Expanding Visions And Expectations – How Heart Machine Hopes To Wow Players With Solar Ash.

Solar Ash is a major step forward for Heart Machine. Fans of Hyper Light Drifter, a 2D Zelda-inspired game that was released in 2016, clamored to be able to experience the next chapter. Many were amazed to discover something completely different. Solar Ash stands taller and bolder that Hyper Light Drifter, with its shift to a 3D world and new focus on speed traversal rather than combat-focused dungeon crawling. So what exactly is Solar Ash? Heart Machine’s creative director, Alx Preston, took us through a tour of the game to discuss its origins, gameplay, and how he is coping with the fear of the sophomore slump.

In Preston’s words the “stupid elevator pitch” for Solar Ash is Super Mario Galaxy meets Shadow of the Colossus. Solar Ash’s story is a stunning abstract world that features lots of platforming and pits gamers against powerful bosses. Unlike the 2D pixels that built Hyper Light Drifter, Solar Ash’s fully realized 3D environments give Preston the chance to craft the sort of worlds that provided an immersive escape for him during the advent of 3D graphics.

“I definitely at a certain point had ambitions beyond just 2D that I wanted to get into with 3D because that’s where I think games really changed my perspective on what was possible creatively,” says Preston. “My first few 3D games I truly loved, like [Super] Mario 64 and all that stuff, it just opened my eyes to a whole new world.”

Heart Machine is still keeping most of the details about Solar Ash’s plot close to the chest, but we do know that players control a voidrunner named Rei. You may be wondering what a “voidrunner” is. You can think of them as cosmic-spelunkers, who search black holes for resources. Preston describes Rei as a “very capable” voidrunner with a good head on her shoulders. She’ll need to be good at her job, because one particularly dangerous black hole known as the Ultravoid threatens to swallow her home world. To prevent this, she’ll have to dive head-first into the Void to uncover a way to save her planet.

The Ultravoid is a world that contains fragments of alien beauty. Tree-sized mushrooms, sea anemone-like grass, and luminous orange rivers – all surrounded by a layer of thick green clouds – are just a few of the natural sights players will admire. Solar Ash has a unique visual appeal that pops with color.

Ultravoid can be divided into multiple biomes that are vastly expanded fragments from the various worlds. Everything is designed to emphasize the game’s primary selling point: high-speed platforming. Preston had originally in mind that Hyper Light Drifter would feature fast traversal elements. However, those ideas fell to the wayside due to Drifter’s more limited scope and to focus on its stronger combat aspects.

Rei is quickness personified, gracefully exploring the Ultravoid using a form of skating that Preston says is inspired by games such as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Jet Grind Radio, and Super Mario 64. For Mario in particular, Preston was primarily fascinated in how speedrunners chain together plumber’s moves to complete the game in quick fashion. “Watching speed runs and how they do it’s like, there’s a flow to that. That’s super inspiring to me,” Preston says.

Rei has mastered the art of jumping and skating. She can also use her handy lasso and hook on to grapple points to help pull herself through gaps. Solar Ash’s focus is on flow and traversal. Preston hopes that the satisfaction of seamlessly combining these moves to conquer obstacles will be as fulfilling as looking. The jumps are so impressive that you can’t miss one, but it is not a problem because there is no fall damage.

Along the way various monsters will appear to impede Rei’s progress. They don’t present a steep challenge; you can take them down in just a few hits. Don’t expect to learn new combo strings or anything complicated like that, either. Heart Machine is keen to keep the players on their feet, so combat will consist of basic hack-and-slash elements with speed boosts and dodges to outmaneuver enemies before returning to exploration. Since you’ll still likely be in the middle of platforming while engaged in combat, the depth comes from how players incorporate the environment into their offense.

“We throw a bunch at you during platforming challenges to kind of elevate that,” Preston explains. “So, it’s a blend between the environment that they’re in and the individual mob or mobs themselves. It’s kind of that interplay and intersection that we’re trying to balance out.”

You will face a variety of foes or flying enemies perched on platforms and firing ranged strikes, along with opponents just coming at you directly. However, enemies can be seen as speed bumps. They’ll get in the way, but if you’re both quick and savvy enough, you can drop them without losing your forward momentum.

