can superheat their bodies and burn her off. It makes for an intense race against time as you run Rei acrobatically around an Anomaly’s form, frantically trying to strike the targets you need to hit to open up the final decisive blow. Once I got a handle on it, taking down these massive enemy encounters made me feel like a badass, and they were always such a cool demonstration of Rei’s gear and abilities.
Solar Ash is another hugely stylish venture from Heart Machine, though it’s not terribly long. Exploring any area to its fullest ran me about two to four hours and the whole thing ran about 11 hours for me when it was all said and done. Nonetheless, the graceful feel of movement, platforming, and combat in this game can’t be denied, and it’s accompanied by a lush and interesting mix of neon, natural, and industrial landscapes caught up in Solar Ash’s Voidspace. There’s a little jank in the controls here at here, but generally, for such a quick game, Solar Ash glides like a cosmic dream.
This review is based on a PC digital copy supplied by the publisher. Solar Ash is available now on PS4, PS5, and PC.