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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Solar Ash review – ambitious sci-fi adventure leads to a boring new world

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Life is about the journey, not the destination, the saying goes, and the speed-obsessed Solar Ash is built on that principle. Kitting the player out with invisible space roller skates, this colourful space adventure sees heroine Rei gliding across a gorgeously vibrant planet. Reminiscent of thatgamecompany’s Journey, a soothing collage of oil paintings and minimalistic comic-book design, Solar Ash’s gorgeous ruined cities and pastel-coloured plains rarely fail to stop you in your tracks. In some moments, Solar Ash is glorious, the sort of freeform, wind-in-your-hair joyride that shuts down your thoughts and delights the synapses. But the illusion shatters once you turn to an objective.

Charged with saving Rei’s dying home planet from an ominous black hole, you drift and slash your way across the wheezing planet, seeking out poorly signposted tar-like anomalies and slaying the big beastie responsible for birthing them. These anomalies are obtusely hidden, and Solar Ash provides little in the way of subtle visual language to help you find them. I spent hours roaming the same areas in search of what to do next, slowly losing any lingering sense of intrigue and, eventually, my will to live. Solar Ash is all about movement, an experience that prides itself on speed and flow – but all too often, it grinds to a halt.

Because it draws from influences as diverse as zombie-blasting rail grinder Sunset Overdrive and existential monster slayer Shadow of the Colossus, at times, playing Solar Ash feels like trying to follow the chaotic threads of one of Charlie from Always Sunny’s hare-brained schemes. There’s a lot happening, and some of it is compelling, but it’s too much to swallow, a hurriedly stirred potluck of genres and concepts. Where the developer’s previous release – Hyper Light Drifter – zoned in on compelling combat, this follow-up loses focus on the actual experience of play in favour of a grand vision.

It’s a shame, as Solar Ash’s story and world building ooze potential. As you progress through increasingly eerie places, you’ll find strange grieving humanoid creatures muttering to themselves in madness. You’ll discover corpses lying ominously beside the crumbling bricks of ancient buildings. There’s more than a whiff of Dark Souls about it, adding a sense of unease to your adventure as you take your first few drifts into each new picturesque horizon. Half an hour later, though, I’d find that sense of atmosphere and anticipation replaced by sheer frustration.

In its last few levels, Solar Ash begins to find what it’s been missing. The final few biomes are its most buoyant and fun, impressively unafraid to mix things up. When you’re surfing looping rollercoasters of clouds, hurtling into the sky from boost pads, the mask of pretension drops and Solar Ash is free to enter full flow. The boss fights shake off their cookie-cutter shackles and start to become their own distinct showdowns. And then, the game is over. It’s hard to imagine many players powering through the many more infuriating moments to get there.

Solar Ash intends to be a striking and poignant mediation on mortality and the universe while uncovering a cosmic mystery. Over my 15 exasperating hours with it, it flirted with these grand ideas, and showed glimpses of gameplay greatness. But instead of gasping in awe, more often it had me sighing with frustration.

  • Solar Ash is out now, £31.99

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