Solar Ash on the surface feels ethereal yet familiar. The premise of trying to stop a world ending event has never looked so beautiful, and in conjunction with smooth controls and a haunting soundtrack, Solar Ash solidifies itself as a serviceable gaming experience on a console that has been in desperate need of unique games since its launch.
An experience that many people, including you, the reader, would take at face value after playing it without thinking much of it later on, like I thought I would. However, the game’s quiet and empty levels haven’t left my brain since I finished it. Its honest portrayal of an apocalypse of not only a cosmic level, but also a personal one, reverberates through my own life and that element is what has elevated it to one of the best games I’ve played.
Developed by Heart Machine, Solar Ash is a science fiction platform that takes interesting game designs from games like Mario Galaxy, Shadow of Colossus, and Jet Set Radio and alchemizes them into an introspective experience on trauma and how to pick up the pieces from a world shattering event. You play as Rei, a voidrunner within a black hole known as the Ultravoid as she tries to save her world before utter destruction. She is left alone when she is unable to contact the other voidrunners in her team and the Starseed, a machine that would save her world by folding spacetime to collapse black holes, is damaged and nonfunctional. This begins the main premise of the game of traversing different sections of the planet in search of the others and finding the energy needed to bring the Starseed back online. Rei is helped in traversing the worlds by an AI named CYD that allows her to scan the map for void tech, suits and damaged connections. Rei then must navigate the level by destroying the negative energy points that will bring the Starseed back online and awakens the beast that roams there.
Solar Ash’s is less focused on traditional hack and slash combat to take down these enemies and instead leans in on player movement. Rei slides, jumps, and glides in a groove against each of these bosses that requires a level of precision that can often feel frustrating when you do an untimely jump when you should have dashed, but feels like fluid in motion once you recognize the pattern of the monster. The game is also very forgiving when learning the path of each creature that allows you to pick up where you left off against the enemy when you die with health stations near. Each of the bosses also look unique and alien in presentation that reflect a feeling of the world they are chained too. They simply exist as they walk through the world when you wake them with no animosity towards the player. Much like the black hole, they are terrifying, beautiful and uncaring.
That word, uncaring, is what never left my mind as I played through each level. Throughout the story, Rei’s journey takes her to different worlds that have also been devoured by void, each suspended in time with their past, present and future interchanging. She interacts with different characters who have inhabited in those worlds who lead you to optional quests to help them find peace or understanding with something they too have been trying to save. Whether its, Lyris who longing for her lover Morys, after a tragic bombing, or Ames looking for his military regiment and what happened to his emperor, each character you meet are all struggling to deal with the trauma of past events that they are unable to move past. Each stuck inside an uncaring disaster that they feel they are to be succumbed by and their worlds reflect this. It is only when Rei helps them through their quest are they able to finally question if they want to stay in this broken place. Something Rei herself wrestles within the game.
So when the credits finally began and left me sitting in front of my TV reflecting on my own traumas that loop me in and questioning if I should stay reliving it or trying to move on the game clicked into place for me. COVID, global warming, and even personal experiences that cause trauma can often feel uncaring on how it hurts. Leaving you bonded in time with the past, as you try to live in the present to get better for your future and it’s a difficult journey to get through. Often, it feels world-shattering but the beautiful thing about it is that we are still here and we can choose how to live it.
Solar Ash chose to be a beautiful game about picking up the pieces after a tragedy, and I’m glad I chose to play it.