Hey, remember Hyper Light Drifter, your favourite action-RPG of five years ago? The devs Heart Machine are soon to be back with their new game Solar Ash, which is coming out at the end of next month. It is not like Hyper Light Drifer. For starters, Solar Ash is full 3D. Creative director Alx Preston described the elevator pitch to me as "Super Mario Galaxy meets Shadow Of The Colossus, and sprinkle in a bit of Jet Set Radio" during a hands off preview event last week, and on the face of it, it looks fantastic - something that you, too, may have gleaned from one of its recent trailers.
But Solar Ash is a game about motion, something that's very difficult to convey during a remote hands-off demo. I cannot tell you how Solar Ash feels, but I'm also a toddler with a marshmallow: put something that looks fuckin' sweet in front of me and I want to consume it, and snatch it up with my grabby little fingers.
Your character Rei surfs the light fantastic on a mission to save her world from a massive black hole known as the Ultravoid. Rei is a Voidrunner, her vibe somewhere between the intense jogger who does laps of your park in skintight black lycra, and a t-shirt from Cyberdog. But in fact, Rei mostly skates over clouds and side-grinds on looping rails, over a weird otherwordly landscape. Giant, luminous mushrooms growing out of the mist, next to big spears of rock that look like cracked ribs.
It's a place of intense colours, which we all know to mean it is a strange, hyper-real sci-fi world. Cyan and pink contrasted against black, purples and yellows warming dark brown rocks. Eventually Rei must fight a giant spidery creature, a sort of scorpion in a crash helmet. It is so large that Rei can skate over its surface too, like a small planet - just like Super Mario Galaxy! The UI is clean and restrained, too, with icons tucked in the corners of the screen so you can see the alien landscapes better.
The mushroom kingdom we're shown is only one section of the game, as Preston explains when I ask if the game is just mushrooms all the way down (and conceal my disappointment when he answers in the negative).
"We have a few different biomes that you end up exploring, I think we've shown each of the biomes in some minor form," he says. "We have this more woodsy, red, autumn-y style place with some broken city bits, we have this more mushroom garden-themed space with the kind of archaic architecture, then we have some lava filled stuff, we have a fun beach zone... we have a variety of biome types and kind of sub-biomes as well." Rei can also put on different suits that have different abilities tied to them, although Preston was tight-lipped on specifics.
As well as being 3D, Solar Ash is voiced and scripted too, another big change from the silent theatre that was Hyper Light Drifter. "We hope it showcases well that that's been a really big thing for us in evolving our storytelling, and changing the path from a silent protagonist. We plan to continue doing more of that in the future," says Preston.
And we did see a few bits of dialogue with odd hermit-y beings, though I found the effect very hard to judge from my context of being one step removed from it, sitting in the office after hours while the cleaner very politely tried to pretend that my continued presence wasn't an irritant. In that kind of mundane setting it's kind of hard to vibe with a breathy mystical voice going on about the "wisdom of the elders" and "the Whispering Sanctum" and "the spore song blessing". I'm inclined to give this the benefit of the doubt as a very deliberate choice, though, since Rei's responses felt like they contained an implicit tired eye-roll: "Spore song. Got it."
More so than other games, Solar Ash begs for interaction. Rei's easy, rhythmic slide across the landscape and her zip-lining over gaps or into enemies is sometimes interrupted. There are moments when a combat combo doesn't come off quite right, or a bit of platforming requires a stop-and-start. In those moments, it looks a bit awkward. But I also don't know what it's like to be in control of that, to try and build up a flow state, to be dropped out and have to feel my way back in again. All this demo did was make me want to steal the controls myself to understand it better.
Solar Ash looks very good, and Heart Machine have earned more than a bit of our trust. But you already knew both those things. "It's hard to describe good feeling in a game when you can't feel it yourself," as Preston himself said during the demo. "You know it when you play it."
Fortunately, we won't have to wait long to find out. Solar Ash is coming out on October 26th over on the Epic Games Store.