Title: Solar Ash
Developer: Heart Machine
Release Date: December 2, 2021
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Genre: Action Roguelike
I’ve never put much thought into the discussion of whether video games can be considered art. However, after playing through the Heart Machine developed Solar Ash, I’m undoubtedly inclined to view select experiences such as this as artistic. Admittedly, this title is incredibly brief, but it manages to instill its few hours of playtime with mesmerizing scenery, addicting movement, and thought-provoking story beats.
Throughout this title, players control Rei, a Voidrunner aiming to save her homeworld due to cataclysmic world-destroying anomalies. Unfortunately, the world’s government proved too inept to put aside their differences and concoct meaningful countermeasures, leading to the Voidrunners taking matters into their own hands. This group aims to locate and activate the Starseed, which can supposedly prevent further oncoming destruction. Main story events and optional audio logs found around the world enhance the delivered quality of the general premise being detailed. Many perspectives of different individuals are provided thanks to these varying anecdotal avenues so there is an impressive degree of information to ponder on if one is intrigued by the story.
Personally, this science-fiction outline was not overwhelming in its technical jargon, leading to personable characterization moments that drove home the untimely terror of the Voidrunners’ plight. Further, the voice acting is splendid with genuine emotionality from characters like Rei. Her innate inquisitiveness morphs well with her desperation to solve this dilemma. However, I sometimes found some plot elements to be too densely given at points. For instance, one of the more reliable NPCs, Cyd, is a well of knowledge but is essentially an information depository that can grow monotonous to listen to for extended periods of time. I would have preferred the story to be better distributed especially given the world’s alarming context, yet that’s merely a minor critique in an otherwise enthralling narrative bursting with intriguing charm.
Speaking of the world, it’s immediately apparent that Solar Ash’s stylized art style is magnificent and wondrous, emitting genuinely otherworldly tones that made me feel like a visitor from a far-off, ignorant planet. The distinct and unconventional coloration alone is easily the most memorable part of the experience, and they make the gameplay feel like it has a life of its own. Of course, the highlight of the gameplay is the movement, which consists of skating across a myriad of surfaces with regional-specific actions like grinding or climbing. Still, every manner of movement is relatively swift in execution, making the journey engraved with a continuous sense of purposeful momentum. At times I found myself simply sliding around the world with no real objective in mind because the fluidity of the navigation was too delightful to relegate to the objectives solely.
Sound is as integral to the experience as the visuals, with it being constantly unnvering, putting the graveness of the mission at hand into a whole new, vaguely menacing perspective. The music comes off as droning and ominous, whereas the sound effects can come off as jarring to the surrounding quietude of the landscape. These factors serve to amplify the generally unsettling nature of the world.
A few collectibles like the aforementioned audio logs can be found to make exploration more meaningful alongside red orbs that act as a currency of sorts. When speaking to Cyd, players can strengthen Rei with more Shield Cells, essentially extra hits. Additionally, suits with altering benefits can be equipped. Combat in Solar Ash is simple, boringly so. There is a slash Rei can perform boasting considerable range, and utilizing that in tandem with avoidance of the enemy’s telegraphed attacks makes managing mob threats a cakewalk. Still, I was occasionally struck by enemies not in the camera’s field of view, leading to unnecessary damage. This wasn’t a common occurrence, only happening a few times, but it happened enough to frustrate me.
Thankfully, the boss battles are truly consistent spectacles. While they’re simple to achieve victory against, their gargantuan scale and scope make for memorable encounters. Failing an input does lead to retrying the entirety of the fight again, but the battles are not exactly challenging enough for that punishment to be chilling. Still, they manage to coalesce movement and scale in a way that’s breathtaking even with a slightly problematic camera.
Solar Ash is a delightful experience boasting a continually engaging gameplay loop coupled with enticing sound design and narrative beats. Even with its oddly paced story, problematic camera, and occasionally dull boss battle implementation, it’s a joyous, memorable game that any intrigued party should dive into. Moreover, its digestible gameplay length and ambitious voice quality go a long way into making this a standout title of the year.
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