When developer Heart Machine decided to venture into 3D for its follow-up to Hyper Light Drifter, it didn't just change the perspective. While the two titles share the same universe, Solar Ash is a very different game in many ways. Essentially, this is a fast-paced platformer that puts the emphasis on movement rather than combat. The end result is a fresh, fluid experience, albeit one that can occasionally ring a little hollow.
You play as Rei, one of several Voidrunners who dive into a black hole known as the Ultravoid in order to save their home planet from oblivion. With the population of an entire world hanging in the balance, it's your job to activate the Starseed, an enormous and powerful device that's capable of averting the disaster. Of course, it's not a straightforward task. You'll need to visit various districts and take down gigantic creatures called Remnants.
What does all that really mean? Well, at its core, this is a 3D platformer that wants to keep you in a flow state. Rei is a swift and agile character who can glide across most surfaces, and there's an undeniable joy to be found in simply moving through each environment. Even just skating over the expanses of blue clouds is enjoyable — there's a wonderful balance between Rei's momentum and the amount of control you're afforded as a player. Getting around nimbly and quickly feels fantastic, especially when you nail a tricky platforming sequence without stopping. There are occasions where the camera can trip up; changes in gravity especially can cause issues. In general, though, there's a great sense of fluidity to the gameplay.
To get those Remnants to come out and play, you'll first need to run, jump, and grapple your way all across each level, finding and hitting specific spots. Found in piles of black ooze, you need to strike certain points in quick succession to partially awaken one of the massive monsters. As mentioned, getting around each level is fun thanks to the slick traversal, and these small timed challenges test your ability to move precisely and efficiently. The trouble is that the game does very little to add variety to these challenges, which act as your primary objective; awakening the final Remnant is essentially the same as the first. The gameplay doesn't really evolve, and it can feel repetitive.
Once one of the boss beasties is up and about, though, engaging them is a highlight. Getting onto a huge creature and taking it down might sound familiar, but Shadow of the Colossus this isn't. There's no puzzle to be solved — you simply grapple on at a designated point, and must speed across the Remnant's body, hitting certain spots within a short time window before delivering a blow to its weak spot. Do this three times and the creature will fall. While you could argue that this routine is as repetitive as the process of summoning the beasts, the feeling of smoothly zipping across a Remnant and striking each point in one unbroken manoeuvre is very satisfying. The scale of the bosses and the speed with which you deal with them makes you feel suitably powerful.
The bosses aren't the only enemies you'll face in your travels, however. Much smaller baddies populate certain areas, interrupting you while exploring each area. In keeping with the theme of flow, dispatching the various critters is quick and easy; most will go down in just a couple of strikes as you zoom past. Combat is clearly not a core pillar of the experience, but it does feel almost pointless spending time killing these things. There's no reward for doing so, and most of their attacks are easily avoided. You only need to kill them when they're in your way — there's no incentive to go on the offence. Even the Remnants themselves pose almost no meaningful threat; if you fail the timed sequence you're thrown off, and you almost won't notice their attempts to hit you on the ground.
Because enemies are a nuisance rather than a true obstacle, it can make each level feel noticeably empty. Each environment is massive, and thanks to cohesive presentation, they're gorgeous too. The music and visual design conjure a real mood, asking that you occasionally slow down and soak in the liminal, otherworldly atmosphere. However, there are large expanses with almost nothing going on. The levels need to be big to accommodate the Remnants, but there's a lot of unused space as a result.
It's a shame, as there are rewards to be found for exploring each area fully. A few simple side stories give you some rare friendly faces to interact with. Audio logs from your fellow Voidrunners tell you where they are and what happened to them while also providing you with suit pieces. Find all the logs and you unlock new outfits, each benefiting you in one way or another. Collecting Plasma, which is basically everywhere, is worth it for the occasions in which you need to repair a portion of your health meter.
When everything is flowing as intended, and you're chaining together boosts, jumps, grappling points, and rail grinds like it's nothing, the game does a wonderful job. Breezing through a level and destroying a Remnant in a flash is fun and empowering. Without spoiling anything, the ending delivers, too, with a big revelation that explains much of the story's mystery. At around seven to 10 hours, depending on your appetite for collectibles, it doesn't outstay its welcome either, despite the few ways we feel it falls a little short.
Solar Ash pushes for a sense of momentum and fluidity with its take on 3D platforming, and it does work very well indeed. Rei's controls and abilities give the game a sense of ease, making it feel very gratifying simply moving through the game's world. While the main quest doesn't really evolve the challenge, and the picturesque environments can feel somewhat empty, the traversal at the heart of everything does about enough to carry you through to a satisfying conclusion. It's an ambitious second effort from Heart Machine that mostly sticks the landing.