Almost before it got going, I yanked the plug. I’m pleased I didn’t in the majority of cases.
Solar Ash, a game that is both fascinating and irritating, exciting and peaceful, simple and complicated, is released on PlayStation 4 and PC tomorrow and is a study in contrasts. In the blink of an eye, you’re flying through the sky above pastel-colored space clouds, mouth wide open, marveling at the sheer beauty of it all. The next thing you know, you’re wailing into a nearby desk.
Heart Machine, the independent group behind 2016’s pixel-art gauntlet of the year, has released a new game called Solar Ash. In the Annapurna Interactive catalog of quirky yet well-publicized games, you’ll find rhythm game Sayonara Wild Hearts, puzzle game Gorogoa and Maquette, open-world adventure The Pathless, and the upcoming cat-paw-calypso simulator Stray, all of which are released by the business. Solar Ash is a 3D platformer in the strictest sense, but it plays more like an action or puzzle game.
The world needs your help, and you’ve been cast as Rei, a Voidrunner (essentially, an astronaut who’s incredibly good at ice skating). In a vortex known as the Ultravoid, Rei’s home planet is on the verge of being torn to shreds. Rei must activate a mysterious monolith known as the Starseed to prevent this from happening because it does not sound ideal.
Before The Incident, the game had been completed 77% of the way.
I came to a halt within the first few minutes of the expository crawl. If you’re having trouble with a game and have exhausted all of your possible options, you may choose to consult one of the many walkthroughs that can be found on Google’s main page. You have no shame! Everybody has been there. However, these components haven’t been published yet, therefore you have no recourse to find an accurate solution when playing a game in the pre-release time.
That hour or two of frustration, however, was essentially emblematic of my experience working with Solar Ash.
What occurred after that? There are three ‘black ooze challenges,’ or puddles of simmering jet-black goo, in the game’s first sector. Using the R1 (on PlayStation) grapple key and the circle (still on PlayStation) time slip key activates a sort of Matrix-style bullet time that extends the range of your grappling hook and gives you an extra second to precisely line it up with your target. This is how you learn to use the time slip key.
The second and third problems are more obscure. Climbable surfaces are indicated by black ooze in Solar Ash, and you are free to linger on them for as long as you choose. It is possible to die if you stay on the hot goo of the black ooze challenge for too long, but you will be sent back to your previous checkpoint.
I climbed and died and climbed and died and died. I’d die a million times, get frustrated, throw in the towel, and then race to the next task, just to do the same thing all over again. Because of my preconceived notion that the first puzzle in the starter area was a tutorial, I assumed that the rest of the starter area’s puzzles would follow suit, but the other two puzzles in the starter area didn’t have prompts similar to the one I saw earlier.
With the use of my sword, I discovered that all I had to do was strike this (incandescent) marker:
It wasn’t through trial and error that I came up with the solution, but rather by watching some of the game’s pre-release trailers. One of them had a marker that resembled the other. The mystery has been solved. …kind of.
The majority of your time in Solar Ash will be spent taking on black ooze challenges. Each region adheres to the same set of guidelines. All of the surrounding riddles can be found either by exploration or by using a scanner. One or two dozen is the maximum number found in any one region.) As soon as you begin one, you have a limited amount of time to climb, run, and grapple your way to the finish line, cutting a sequence of those perplexing yet glowing marks along the way. This timer is displayed on the screen. Some difficulties require you to grind rails, while others require you to jump across platforms that seem like solitary islands of bone. Because of this, I set the difficulty down to aid with one especially unpleasant puzzle and left it that way for the rest of the game. (Decreasing the difficulty has little effect on platforming, although it does raise the time limit slightly.)
Challenges in an area unleash the “huge anomaly,” an enormous beast that wanders throughout the territory after being dormant for millennia. There are three separate black ooze challenges, except you’re on a moving creature instead of on the ground (or, uh, cloud). In the third round of play, if you touch the black ooze it returns you back to the beginning of the round.
This game, at least on PS5, suffers from sluggish controls that are unsuitable for a game with such demanding platforming mechanics as Solar Ash. A little too far, Rei would dash into a double-jump when I told her to. A passing marker would often be slashed by Rei, yet she’d slip right by it. I’d scream, “Stop!” She’d never take my advice. No points for being consistent? Even with the difficulty set as low as possible, I found myself again attempting the last phases of every boss fight.
Not that games should never be challenging or that they should always put the player’s needs first—or even that I don’t appreciate being put through the wringer. My go-to comfort food is roguelikes like and. Just because a game is going to hurt your feelings doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t also make you feel like you’re on the verge of success and that any failures should fall completely on your shoulders. In Solar Ash, I often felt that I wasn’t to blame for my failures.
