Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
I want to eat the clouds in Solar Ash.
That’s not a metaphor, or some poetic license for sailing through the game’s gorgeous alien skies. (As enjoyable as that turns out to be.) I just love the look of those puffy little pillows, which your protagonist Rei skates through effortlessly as she makes her way through the beautiful trash of a broken world. They’re yummy looking clouds. I want ’em in my mouth.
That devotion to mouth-watering aesthetics is the biggest through line between Solar Ash and Hyper Light Drifter, the critically acclaimed previous title from studio Heart Machine. Both games revel in a high-res take on lo-fi aesthetics; Solar Ash might have swapped a 3D world in for HLD’s top-down retro backgrounds, but the pastel color palate and simplistic shapes ensure you can see the artistic connections clearly. (The return of soundtrack artist Disasterpeace doesn’t hurt.)
In terms of play, though, Solar Ash is a far more accessible beast—perhaps owing to the fact that publisher Annapurna Interactive is footing the bill this time, instead of the Kickstarting masses. Rather than tasking players with mastering a punishing, timing-heavy combat system, Solar Ash is all about the flow; you’ll be using Rei’s built-in skating powers far more often than you’ll ever make use of her sword.
The game’s play, then, switches with some frequency between two basic modes, as Rei first explores the ruined worlds trapped on the inside of a galaxy-devouring black hole, and then engages in high speed races to neutralize the anomalies blocking her species’ efforts to escape the event horizon. The former sections are all about observation, and vibe; the latter are where Solar Ash most perfectly demands the player’s attention, and where its celebration of flow grows quasi-religious. As you race across the molten bodies of giant beasts, desperately slashing and grappling your way from checkpoint to checkpoint in order to keep the monsters pacified, Solar Ash takes on the feel of a Shadow Of The Colossus—except with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, or maybe the roller-blading chaos of a Jet Set Radio, taking the place of desperately clinging to a patch of monstrous knee-fur.
These races/boss fights are also where Solar Ash offers its most friction—getting knocked off of an anomaly that you’re seconds from clearing because your jump got a little glitchy is a frustrating bummer. But that demand for perfection is in clear service to the feeling that sets in when you successfully execute one of these sequences in a single run: That combo-heavy thrill of letting the groove take you, the sort of play where jumps and strikes start to feel less like considered decisions, and more like the result of perfectly honed instincts.
That’s the other major element that Solar Ash shares with Hyper Light Drifter, which was also, at its best, perfectly designed to make you feel like the coolest fighter in the known universe. Weirdly—and despite its expansive visuals—Solar Ash feels smaller in some ways than that previous effort, especially since your abilities never really expand beyond the basic skate/slash/swing mechanics. (There’s an upgrade system, but it’s extremely minimal, focused only on giving you more chances to survive mistakes.) The game tries to fill in some of those gaps by being (relatively) chattier than the previous, wordless game; the story carries some nice elements of ambiguity and humor, but the feel of simplicity can often be a little disappointing.
That being said: If Solar Ash only does a handful of things, at least it does them exceptionally well. There aren’t so many “drop-dead gorgeous skating games about stabbing giant abstract monsters in the eye with an oversized needle while trying to murder a black hole” that I can afford to turn my nose up at this one, just because I wish there was even more to it than there already was.
Plus: I really want to nom those clouds.