More of a stop gap, rather than a full sequel to Hyper Light Drifter
From Heart Machine, Solar Ash was originally released on PlayStation 5, Xbox, and PC in December of 2022. In keeping with the style and flair of its predecessor, Hyper Light Drifter, it brings in fast space-skating mechanics that give it a unique identity. While not a direct sequel, it does keep some core tenants of design and story but switches up genres entirely. Despite the changes, it’s hard not to compare the two, so we have to ask, is it comparable to the developer’s first indie hit? The answer is somewhere lost in the Ultravoid, so let’s strap on our space skates and dive in!
Solar Ash opens on our Voidrunner protagonist Rei, who is attempting to save her world from being sucked into the Ultravoid, a massive black hole. Throughout her journey you’ll find out what has happened to all the Voidrunners who failed before her, engrossing you in tales of loss, grief, and moving on. These vignettes make for some touching moments, while also fleshing out more of the world (which exists in the same universe as Hyper Light Drifter,) and boy is the Ultravoid a wild and beautiful world. Graphically, the art is cell shaded, with minimalist detail and lots of neon, which makes for amazing visuals but can definitely lead to the Nintendo Switch chugging when particle effects are introduced.
The main gameplay loop (and I do mean loop) is to find and destroy anomalies on the map. You get a scanner to find their approximate location, but the real challenge comes in finding the right way to them, and then destroying them in a timed chain sequence. That means, you really have to be able to move. The developers have stated that they based the game specifically around its traversal and it definitely shows. Rollerblading in space has never looked so cool. You can slide, grind rails, grapple hook points, wall ride, and double jump your way across the psychedelic visuals of the void, destroying the Anomalies as you go. Anomalies are destroyed by hitting beacons in a timed sequence. Once every anomaly challenge is completed, a boss is unlocked that you must ride across, essentially knocking out more anomalies on its back to defeat them. Move to a new map, rinse and repeat.
Despite having a relatively short playtime of roughly 3-5 hours, this ongoing loop felt a little more checklist-y then I would have liked. Sure, the platforming itself was varied, but movement could be unwieldy and inconsistent. Jumps could throw you clear over your target, grind rails could go in incorrect directions, and some sequences were just damn near frustrating. One particular puzzle stumped me so bad that I ended up figuring out a glitch to get it instead of finding the intended path. It’s equal parts fun and frustrating. The most enjoyment comes from just moving around. Its fluid motion makes for engaging movement, even when sometimes the puzzles require more precision than I felt was necessary.
Another frustrating setback is combat. Throughout your exploration, you will encounter enemies that you need to dispatch. There’s your regular laser sword swing, with a grapple to close the gap, but overall these encounters do more to slow the player down than enhance the experience. Considering the game shines best when in a flow state of movement, there seem to be a lot of different ways to get stopped in your tracks.
Solar Ash comes in hot with its fantastic art style, free flowing movement, and minimalist synth soundtrack, but it also hits a lot of road blocks along the way. When you’re landing sick grinds, nailing grapple points and taking down massive bosses, it’s top notch. When it works it works well; unfortunately, it doesn’t always succeed and you end up doing so many repeated tasks that it quickly wears out its welcome. The story content is written beautifully, with a lot to say about heartbreak and grief, which makes it unfortunate that Solar Ash can be a drag to play. It seems we may need to wait for Hyper Light Breaker, to see a truly worthy successor but at least Heart Machine’s writing and style chops remain consistent.