As a whole, Solar Ash does an excellent job capturing the enormity of these abnormalities. Everything assumes the form of an ancient beast. I was always looking forward to the next bout because I was so excited to see what would happen. Is one of them a flying snake? Definitely! What will be the next step? Is that a sword-wielding giant I see before me? Sick! This one is a dragon, as is the previous one. What a wonderful concept! The fact that you’re hundreds of feet in the air simply enhances the beauty of each vista.
Despite this, Solar Ash’s boss battles fail to convey anything more than ‘kill big thing’ as a goal. Solar Ash seldom devotes more than a few seconds to each character’s melancholy. Rei will often remark that these creatures appear to be experiencing human emotions, such as sadness, fear, and anguish at the prospect of inevitable death, yet he will do nothing with that knowledge. She doesn’t waver in her determination to finish them off. The entire time, Solar Ash is so close to making a statement about the nature of death before he pulls back and sticks with the mantra of “kill the huge thing.”
The rest of Solar Ash’s story, on the other hand, runs from the purposefully expository (do you think I’m stupid? “…OK, turns out I’m being a little too ambiguous, please tell me what’s happening.” To put it another way, after each battle with a boss, you’re taken to a realm that’s neither here nor there. A spear protrudes from the heart of a lady named Echo, who is the size of a huge anomaly. Using emo lyrics from the midwest, she hints at a greater force at work but never explains what she’s saying.
It’s common knowledge that beating a boss in an adventure game nets you a reward. Solar Ash is different. A heart will be taken from you every time you see Echo. In the same way that Zelda bosses give you an extra heart after every battle, so too does this system work. There are hub terminals in each location where you can buy health back using the in-game currency, small globules of blood. This may sound like a nuisance, and it is, but a part of me actually found it enjoyable. If nothing else, this means that the plot has a profound effect on how you play the game. You may not comprehend why this is happening. At the very least, they are linked.
Solar Ash’s story can be fleshed out in a variety of ways, none of which are necessary to complete the game but each of which has a distinct plot of its own. You’ll play a military commander who wants your aid tracking down a group of missing away teams, and you’ll play a demigod hunter trying to locate the last members of a long-forgotten species. In addition, each zone offers a variety of collectibles, including bits of the stat-boosting suits worn by Rei’s companions on their journey to the Ultravoid, which have audio logs that serve as narrative padding. Solar Ash’s side stories, on the other hand, I only finished one of because…
OK. Look. You should back up your save files if you plan on playing the game.
During the closing cutscene, my game froze, the music stopped, the screen flashed white, I couldn’t open the in-game menu, and none of the buttons on my DualSense recognized any input. Without fully blowing the lid on the preceding events, my game froze. My save file was gone when I restarted the game from the PS5’s home screen!
Poof! The Ultravoid has devoured me!
It’s the consequence of a rare glitch that affects some PS5 gamers in North America, according to a Heart Machine official, who also assured me that the bug would be rectified in time for the launch. It will be patched on the first day.) As a result of my initial doubts, I spent a lot of time pondering whether or if this was an intentional design decision in the style of, for instance, the ‘E’ ending in Nier: Automata.
Due to the game’s unapologetic oddness and thematically appropriate creative swerves such as these, this is a no-brainer. After defeating the final boss in Solar Ash, you are presented with a simple binary choice: good or bad. I appear to have taken the “good” path. In the end, converting the I save file into digital ash would’ve been a great way to wrap things up.
This is what the closing moments would have looked like if they had been filmed by Heart Machine. Finally, I was able to get the game to shut down exactly one minute and 49 seconds before the credits. Aside from some B-roll footage of the supporting cast, some major-key synth music, and a monologue that wraps off the game nicely, I wouldn’t have missed anything.
While it’s possible that my experience with this bug is unique, I can’t pretend that it was not a part of my experience with Solar Ash and that the ambiguity around whether or not it was intentional-which I lived with for many hours after completing the game-didn’t impact how I thought and felt about it. Now that I know for sure that I encountered a rare problem, I wish my save file had been intentionally wiped. That’d have been a real shame, yes. What am I doing here? As a result of this, I’d have to commend Heart Machine for making such an audacious artistic choice. Instead, I encountered a conclusion that, while charming, follows a well-worn path. The finale would have stayed with me for a long time if Solar Ash had actually deleted my save data. My new one? Well…
Awestruck, bewildered, satisfied, frustrated, and wanting to know more about this creature that doesn’t want to be fully comprehended, Solar Ash left me feeling like the protagonist.