Founded in 2013, developer Heart Machine is working on Hyper Light Drifter, a stylish action RPG that pays homage to The Legend of Zelda : Past and Present. Hyper Light Drifter received mostly positive reviews upon release, developing a dedicated fan base and picking up a few awards along the way. Hyper Light Drifter has had such a positive reception, there are high hopes for Heart Machine’s next project, Solar Ash, and while it may not reach the same heights as its predecessor, it’s still a solid effort and a fun way to spend an afternoon .
Hyper Light Drifter is a 2D game with retro-style graphics, while Solar Ash is a full-fledged 3D platformer with a similar aesthetic. Both games make heavy use of bold colors like bright pink, and the character designs in Solar Ash are no different from what players remember from Hyper Light Drifter.
Combat is a big focus of the Hyper Light Drifter, and while it’s present in Solar Ash, it’s not a big focus. The player character, Rei, can mow down enemies with basic melee attacks, but encounters aren’t many, and boss fights are hard to render like traditional combat. Instead, bosses in Solar Ash are self-contained platforming challenges where players must hit targets within a time limit. So, even if Solar Ash players aren’t fighting these bosses directly, the encounters can still be intense, and always satisfying when they’re vanquished, especially since one mistake will have players repeating entire episodes.
Solar Ash’s bosses are a highlight of the experience, appearing in the form of giant black goo creatures meant to mimic different animals. For example, one is clearly inspired by snakes, and another looks like a giant bat. While their designs may sound ordinary on paper, the way the bosses are presented in the game makes them awe-inspiring and intimidating, large enough for players to recognize them in Solar Ash’s game world.
Going head-to-head with Solar Ash’s bosses is a treat and the only reward players get for conquering each level. In Solar Ash’s levels, players first establish their base of operations and then hunt down some anomalies. The Solar Ash anomaly is defeated by completing timed platforming challenges, similar to a boss fight, and always ends with the player stabbing the spherical eye. Eliminating all anomalies will result in a boss fight, which is repeated for every area in the game.
Solar Ash players have a variety of unique abilities as they explore the game world and hunt down anomalies. Solar Ash protagonist Rei is a Voidrunner, and as such is equipped with gear that allows her to glide through clouds. Players can use the boost function to increase speed and launch Rei off ramps, clearing huge gaps and making it to hard-to-reach areas. Rei has the ability to slow down time, and she also has a grappling hook-like device that she can use in certain situations. By bringing all of these abilities together, Solar Ash players are able to be creative when exploring the game world.
Rei has access to all of the Solar Ash platform abilities from the start of the game, there isn’t much of a tutorial on how best to use them, which encourages experimentation and gives the game a sense of freedom. Players get All the tools needed to meet each challenge, but this approach is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it ensures that Solar Ash players can reach Rei’s full potential right away, and having these different skills makes platforming and exploration a lot more fun. On the other hand, there isn’t a wholesome sense of progress. The reward for beating the boss is simply going to the next area, and Rei starts off as strong as possible, but never really gets better.
The only way Solar Ash players can improve Rei is by giving her more shields, which are purchased using plasma scattered throughout the game world. Plasma in Solar Ash is an in-game currency, but it’s only used to refill Rei’s shield. What’s more, Solar Ash players can easily amass enough plasma to maximize Rei’s shields early in the game, but Solar Ash will randomly take away a large chunk of the shield after each boss fight, forcing players to find more Multiple plasmas to pay for what they already have.
Solar Ash players can also find unique outfits for Rei, each with their own abilities. For example, one of Rei’s outfits in Solar Ash might boost her attack power, while another might lower the cooldown of her skills. The problem is that none of these buffs are necessary for the player to easily beat the game, as Solar Ash can be done fairly easily, let alone quickly. Players will have zero problem beating Solar Ash with the default outfit if they want to.
It takes about five and a half hours to complete Solar Ash in the starting game on standard difficulty, and it shouldn’t take much longer even on higher difficulties. Unlocking all of the trophies in Solar Ash will require multiple playthroughs, though, so those looking to earn Platinum trophies should keep that in mind. There isn’t much engaging side content either, as all side quests amount to doing the same thing over and over again.
Solar Ash’s side activities, such as finding alternate costumes and completing quests for the few NPCs players encounter in the game, basically boil down to finding secret areas and collecting a few things. There’s nothing particularly unique about any of them, and while the stories attached to side quests can be interesting, they’re mostly told through documentation and dialogue interactions, making it hard to really get invested in the game world or what’s going on middle.
Solar Ash is repetitive and short, but that doesn’t detract from the fun of the core gameplay. The developers have nailed down Solar Ash’s traversal system to make exploring and completing the various platforming challenges really fun. The art style is striking, the bosses are impressive, and while it may not have had the lasting impact of Hyper Light Drifter, Solar Ash is still worth checking out for fans of the Heart Machine oeuvre and the 3D platformer genre in general.
Solar Ash is out now on PC, PS4 and PS5. Game Rant provided the PS5 codes for this review.