Solar Ash might be the best indie game of the year. If not the best, it is easily in the top five. Developed by Heart Machine, who previously made the critically acclaimed Hyper Light Drifter, and published by the wonderful Annapurna Interactive, Solar Ash is a 3D action-adventure platformer that offers a hard to put down breath of fresh air from start to finish.
Although it borrows ideas from The Pathless, Shadow of the Colossus, Ratchet and Clank, and Grow Home, Solar Ash is uniquely its own extraordinary experience. With dynamic worlds, rewarded curiosity, fluid combat, and a meaningful message, Solar Ash delivers a tight, nonstop joyride of fun.
The Worlds: Diversity & Immersion
Solar Ash starts with the game’s protagonist, Rei, leaping into a black hole to save her planet. Here, she encounters the broken remains of devoured cultures that once were, each offering different architecture, moods, and mechanics. Instead of being one massive open world, Solar Ash splits its stages up into bite-sized levels, which works perfectly. And though the levels are separate, the lack of loading screens mixed with the memorable silhouettes of each stage filling the horizon makes the entirety of the Ultravoid feel seamlessly connected.
There are six worlds in total with each one being more eccentric than the last. In one word you’ll be grappling from skyscraper to skyscraper, and in another, you’ll be grinding on a mushroom rail upside-down on a lava globe. Without fail, my favorite level would always change to the newest world I’d encountered, which speaks to each world’s individuality and fun factor.
The sky color of each stage shifts from light purple, vivid green, and burnt orange while your home planet grows bigger in the sky, drawing nearer to the Ultravoid. Every detail within these worlds works to further immerse you into Solar Ash.
The Worlds: Mechanics & Performance
Not only are these worlds beautiful, they are also well constructed. It being a platformer, the levels need to be fun to navigate, and they are. Each world presents a new mechanic to keep things fresh, but familiar. For instance, upon entering Eternal Gardens, you’ll need to learn and master the colored mushroom mechanic, or on Mirrorsea, you’ll need to find the perfect timing for skating on the toxic green lakes. Every beautiful world has something new to showcase.
It is also important to note, the nearly two-month delay Solar Ash had was worth it. There are practically no bugs and everything within the game ran smooth as silk. (Here’s to wishing more developers take more time with their games). The polish, level of detail, and overall cohesiveness within each world work together to truly make Solar Ash an ocular delight.
The Flow: General & Abilities
Enough about what makes Solar Ash fun to look at and be in, let’s get to what makes Solar Ash fun to play. Moving around the Ultravoid is a joy because of Rei’s general flow. You can simply hold down a button and skate on every surface including blue, pillow-like clouds. Black ooze replaces a climb-anything stamina meter, keeping players always headed in the right direction. Heart Machine nailed the feeling of gliding through the worlds, allowing players to feel like a true Voidrunner.
One of the cons of Solar Ash is the lack of abilities. From the start of the game, you have access to every ability Rei will ever get. On one hand, it is impressive that, although it is a relatively short game taking about eight hours to complete, Solar Ash remains fun and non-repetitive without presenting new abilities throughout it. On the other, an air dash or glide ability would be a well-earned unlockable for beating a boss, collecting all of the journals, or completing a side quest that would make playing Rei that much more fun.
The Flow: Side Quests & Curiosity
And on the subject of side quests, the side quests in Solar Ash fall flat. Each one inevitably boils down to a wild goose chase and concludes without a reward. And while a side quest that only offers an additional story to the world is an exciting idea, the stories told were difficult to follow and weren’t too impactful. Thankfully, the side quests are inconsequential and can be completely sidestepped.
One of the joys of Solar Ash is the constant encouragement you get while exploring the worlds. Besides collecting all of the caches in the worlds that unlock various suits, curiously rounding a cliff ledge to find a plasma deposit is a reward in and of itself. With each world being so concise, navigating and discovering everything is a blast.
The Flow: Boss Battles & Health
A highlight of Solar Ash is the boss battles. For starters, they usually occupy the stage in some way before the battle, further making the worlds feel alive. As the battles begin, the stage that you’ve been traversing to cleanse the land and awaken the boss turns into the boss arena. Each boss battle does many things right: there are no tedious moments, they are pretty short, they offer just enough diversity to feel new, and they test your mettle, making you feel powerful and hungry for the next one.
Another reason why Solar Ash is fun to play is how it handles health. It works as shields that constantly need to be repaired because, after a boss battle, Echo will destroy one of your shields. Getting hit by enemies will break your shields, but they can be repaired through the blue boxes throughout the map.
There are up to five health slots, so collecting plasma throughout your adventure to purchase more shield slots will benefit you. This shield system works to remind players how fragile Rei is while incentivizing plasma collection and curiosity.
As mentioned before, Solar Ash is a relatively short game, it taking about eight hours to finish everything. Short games don’t automatically mean bad games, it’s just something to consider when looking to purchase it. Plus, there is little to no end game content.
A common issue with collectibles in video games is by the time you’ve collected everything to unlock the ultimate upgrade, you’ve completed the game and have no use for it. While falling prey to this very problem, Solar Ash could benefit greatly by having time trials throughout the worlds, a secret bonus stage for collecting everything, or some other type of end game content.
Aside from that, the conclusion of Solar Ash is impressive, if a tad predictable. There are two choices to make at the end. Each is satisfying in its own right and says something meaningful. Without spoiling too much, themes of acceptance, ignorance, and rebuilding are used successfully.
Solar Ash is a contemplative experience, visual feast, and faced-paced thrill ride expertly wrapped up into one exhilarating adventure. Without a doubt, this game is one of the best indie games of 2021, if not the best. Though it has a few nit-picky misses in the side quests, the end-game content, and the lack of abilities, Solar Ash cosmically shines in every other category making it the new gold standard for 3D indie games.
This game was reviewed using a copy of the game provided by the game's publisher,public relations company, developer or other for the express purpose of a review.