Solar Ash’s Streamlined Gameplay Does More with Less
Heart Machine delivers staple video game tropes in a clean package
There is something to be said for a game that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Seemingly limitless budgets and popular open-world design would lead you to believe that bigger is better. More side quests, game-altering choices, and deep mechanics are touted as peak game design, with titles like Ghost of Tsushima and Horizon: Zero Dawn endearing themselves to players thanks to their expansive biomes. Even Mario embraced a less linear design this year, with Super Mario 3D World: Bowser’s Fury expansion swapping the guided level-to-level style for a more open play-as-you-go format.
All too frequently this formula runs its course. Biomutant, for example, overstayed its runtime by packing an uninspired and simplistic story (whether to save or destroy the Tree of Life) with fetch quests, trivial characters, a bloated open world, and unnecessary equipment like mounts and environmental resistances.
So when a game like Solar Ash loads up and has players exploring its universe with minimal introduction, it deserves a second look. Released on December 2 by Heart Machine and published by Annapurna Interactive, the game manages to mold a bevy of common video game tropes into a unique experience that confronts topics of trauma and personal growth.
In Solar Ash players control Rei, a voidrunner sent to a black hole that is on the cusp of consuming her home planet. In conjunction with other runners, Rei seeks to activate the Starseed, an enormous, sword-shaped pillar that holds the key to freeing her world from its impending doom.
The game delves deeper into this story through in-game collectibles. Journal entries and data logs are scattered around the void and offer exposition about Rei’s fellow runners and the state of the world’s denizens. These logs, while insightful, are entirely skippable, and when paired with the modest amount of cutscenes, leave Solar Ash in a place of solace, in which the game playing experience is defined more by how players interact with the world than a spoon-fed information dump.
Over the course of Solar Ash’s approximately seven-hour runtime, the core skill set that players use to traverse the void goes largely unchanged. Rei can skate across the terrain, which ranges from crumbling architecture to bulbous clouds and acidic water. Her skates allow her to grind up rails, while her multi-tool functions as a radar and a close and long-ranged attack; the latter locks her onto enemies and catapults her within striking range.
The familiarity in her moveset — fans of Sonic the Hedgehog’s early 2000s titles will feel at home controlling the voidrunner — allows players to focus on immersing themselves in the gameplay rather than adjusting to control schemes.
Hyper Light Drifter, the spiritual predecessor to Solar Ash, was lauded for its speedrunning community and the makings of a similar outfit are hard at work here. Beyond some of the aforementioned cutscenes — moments, when Rei pauses to establish a link with the in-game humanoid computer system or take inquiries from one of the game’s quest-givers — time spent in the void, is almost entirely based on progression. If players aren’t tackling one of the game’s giant bosses, called Remnants, they’ll be figuring out the quickest route to the next area or hunting for one of the game’s many collectibles.
Would be speedrunners will also rejoice in one of the game’s trophies, which tests players to complete the game in under three hours.
Though the true size of the game is modest (I completed my first run in seven hours and 29 minutes), Solar Ash revels in its ability to make players feel insignificant. The boss battles harken back to Shadow of the Colossus, with Rei tasked with dismantling the titans that dwarf her. The battles keep pace with the game’s general gusto, as the homing attack, skating, and time-slowing mechanics urge players to find the fastest route to the boss’s weak points before delivering the final blow.
After playing through countless games, it’s difficult not to compare experiences across different franchises. Solar Ash can certainly stand on its own, but it benefits from leveraging ideas from gaming’s past. The cel-shaded artwork feels like an instant nod to the whimsical and mysterious world of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, while the emphasis on shifting gravity and camera perspectives is akin to the Gravity Rush games. Even Rei’s seemingly insurmountable challenge of saving her home world (and the mental challenges that come with it) evoke Madeline’s journey in Celeste.
Every so often, I’ll play a game that challenges the way I interact with the medium. Maybe the control scheme is intriguing, or the story requires an extra moment of pause at each junction. Solar Ash doesn’t isn’t causing me to rethink my relationship with gaming; arguably, that’s for the best. The game is confident in its delivery while offering some approachable food for thought about the sustainability of one’s actions and the trauma induced because of them. Solar Ash may exist in the void, but the game’s total package pulls from the best that gaming has to offer.