I remember when I first saw Hyper Light Drifter—being introduced to it, as I was to many great indie games thanks to James Stephanie Sterling, and their “Squirty Play” series. I was immediately enraptured by its striking visuals, fast-paced combat, and deeply intriguing world. Suffice it to say, Hyper Light Drifter has become one of my favourite games of the past few years, and I’ve sunk countless hours into it, combing over every inch of its world to uncover its secrets.
So, when I saw Heart Machine’s upcoming game: Solar Ash, I was equally intrigued. From the first trailer, gamers were given a glimpse of a desolate world, and a lone wanderer speeding toward some colossal, eldritch horror—very much capturing the spirit of Hyper Light Drifter, while still remaining wholly its own.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to a digital preview of Solar Ash; as Creative + Design Director, Alx Preston walked us through a bit of the lead-up to the release and explained a bit of the game’s features and style. Solar Ash is definitely a labour of love—having been in development for five years and needing a new team to develop in 3D. The game is described by Preston as a very personal story that started from a very personal space; saying, “It’s been really exhausting but really amazing to go on this journey.”
Solar Ash is quite a different game from Heart Machine’s previous entry—although Preston did say they are both set in the same universe. Whereas Hyper Light Drifter evoked feelings of The Legend of Zelda and Dark Souls through its exploration and combat; Solar Ash is a game, as described by Preston, escaping one’s pain—for everyone, including the main character. This might explain why it’s more focused on fast movement and action platforming, as opposed to third-person combat. In the preview area, we were shown: a beautifully designed castle, overgrown with bioluminescent mushrooms; we were given a glimpse into the cornerstone of Solar Ash’s design—essentially, everything is a time challenge.
“Solar Ash combines an incredible sense of speed, fluidity and function with simple time-based puzzle solving to emphasize its challenge.”
This isn’t meant as a dig. Solar Ash combines an incredible sense of speed, fluidity and function with simple time-based puzzle solving to emphasize its challenge. It’s the kind of game that looks like it will be challenging to master, but immensely satisfying to complete. Further adding to the satisfaction of movement is the game’s signature “cloud surfing,” which has been a piece of tech they have worked on for some time.
Using SDF (Sign Distance Fields)—basically a volumetric form where it’s reactive, it has some movement, and some physicality to it—clouds are mostly what you travel on in this world, so Preston and the team wanted to make sure that they got it completely right, so that it was enjoyable to travel on.
Solar Ash is also a pretty big departure from Hyper Light Drifter in its storytelling. Whereas its predecessor had virtually no dialogue and conveyed its story through pictures—requiring the player to fill in a lot of the blanks and interpret what was happening—Solar Ash now gives its main character, named Rei, as well as several NPCs a voice.
“Solar Ash is also a pretty big departure from Hyper Light Drifter in its storytelling.”
While voice-overs for characters are by no means a bad thing, part of what I loved about Hyper Light Drifter was just how much it left up to the player to interpret—much like Dark Souls or Bloodborne. I asked Preston if Solar Ash would retain this sense of mystery surrounding its plot, and he said, “There’s going to be plenty of mystery and strange things that you don’t understand in this game. I don’t think we’ll have a lack of obscurity in our game. You’ll get logs throughout the game, they’re hidden in different locations, and you’ll get some backstory filled in. You’ll start to understand what happened here, but it’s entirely optional.”
He continued, “Even with those logs and the NPCs, there’s a ton of stuff that the player will take some time to understand and there’ll still be a lot of gaps for them to imagine. There’s just a lot more in here, in terms of backstories and individual experiences of the NPCs than we did in Hyper Light Drifter—the world’s a lot bigger in the background. So, there’s plenty of specificity, but plenty of obscurity.”
One of the other things that intrigued me was how both Solar Ash, and Hyper Light Drifter seemed to have a similar theme of loneliness—a lone protagonist wandering the remains of a world and fighting against it. I asked Preston why he was drawn to creating such experiences, to which he responded jokingly, “because I’m a sad husk of a person.”
He laughed it off and went on to say, “I mean, it’s part of the reason, but this is the type of stuff, for me, as a creator and for us on the team, we’re drawn to. These experiences that try and establish this feeling that can have a lot of different outcomes. The premise ends up being somewhat desolate to start, but you find a way to make that enjoyable, and engaging.”
He went on to say, “and for me, as a person who’s played games forever, that’s been a big draw—Super Metroid was a very formative game for me as a kid because it was the first time in a game that I understood that atmosphere and tone is a thing that games can have. That they can establish these feelings and really bank on that in a hardcore way. And that was the type of stuff that I wanted to build off of—these places that had a vibe, that had a history, that felt like there were a lot of memories and experiences that once occurred there, and you’re kind of seeing the remains of that.
Solar Ash is set to be released sometime in October, and Preston and the team are as anxious to release it as I, personally, am to play it—saying, “we’re scared, and excited, and all sorts of feelings to get this thing out to everybody pretty dang soon. I think it’s the same feelings every developer feels before they release a game, but it’s quite a thing—to have something in the hopper like this for so long and realize, ‘oh boy, it’s a couple months away!”