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 hall of fame. That’s made the wait for developer Heart Machine’s follow-up feel especially long, as if we’ve been waiting over a decade for it to deliver another instant classic.
Heart Machine isn’t looking to do the same trick twice, and that became clear when I attended a demo event for its long-anticipated follow-up, Solar Ash. While its colors and atmosphere are familiar, the developer has made some fundamental shifts to its style. Solar Ash doesn’t dial in on hack-and-slash action like its predecessor. Instead, it’s entirely about movement — even during its most action-packed moments.
Solar Ash is a 3D action-adventure game where players explore gorgeous, surreal spaces. Despite ditching Hyper Light Drifter’s signature pixel style for smooth 3D textures, it’s still instantly recognizable as a Heart Machine game with its deep purples. Even its main character feels cut from the same cloth as the drifter.
The two games really start to separate as soon as the main character, Rei, starts moving. She essentially skates around the world, as if traveling on rollerblades. In the first moments of the demo, I saw her barreling down a cloudy slope. She quickly hops up an incline, breaks a rock to get some resources, and starts platforming on top of a massive alien rib cage poking out of the clouds.
Movement only got faster as the demo progressed, with Rei seamlessly stringing several actions together. In one room, she dashes up a staircase, slashes a switch, tethers across a gap to slash another, and twists around in the air to stab an eye-like door. It all plays out like a cosmic figure-skating routine.
While Solar Ash largely prioritizes fluid platforming over combat, players do still have enemies to slash. However, even battles are more about movement than racking up hits (there’s no combo meter or score system in the game). The demoist doesn’t stop to fight an enemy but rather launches Rei at them mid-skate, using her momentum to carry forward into a series of slashes. The developers note that enemies play an important role in traversal puzzles, whether as obstacles or as signals for where players need to move next.
The most exciting moment of the demo comes at the very end when Rei stumbles on a boss. In a tribute to Super Mario Galaxy, Rei lands on a small planet that she can fully run around. A giant monster lands on the planet — and we’re talking really big. It’s a black, centipede-like beast with a big, bony spine covering it. In order to do damage to it, Rei jumps up on its back and starts dashing from vertebrae to vertebrae. As she moves, she slashes beacons, which keep the monster from knocking her off. After successfully snaking around its body, she finds a weak point and plunges a staff down into it.
The sequence is reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus, where Rei needs to navigate a large-scale combat puzzle to win. Just replace the slow, careful climbing with fast-paced skating. Heart Machine notes that the monster I saw is actually the smallest in the game by a long shot, so Rei will skate across some pretty gargantuan creatures during her journey.
Heart Machine mentioned speedrunning at various points during the demo, and that inspiration really shows. The bits 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 features timed challenges, too, forcing players to master its movement to proceed. There’s one moment during the demo session that best encapsulates what players can expect from Solar Ash. At one point, a developer invokes the master of speed himself, Sonic, joking that she’s “gotta go fast.”
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