Solar Ash is a visually stunning though mechanically uninteresting game that I tried and failed to fall in love with. I thought it’d be easy to love or at least somewhat like a game made by the same folks who developed Hyper Light Drifter and published by the company that underwrote indie darlings Kentucky Route Zero and What Remains of Edith Finch. But after a couple hours of grav-boosting my way through colorful but sterile environments and beating on the same handful of enemies, Solar Ash just couldn’t hold me — and that’s a shame since most things with Ash in its name are pretty neat.
In Solar Ash, you play a voidrunner tasked with saving your planet from the black hole that’s slowly sucking in your homeworld like my dog thinks will happen to him whenever I fire up the Hoover. The big MacGuffin that will save your planet, however, is broken, requiring you to defeat several kaiju-like monsters called remnants in order to get the machine back online. Through void-powered grav boots, you can skate, boost, and rail grind your way through riotously colorful environments, collecting drops of blood that splatter the landscape, which you can spend to upgrade your shields.
The skating feels really good. I got the most enjoyment out of Solar Ash when I was boosting off natural ramps and grinding on rails to see how high or far I could get without hitting a wall or falling cliff. But the game’s environment isn’t really set up for you to fully take advantage of how good that movement feels. There are lots of vertical platforming sections in which you slowly climb up cliffs and buildings that interrupt your ability to freely skate about. It reminds me of the worst parts of the later Sonic games. Whenever Sonic’s speed was broken up by a slow “climb up these arbitrary steps now” platforming section, the game’s momentum, and thereby my enjoyment, would crash. It’s the same with Solar Ash. I wish it had been constructed in a way that let me Jet Set Radio across the landscape to my heart’s content.
I think Solar Ash failed me from the beginning. While I really enjoyed its pastel-but-make-it-dirty colorfulness, Solar Ash dumped me into its world with too little explanation and expected me to care enough to keep going. Almost immediately after pressing start, I’m thrown at an extremely frustrating boss fight while having only a handful of button tutorials and on-screen prompts as my guide. A lot of games do that cold open when you’re dropped into a manic combat situation, and only after you triumph are you allowed a moment to learn a little story and finally take in your surroundings. That didn’t work for Solar Ash. The first boss was just so aggravating, given I hadn’t had the time to really gel with the controls, that I contemplated putting down the game for good. Eventually, I triumphed and got the story info dump I desired, but overall, I spent about three hours with the game before calling it quits.
The world doesn’t just impede your movement — it also feels so empty. Enemies are sparse, and despite their morphological differences, you don’t have to change up your combat to defeat them (or at least you didn’t in the part that I experienced). It’d be neat if flying enemies required you to use your grapple to bring them down before you could wail on them, anything to break up the button mashing. There are suits to collect and bits of story to uncover, some of which hit the exact kind of tragic pathos I enjoy, but the rest of the game beyond that first rough boss fight didn’t do enough to keep me around.
I don’t think Solar Ash is a bad game, and if you can overcome the tough initial minutes, you’ll probably have a decent time. But there are a lot of games competing for attention right now, and Solar Ash’s splashy colors and slick skating just don’t go far enough to make it stand out.