by on Dec 10, 2021

Solar Ash review

At the start of Solar Ash, its heroine, Rei, floats on the cusp of a black hole. At the edge of the frame, we see her planet, as it is licked by the impenetrable gloom. It is only a matter of time before it is pulled in, and we get the sense that that is exactly what this game is: a matter of time. Rei is a Voidrunner, which, as far as I can tell, is like a professional roller skater, only padded with an array of responsibilities that puts her more in line with the crew of the Icarus II, from Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, whose job it was to detonate a bomb on the sun’s surface and blow it back to life. Similarly, Rei must plant something called a Starseed in the heart of the void. To her surprise, however, she discovers that the void may have a heart.

Her journey to that discovery is one that entails zooming through a series of shattered worlds, grinding on rails (Rei wears boots of gravity-flouting funkiness) and doing battle with a string of vast, oily bosses. Think Jet Set Stranding, and you’re some of the way there. Solar Ash is the second game from Alx Preston, whose previous work, Hyper Light Drifter, was a heartfelt thing, indeed—literally: its hero kept clutching at his chest and coughing up puddles of blood. Preston was born with a congenital heart condition, and I can scarcely shake the image of him—from a Vice documentary about the making of that game—ingesting a fistful of pills in a single gulp. His studio is named Heart Machine (how’s that for making art from one’s suffering?), and Solar Ash, like Hyper Light Drifter before it, moves with an irregular beat.

I adored the studio’s debut. It was steeped in the imagery of The Legend of Zelda—high cliffs, swords, and garments of telling colour—but it took on a darker hue. Its setting was one of apocalyptic science fiction: high-tech cities, smashed to ruin and spat on with rain, and a hero with a laser sword of swishing cyan. It took me longer to warm to Solar Ash, though it is clearly the visual twin of its predecessor. Its vistas are similarly shattered, but the pieces hang in the sky, as if someone had paused life at the moment of impact. And Rei is clad in similar clothing to the hero of Hyper Light Drifter, with a pink cape fluttering in her wake. She, too, is blighted by an oblique ailment; we aren’t sure of its nature or its cause, but could it relate to her hair, as black as ink, which curls and flickers into the air like darkness flammable?

Solar Ash

After only two games, Preston’s prevailing obsession has been established: his work is absorbed by the notion that the ills of the body can leak into the landscape, and that societies, like hearts, can grow weak and pressured. “There were many proposed solutions,” we are told, “but our planet’s nations and governments debated the best course of action while we slipped further and further into the pull of the Ultravoid.” Now, stop me if I’m overthinking this, but it’s possible that Preston, along with the writers Evan Hembacher, Tyler Hutchison, and Zoë Quinn, are attempting to draw a parallel. It’s a shame that the idea is belaboured with such heavy dialogue, but, if Solar Ash rises above these rubble-strewn exchanges, it is down to Rei, who does enough rising to draw our attention.

As was the case in Super Mario Galaxy, we cavort across a collection of planetoids (fragments of earth, stuck together, seemingly, by a mass of billowing blue marshmallow), and one of the most fun things to do is to look up. Or, rather, to reconfigure what “up” might be. Each of these rocks has its own gravity, and you can surf a column of cloud from one to another; at some point, your climb turns into a fall. Unlike Mario, whose problems consisted chiefly of a giant lizard with an appetite for poached princess, Rei is burdened with the fate of her people, and the mood of Solar Ash is one of alarm, tinged with looping regret. “Everything here is broken. Nothing stays fixed for long,” reads a message from one of her fellow-Voidrunners, as though, even when given a way out of catastrophe, we are doomed to double back.

And yet, the atmosphere is more dreamy than damned. This is due, in part, to the music, by Troupe Gammage—with additional material by Joel Corelitz, Sky Lu, and Rich Vreeland, better known as Disasterpeace, who wrote the score for Hyper Light Drifter and Fez. But it also has to do with the art direction, led by Cosimo Galluzzi, which is built for speed; it’s composed of bright, low-poly surfaces that look their finest when blurring past the eye. That is when Solar Ash is at its finest, too: when Rei blades through the environment and you lose track of time, its sights washing over you. There are also Things to Do: audio logs to find, globules of crimson to collect (to pay for health upgrades), and enemies to slash as you glide by. But  everything is best in passing.

Solar Ash

Even the showdowns with bosses are best taken at a high velocity. Rei makes the hero of Shadow of the Colossus seem a hopelessly unmodish wimp. He clambered for dear life, gripping handfuls of ancient hair, and made a real day of it; she treats them like giant skate parks—scraping along wing bones as though they were ramps. Each monster is felled by plunging needles into key points, which will come as good news for any acupuncturists who feel underrepresented in games. These clashes don’t possess the grandeur or the weight of the Colossi, but they are a wild ride. Where Solar Ash goes from an intriguing ambient platformer to one of the year’s most fascinating releases is in its fixation on living as an act of being stuck—neither sucked into the Ultravoid nor truly set free, but rather pinned, for however long, in place. The story culminates in Rei meeting a being called Echo, who has a needle lodged through her chest, with blood cascading in a permanent pour. Such imagery is par for the course with Preston, whose games are alive to the wonders of transience. Nothing stays fixed for long.

Developer: Heart Machine

Publisher: Annapurna Interactive

Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, PC

Release Date: December 2, 2021

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verdict

Where Solar Ash goes from an intriguing ambient platformer to one of the year’s most fascinating releases is in its fixation on living as an act of being stuck.
8 Skating Mood and ideas Heavy-handed dialogue

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Solar Ash

on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5
Solar Ash

Release Date:

31 December 2020