It’s only been five years since Hyper Light Drifter released, but it feels like much longer. Fans immediately fell in love with the pixel-art action game, instantly elevating it to the indie game’s hall of fame. That makes the wait for the Heart Machine developer’s sequel feel particularly long, as if we’ve waited more than a decade for it to deliver another instant classic.
Heart Machine doesn’t want to do the same trick twice, and it became clear when I attended a demo event to follow it’s long-awaited, Solar ash. Despite the familiar colors and atmosphere, the developer has made some fundamental changes to its style. Solar ash doesn’t engage in hack-and-slash action like its predecessor. Instead, it’s all about movement – even in the most action-packed moments.
Solar ash is a 3D action-adventure game where players explore stunning, surreal spaces. Although omitted Hyper Light DrifterIts signature pixel style lends itself to smooth 3D textures, it is still instantly recognizable as a Heart Machine game with its deep purple hues. Even its protagonist feels cut out of the same fabric as the drifter.
The two games really start to separate as soon as the main character, Rei, starts moving. Basically, she’s skating around the world, as if she’s on a roller coaster. During the first moments of the demo, I saw her plunge down a cloudy slope. She quickly jumped onto an incline, broke a rock for some resources, and began climbing to the top of a giant alien rib jutting out of the clouds.
Motion just got faster as the demo played out, with Rei chaining some of the action together seamlessly. In one room, she dashed up the stairs, slashed a switch, slipped through an opening to slash another, and spun through the air to crash into an eye-like door. It all plays out like a cosmic figure skating routine.
When Solar ash mostly prioritize flexible platforming over combat, players still have enemies to slash. However, even battles are more about movement than damage (there is no combo meter or score system in the game). Demiist doesn’t stop to fight enemies, but also throws Rei at them while skating, using her momentum to perform a series of slashes. The developers note that enemies play an important role in sideways puzzles, whether as an obstacle or as a signal for where the player needs to move next.
The demo’s most exciting moment comes at the end when Rei stumbles across a boss. To be grateful Super Mario GalaxyRei lands on a small planet that she can completely run around. A giant monster landed on the planet – and we’re talking really loud. It was a black, centipede-like monster with a large spine covering its outside. To deal damage to it, Rei jumped on its back and began dashing from vertebra to vertebra. As she moves, she slashes the beacons, making it impossible for the monster to knock her down. After successfully encircling its body, she found its weak point and plunged a staff down there.
Sequence reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus, where Rei needs to navigate a large-scale battle puzzle to win. Just replace the slow, careful climbing with fast speed skating. Heart Machine notes that the monster I see is actually the smallest in the game by a long shot, so Rei will be skating past some giant creatures on her journey.
Heart Machine mentioned running speed at various points in the demo, and that inspiration really shows. The passages I saw were fast and fluid, with Rei rarely stopping to move unless it was to talk to an NPC or upgrade her gear. The game also features timed challenges, forcing the player to master its movements in order to continue. There’s a moment in the demo session that most encapsulates what players can expect Solar ash. At one point, a developer who called herself a master of speed, Sonic, joked that she “had to go fast.”
Solar ash Releases October 26th for PlayStation 4, PS5 and PC through the Epic Games Store.