Hands on with Solar Ash, out now on Epic Games Store
Solar Ash is developer Heart Machine’s follow-up to Hyper Light Drifter. It’s not a sequel, though it shares the same universe as their first game. That lets them build on the tent poles of the previous game--exploration, action--while leaping right off them and grinding along a rail into the vast, unexplored territory of 3D!
You play Rei, a Voidrunner trying to save her home planet from being swallowed by a black hole called the “Ultravoid”. Voidrunners are skillful skaters, who can traverse the twisted world that the Ultravoid creates. The levels are built from the crushed, warped worlds that the void swallows, turning them into huge platforms for Rei to explore. Completing their various challenges unleashes a giant boss that you have to ride and kill. It’s like Jet Set Radio meets Shadow of the Colossus, with a little bit of Super Mario Galaxy mixed in.
Rei can skate at speed across the pillowy ground, slow time and jump or grapple across gaps, and grind rails. The tools at her disposal will allow her to explore, say, a broken capital city at high speed. The buildings frozen mid-tumble; cracked, broken walls twisted together with train rails, areas covered in a sticky goo that lets you cling to sheer surfaces. You can scale buildings in a few seconds.
With the vast levels and slick movement, it feels like the player should never stop moving, something Game Director Alx Preston agrees with: “That’s very true. Because we switched to making this 3D more open world game, we wanted to focus on creating incentive and joy for the player to explore in multiple dimensions, so they can get a sense of being small yet impactful in this massive world.”
Sometimes, you have to take a step back and look at the level as a whole to work out your route. You’ll spot a rail you hadn’t seen before, snaking around a teetering building. Is that building angled just enough to let someone leap across the gap to the other, equally teetering building? Apparently unconnected rooftops become secret roadways to the level's goals or hidden areas.
Secreted about the map are notes and people. Hyper Light Drifter told its story visually, and Solar Ash’s small moments of interaction are positively chatty in comparison. It was another change for Heart Machine to embrace. According to Preston: “We wanted to push into dialogue and deeper character development at the outset. Drifter was a great experiment in visual story-telling only as an approach. Branching out, seeing what we can do with actual text and VO was a wild experience, and we hope, successful.”
As you progress, you’ll eventually awaken the attention of that level’s Massive Anomaly. It’s a boss fight against creatures that would give Godzilla pause for thought. Cleverly, whether it’s against a small goon or a giant boss, fighting is still mostly about movement. Rei can grapple small enemies, or anchor points on the giant bosses, and pull herself in to attack, never skipping a beat as she strikes and moves. Bosses are more involved. It’s like a giant rodeo, where you’re chipping off the armor to expose the flesh beneath, crawling all over their writhing form to get that final, winning strike.
It’s an echo of Hyper Light Drifter, which had vast Titans as a backdrop. Scale is an element in Heart Machine’s work, something Preston instinctively returns to.
“It becomes a primal fear for humans when dealing with creatures beyond a specific scale,” he says. “It’s hard to know the thing, difficult to really comprehend, and seemingly impossible to take down or defend against such a massive entity. We just cannot relate, and it feels all the more illusory, alien and dangerous. I love tapping into that more primal fear as a mechanism to inspire specific moods with players.”