Solar Ash is Optimistic in the Face of Futility

A rare game that carves through apathy with a serrated dagger of hope

Our world is dying. Sometimes, we try to forget that to soothe the pain of an almost inevitable loss, but we know it’s happening. It’s frustrating how hopeless living with that knowledge feels — like all we can do is buy metal straws and wait. Heart Machine’s Solar Ash taps into those collective feelings of guilt and despair, and welds them into a serrated dagger of hope. Through thoughtful characterization, ethereal backdrops, and flowy fights against gargantuan opponents, it carves through the allure of apathy and reasserts the importance of treasuring what we still have — and can still preserve.

You play as Rei, a voidrunner trying to prevent a black hole from swallowing her planet. Her only means of accomplishing this is by activating connections to the Starseed, a giant sword-like machine that has her roam through the treacherous terrain of the Ultravoid, a scrambled dreamworld of random planets hazardously stitched together by clouds. Rei is stubborn and likeable, powered by an admirable passion in the face of defeat. It’s a fool’s mission in a lonely world — she even acknowledges she’ll probably fail. But she does it anyway because it’s all she can do. 

Some of Solar Ash’s best moments come from aimlessly skating on the clouds. The ways in which the terrain coalesces and flows make you feel like you’re moving through an early Mac screensaver. Every area has breathtaking views, with the same awe-inspiring neon blue and pink aesthetics as the studio’s previous hit, Hyper Light Drifter. Whether it’s lush forests, magma caverns, or coliseums with pools of poison, it’s all gorgeous. At times, it loses its precision amidst the visual flourish; for example, trying to latch onto a platform or rail can prove finicky. Even so, I’m a fan of how ridiculously flowy the movement is. I’ve had dreams where I’ve walked on clouds, and Solar Ash does an amazing job at translating those subconscious thoughts into fun, playable mechanics.

solar ash review

As you skate across the Ultravoid purgatory, you’re greeted by colorful fallen civilizations that have been viscously torn apart by reality, yet are still home to a few lonely souls. Similar to Rei, they have heartwarmingly optimistic stories even though things feel futile. Contrasting from Hyper Light Drifter, which told a subtle narrative without using text or voice, Solar Ash is full of dialogue and voice acting. While I was initially skeptical of its effectiveness, these intimate conversations with strangers help fill the world out and pull you away from its dwarfing isolation — even if only for a few moments. 

A couple of hours in, I walked into a broken home piled with corpses. A confused woman silently sat in the center. As I continued the main quest, I learned more about her. I found out she was repeating the same routine every day: reading a note about snacks from her partner, preparing defenses against a threat that had already struck, and waiting for her perished beloved to return home. Even though she may be too far gone, Rei does everything possible to comfort her. Solar Ash is full of gut-wrenching moments like this — ones that also build up to a larger, deeply moving conversation about newfound communities and rebuilding after destruction. It wants you to know that, even at the darkest hour, things can get to a better place with enough hard work and empathy. It’s advice we should all heed, especially with the overwhelming reminders of our slowly passing planet.

Solar Ash melds combat and puzzles seamlessly during its boss battles. The Starseed access points are covered in black, living goo and enemies called “anomalies” — the largest being the hibernating Remnants, colossal creatures that guard each area. They’re peculiar and unsettling, possessing protruding bone armor and prompting the same cosmic unease as the angels from Neon Genesis Evangelion. When they emerge from hibernation, their bodies turn into massive skating rinks, each limb serving as a different section for you to glide on. To reach the Starseed access points, you have to wake them up through combat puzzles, skate up their body, and slay them. These awakening sequences are neat; you platform around piles of goop and enemies, poking out a Remnant’s eyes until it finally stands up. 

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solar ash review

Each instance is an amazing underdog battle. As you hit a Remnant’s weak points, this slow, unbelievable musical crescendo comes in, building the tension and raising the stakes as you do the seemingly impossible to save your people. Some of this puzzle-solving becomes challenging in the late-game, but when the sequence finally clicks, you truly feel like a galaxy-brained voidrunner.

In the six hours it took me to finish Solar Ash, my only issue is that it’s sometimes vague to a fault, particularly close to the end. The last boss felt impossible to grapple onto, and the only hint on what to do was one line Rei said in passing. I spent way longer than I’d like to admit being stuck in one of Solar Ash‘s final moments, and this roadblock took away from the potent moment-to-moment gameplay. It would benefit from having less ambiguous objectives and clearer pointers for players in the menu. 

All in all, Solar Ash is an amazing meditation on isolation and the fear of losing your planet along with everyone on it. It has some of the best, most buoyant movement I’ve felt this year in games, making me want to go buy some rollerblades and start a new life. Solar Ash sits at a comfortable length of time to beat while containing myriad strengths. From its larger-than-life score to its medley of planets and explorable biomes, it takes large leaps to tell a story of destruction and coping. After completing it, I felt a deep loss — one that sticks with me and makes me want to push hard toward a brighter future with a newfound urgency.

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