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(Pocket-lint) - As far as videogame debuts go, it would be pretty hard to top what indie developer Heart Machine managed with Hyper Light Drifter back in 2016. That was a bolt from the blue; an isometric action game that was as mysterious as it was beautiful - with a pixelised art style that lingered in the memory.

Now, years later, a sophomore effort arrives in the form of Solar Ash, another game with neon-drenched art - but this time in three dimensions. And while it isn't quite as much of a miracle, it's still a great little adventure through space-time that's well worth checking out.

It's the end of the world as we know it

Solar Ash sees players take control of Rei, a Voidrunner who's desperately trying to save her home planet from being devoured by a black hole, using the help of a mysterious piece of giant technology that she just needs to get firing.

Part of what made Hyper Light Drifter so special was its reluctance to spell anything out, instead using atmosphere and music to let you paint your own picture of how civilisation got to the ruinous point that it looked like.

Solar Ash doesn't feel the need to stick to that template, though, and has a voice cast to guide you through its story with a nice and simple script that keeps things moving and lets you get a sense of what's been going on. We were sceptical, and still feel that a little more ambiguity might go a long way, but it's consequently easy to get involved.

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Rei is skating through the fractured worlds sucked in by a black hole with few companions for company, but you'll still meet occasional damaged survivors who are charming and melancholy in the main, as well as having run-ins with Echo, a huge humanoid of unclear motivation.

Primarily, though, Rei's job is to move around a world of interconnected areas to purify signal points and to let your tech fight the black hole's reach more cleanly. In each area you'll finish your task by defeating a vast creature, clambering over it and eventually piercing it with your needle-like spear.

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Influences on its sleeve

If that sounds slightly familiar, it's because Solar Ash doesn't try to hide its influences, in particular the seminal Shadow of the Colossus, which is a fairly acclaimed work to call on. Just like in Colossus, you'll see your titanic foe as you enter an area, and just like that game you'll feel like a flea on its back at times.

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However, the gameplay systems at work really aren't similar, so it's hardly a wanton act of plagiarism. Rather, a more accurate comparison would be to look back equally far, to the time of Jet Set Radio.

Just like that punky skater game, Rei's main method of travel is a set of boot-worn boosters that let her skate over the cloud and land of Solar Ash's world, zipping around, grinding on rails at times and boosting for extra momentum.

It sounds a little Tony Hawk-esque, but it's far more serene than that in practice, with no combos or multipliers to chase - while you can collect strings of Plasma as you move around, to replenish your shields with down the line, you'll not feel much pressure to do so. There is, however, some very light and simple combat, although it's nothing that'll hinder you much.

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Another far more recent title we really enjoyed for its focus on traversal as the primary mechanic was The Pathless. Solar Ash feels like a nice sibling to that in some ways, relying less on timing and more on steering, but very much offering up the same flow-state and exploration.

There's even a healthy dash of Super Mario Galaxy here, too - as you'll quickly realise that the apparent edges of the levels you're exploring often go around and under themselves to offer up more nooks and crannies to find, the ground tethering you to its own gravity as you go inverted.

It's a smörgåsbord of influences, and while that can bring the risk of being derivative, Solar Ash pulls it all together with a combination of stunning art direction and well-designed levels (that really aren't so different from an intricate skate park) to make a whole that feels great to play.

Skating over it

Those levels also feature a nice variety of visual flavours, with Heart Machine using the surreal art style as a great excuse to crank out different colour palettes and levels of saturation to make you feel like you're moving between diverse spaces.

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There are also areas within each: whether the remains of a holy tree; a ruined church; or a once-massive skyscraper with an apartment somehow surviving at its heart. They're all just beautiful to look at, and show a clear sense of art direction that really pays off in the details.

Still, if there's a slight hitch in the fabric here it's that the gameplay loop, satisfying as it is, doesn't have a huge wealth of variety to offer - so if you're not won over after a couple of hours you'll be unlikely to change that opinion further down the line.

For us, though, that was no problem - and Solar Ash also doesn't outstay its welcome. While you'll eke out more content if you search down every collectable suit piece to flesh out Rei's wardrobe (each offers a gameplay benefit to spin your approach up), this isn't a gargantuan game by any means.

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It leaves that sense of scale up to the creatures you'll encounter and the themes it wrangles with - the accounts of how civilisations weren't able to see the forest for the trees when it came to their demise feel particularly poignant given the climate crisis we're faced by, even if they're a little on the nose at times.

Verdict

Solar Ash is a great little package that takes the mysterious tone of Hyper Light Drifter and pulls back the curtain a little, letting you have a clearer grasp on its themes and ideas, with more dialogue and a firmer narrative.

That has benefits and downsides, but when your art direction is this strong and the gameplay so smooth, it feels fair to say that it's simply different, rather than better or worse than its predecessor. We'll be watching intently for what Heart Machine does next - because on this evidence a special hat-trick could very much be on the cards.

Writing by Max Freeman-Mills. Editing by Mike Lowe.