Solar Ash Review - Ash Wins-day

Solar Ash is built like a skatepark in a lucid dream. The ground you skate across looks and acts like an ocean-sized mattress pad--blue and bumpy and bouncing as you pass. Floating islands are connected by grind pipes, which only emerge after you transport glowing spores from one mushroom to another. Red, bulging eyeballs act as the locks on gates made of black ooze, which you slash to gain passage. Much of what you see in Solar Ash makes little sense, but you move through it so quickly, the boss battles you fight are so exhilarating, and the puzzles you solve to reach them are so satisfying, that the dream logic of this world's construction feels like the necessarily slight distance to keep the good times rolling as you move from Point A to Point B.

The second game from Heart Machine, the developer of 2016 indie gem Hyper Light Drifter, retains that game’s color palette--expect plenty of pastel blues, pinks, and purples, with the occasional threatening red--but changes just about everything else. Hyper Light Drifter was a blisteringly difficult Zelda-like which presented its glitching neon overworld from a top-down 2D perspective. Solar Ash, meanwhile, is a 3D action-platformer in which you traverse its world on some futuristic version of inline skates, cutting up enemies with ease. Solar Ash presents its dreamlike world and asks you to explore it by jumping, skating, and grinding along pipes. What the two games share is a structure that, while fairly open, is constantly funneling you toward show-stopping boss battles. In Hyper Light Drifter, that open-ended structure applied to the entire map, with four sections that could be tackled in any order. Solar Ash adopts a more traditional linear structure, unveiling six increasingly wide levels one at a time. In each, you must hunt down multiple puzzles that, upon completion, let loose a massive boss. In each, there are plenty of audio logs and armor pieces waiting to be found if you take some time to explore.

As you set out on this quest, you take control of Rei, a "Voidrunner" who has traveled into the "Ultravoid"--a massive, world-destroying black hole--in an attempt to activate the "Starseed," a device the Voidrunners have created in an attempt to destroy the Ultravoid. When she arrives, her home planet is in the Ultravoid's grasp, but Rei hopes that if she can restore power to the Starseed, she can save her home planet. The game sets up too many Proper Nouns early on--all those terms are hurled at you by way of an introductory slide--and it struggles to communicate what exactly the stakes are and why we should care. But the basics are simple enough and will be familiar to the denizens of an Earth currently staring down the barrel of climate emergency: The planet is in imminent danger, the people in charge have squandered every opportunity to fix the problem, and, though it may be futile, our hopeful character is trying to do what she can to undo the damage the ruling classes have done. Where Rei's path diverges from climate change efforts in our world is that her quest involves fighting screen-filling boss monsters called "Anomalies."

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