You don’t have time to sweat the small fry for too long anyway. The first order of business for each area is to find and kill its Remnant. These massive beasts come in all shapes and sizes, but they’re hidden and must be drawn out. Rei must first eliminate Dregs. These are strange eyes that attach to walls or other surfaces and can be summoned by the Remnant. It’ll take some platforming finesse to reach and destroy them all, but doing so provokes the Remnant to arrive in all of its majestic beauty. Our sightings of the Remnant revealed a giant flying serpent encased in thick boney armor, resembling a spinal cord.

The easy part is getting the beast to come out of hiding. Removing it is where the real difficulty lies. Rei must jump on top of the Remnant to defeat it. She then has to work her way up to the head. Rei is challenged by the Remnant as it soars in the air. Rei slowly jumps up and down, taking out glowing nodes as she goes until reaching her goal. As she reaches the top of the skull, Rei delivers the final blow. The impact is so dramatic that the entire screen appears black and white. Preston said that other Remnants have different behavior and patterns. I was able to witness how Rei defeated this Remnant. In terms of the number of Remnants players will face, Preston simply says there will be “a good amount” of them.

The Star Seed is a towering device that lights up when the Remnant drops. This strange device can be seen at any level. The central objective of the game, which is to activate all its nodes, was evident in every level. The Star Seed is home to the large, imposing body of the Remnant Rei that was just killed. One would assume that this area will be the final resting place for the other Remnants but Preston cryptically says that “they lay as long as they may lay.”

Zones within the Ultravoid may appear to be little more than a series of platforming challenges but there’s plenty of secrets and lore to uncover should you decide to poke around. Certain pockets, which Preston refers to as narrative spaces, allow players to take their time inspecting ancient architecture and artifacts for information that feeds into the game’s world-building. Solar Ash’s narrative is more simple than Hyper Light Drifter. For example, it has text. Converse with NPCs and they’ll share personal stories about how they ended up inside of the Ultravoid.

“Our crews put a lot of time and effort into fleshing out and expressing a lot of different ideas about the kind of events that have happened here and sad or tragic stories that have occurred throughout these different biomes that have been sucked into the Ultravoid, “says Preston.

Rei can also be assisted by allies, as well as other characters. Cyd, an A.I. sentient, is one such character. This provides background information and guidance on each zone. Rei also gets some minor upgrades. There’s also the giant, ethereal humanoid seen in the trailers. Rei visits this being often, and its role is one of the game’s most tantalizing mysteries. However, Preston still isn’t ready to delve into that element of the story just yet, so the creature remains left to our imagination.

Solar Ash has been in development for four years now, and Heart Machine has grown from having under 10 regular employees during Hyper Light Drifter’s production to more than 20. The key to all that success has been in recruiting 3D designers who are skilled at creating worlds. While there have been some challenges along the way, Preston believes the trick is having good people. “I think that’s the key for me, was making sure to keep bringing over talented, good-natured people that wanted to build really dope stuff together that were good collaborators … it becomes a whole lot more enjoyable and easier to bear the burden of the challenge.”

Of course, for every studio that has a successful first outing, there’s always the fear of the sophomore slump. Preston admits that as a designer, he experiences the same anxiety about failing than any other creative person. He’s his own worst critic, and despite his overwhelming pride for Solar Ash, the fear of disappointing players who loved Hyper Light Drifter occasionally rears its ugly head.

“That being said, you can’t let it get the best of you,” says Preston. “And you have to be able to push forward and focus on the stuff that’s right in front of you. Do not dwell on the impossible. Otherwise, you’ll spiral, you’ll just get trapped. That’s it. It’s a trap.”

Despite those anxieties, Preston couldn’t be prouder of what Heart Machine has accomplished with Solar Ash and firmly believes it’s created a fun and unique experience.

“Regardless of scores, of people being disappointed because it’s not Hyper Light next, or whatever else, there’s a ton of really cool stuff in here that you’d be a fool to miss.”

Original publication: Issue 337, Game Informer.

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