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Heart Machine. Their first game: a breakout indie hit, a breath of fresh air. A game that tells its story without dialogue and one that would earn them a fanbase that would punish them for not making more of the same, as Solar Ash was met with the same response Hyper Light Breakers received on reveal: why isn't this Hyper Light Drifter?
And it's a pity. Solar Ash is a technicolor pastiche, a marvelous bit of tech. Fast, freeflowing, with environments that loop and curl in on themselves, wrapping around seas of clouds and spanning the crumbling remains of worlds. Movement is graceful and intuitive, boss fights are elegant and refined. Your character is all but defined by their freedom to traverse the world of Solar Ash, just as they are bound by its narrative.
But that's the rub. Unlike its predecessor, Solar Ash is written, with actual words and voices to go with them. So, does it earn this departure? Absolutely. The tone is impeccable, relentless, the core theme woven throughout every moment of the game. The voice actors do an incredible job of rising to the challenge, delivering emotional, powerful dialogue, creating very real, very believable characters.
That believability, the emotional resonance inherent in the writing and its delivery, is Solar Ash's greatest strength. It is a game that is, inexorably, about endings and what we do when we are faced with them. For that to work, in a game where the plot itself is thin on the ground, the characters have to be painfully, cripplingly believable. Solar Ash is a fragmented world, filled with fragments of people, in turn bearing fragments of ourselves. A powerful statement, and a reminder that Heart Machine has greater things in store.
Hell yeah, let's talk about that jump arc. 50% Ice Climber, 50% Metroid, all great. More height than distance, a smooth parabola, a floppy hat and an orange sundress that animate beautifully throughout it. Arms thrown out for balance, feet cocked forward to give the whole affair a little more personality. And those backgrounds? Lush, lovingly rendered with so many layers of parallax, horizontal and vertical, shown off beautifully every time you hit that hop.
There's also the rest of the game, in case jumps aren't your thing. The puzzles are low-key, the music is just right and the story is broken up nicely, a pleasantly twisty affair with just a bit of overreach toward the end that doesn't spoil the pot. A bright, vibrant game with a narrative spine cloaked in grays.
Old school, and in the best possible way.
There was a time, before easily accessible game engines could be plucked off of digital shelves for free, when programmers and game designers were much, much closer to being one and the same. You'd have a guy - let's call him Todd - and he'd come up with a trick. He'd build an engine that allowed specialized sprite scaling, or simulated 3D with orbs, or enabled freeform level rotation. Something, a gimmick that nobody else was doing. And that would become the game. You'd build the entire thing around Todd's trick, because nobody else was doing what Todd was doing and maybe this cool thing would be enough to help your game stand out, to make something new, fun, profitable.
And that's what we have here. A custom game engine built solely around the slice and dice physics that let you carve up the terrain. The important part: it works. Things mostly do what you would expect them to. You can be creative, mess things up, salvage them. When things go wrong, they usually go wrong in an amusing way and then you're reset to a nearby checkpoint.
The follow-up: it doesn't overstay its welcome, resists the urge to delve into increasingly convoluted physics puzzles with increasingly strict solutions. The game wants you to get where you're going, to have fun doing it and then maybe some more fun going for the collectibles. The tapes, which matter a lot because the music is so good they credit the guy in charge as the "Music Concierge", and the boring rocks, which don't matter at all but press you to be a bit more daring, more careful, to explore.
It's all wrapped up in a neat little notebook-sketched aesthetic, a silly story that has tons of personality and the aforementioned killer soundtrack. The core mechanic was incredible for its time, especially in an indie game, and still holds up incredibly well. A glimpse of what could have been in an industry less codified.