Solar Ash represents a dramatic leap forward for Heart Machine. After making the 2D Zelda-inspired Hyper Light Drifter in 2016 to critical acclaim, fans of the game clamored to see what came next and many were surprised to see something entirely different. Solar Ash is bigger and bolder than Hyper Light Drifter in every way, from its shift to a fully 3D world, to its new emphasis on high-speed traversal over combat-oriented dungeon exploration. But what is solar ash? Heart Machine Creative Director Alx Preston took us on a tour of the game to discuss its origins, gameplay, and how it copes with the fear of the sophomore crisis.
In Preston’s words, the “stupid elevator step” for Solar Ash is that Super Mario Galaxy meets Shadow of the Colossus. Given that Solar Ash is set in a beautiful abstract alien world, features tons of platforming, and pits players against titanic bosses, the description has merit. Unlike the 2D pixels that built Hyper Light Drifter, Solar Ash’s fully realized 3D environments give Preston the chance to create the kind of worlds that provided him with an immersive escape during the advent of 3D graphics.
“At one point, I definitely had ambitions beyond 2D that I wanted to tackle with 3D, because that’s where I think games really changed my perspective on what was possible creatively. Says Preston. “My first 3D games that I really loved, like [Super] Mario 64 and all that opened my eyes to a whole new world.
Heart Machine still keeps most of Solar Ash’s plot details close to its chest, but we do know that players control a Void Runner named Rei. What is a voidrunner, you ask? Think of them as cosmic cavers who explore black holes for resources. Preston describes Rei as a “very competent” void runner with a good head on her shoulders. She’ll have to be good at her job, as a particularly dangerous black hole known as Ultravoid threatens to swallow her homeworld. To avoid this, she will have to dive head first into the Void to find a way to save her planet.
In the Ultravoid lies a fragmented world of surreal alien beauty. Tree-sized mushrooms, sea anemone-like grass, and bright orange rivers – all surrounded by a thick layer of green clouds – are just a few of the natural sights players will admire. Solar Ash is a trippy visual delight bursting with color.
The Ultravoid is divided into various expansive biomes, fragments of worlds that have likely been consumed over eons. Everything is designed to emphasize the main selling point of the game: the high-speed platform. When designing Hyper Light Drifter, Preston originally wanted the game to have fast traversal elements. However, these ideas fell through due to Drifter’s more limited reach and to focus on his stronger combat aspects.
Rei is speed embodied, gracefully exploring 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. by the way speedrunners chain. together the movements of the plumber to complete the game quickly. “Watching the sprint races and how they do it, it’s like it flows. It’s super inspiring to me, ”says Preston.
In addition to skating and jumping, Rei can also grind on rails and use a handy lasso to hook onto grapple points to pull herself through spaces. Solar Ash is all about the flow of movement and traversal, and Preston hopes the seamless flow of those movements to overcome obstacles will be as satisfying as it sounds. It looks so cool it hurts the ego to miss a jump but luckily nothing else thanks to the lack of fall damage.
Along the way, various monsters will appear to hinder Rei’s progress. They do not present a significant challenge; you can eliminate them with just a few moves. Also, don’t expect to learn new combo strings or anything complicated like that. Heart Machine wants to keep players on the move, so combat consists of simple hack-and-slash elements while using speed boosts and dodging to outsmart enemies before quickly returning to exploration. Since you’ll likely still be in the middle of the platform while engaged in combat, the depth comes from how players incorporate the environment into their attack.
“We throw a bunch of them at you during platforming challenges to sort of elevate that,” says Preston. “So it’s a mix between the environment they’re in and the individual crowd (s) themselves. It’s kind of that interaction and intersection that we’re trying to balance.
To that end, expect to face plenty of enemies that are flying or perched on platforms firing ranged attacks, in addition to opponents attacking you head on. But in the end, enemies are more or less glorified speed bumps. They’ll get in your way, but if you’re both quick and savvy enough, you can let them down without losing your forward momentum.
Either way, you don’t have time to sweat the little fry for too long. Your main task in each area is to find and kill its Remnant. These massive beasts come in all shapes and sizes, but they are hidden away and need to be removed. To summon the Remnant, Rei must first eliminate the remains, strange eyeballs attached to walls and other surfaces scattered throughout the environment. It will take some platforming finesse to reach and destroy them all, but in doing so, the Remnant arrives in all its majestic beauty. The rest that we could see takes the form of a huge flying serpent protected by thick bony armor resembling a spine.
Of course, getting the beast to show its face is the easy part. The real challenge is to take it apart. To defeat this particular Remnant, Rei must jump onto its back and make her way to its head. The Remnant hovers in the air, challenging the player to stay on board as he twists his body in an attempt to bring down Rei. Rei gradually jumps and skates forward, eliminating shiny knots until she hits her target. Once perched on top of the head, she delivers a final stab to the head like a fatal blow, the impact of which washes the screen in a black and white flash for a startling dramatic effect. While I could see how Rei eliminates this specific Remnant, Preston says other Remnants have different behaviors and patterns. As for how many Remnants players will face, Preston simply says there will be “a fair amount.”
Once the Remnant falls, a node on a towering device called Star Seed lights up. In all of the levels we’ve seen, this strange contraption can be seen from just about anywhere, and the central objective of the game is to activate all of its nodes. Visiting the Star Seed reveals that the imposing corpse of the just-slain Remnant Rei now rests at its base. One would assume that this area will be the last resting place for the other remains, but Preston cryptically says that “they lie down as long as they can.”
Areas in Ultravoid may seem like little more than a series of platforming challenges, but there are plenty of secrets and lore to uncover if you decide to dig into it. Certain pockets, which Preston calls narrative spaces, allow players to take their time inspecting ancient architecture and artifacts for information that feeds into the construction of the game world. Solar Ash sets out his story in a way simpler compared to Hyper Light Drifter. It has real text, for example. Chat with the NPCs and they’ll share personal stories of how they ended up inside 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 happened here and the sad or tragic stories that happened throughout these different biomes. that got sucked into the Ultravoid, ”Preston says.
Speaking of other characters, Rei will also receive help from allies. One of them is Cyd, a sensitive A.I. which provides advice on each zone and the history of the voidrunners. She also equips Rei with some limited upgrades. There’s also the giant, ethereal humanoid seen in the trailers. Rei often visits this being and his role is one of the game’s most tantalizing mysteries. However, Preston is still not ready to delve deeper into this element of the story, so the creature is left to our imagination.
Solar Ash has been in development for four years now, and Heart Machine has grown from less than 10 regular employees during Hyper Light Drifter’s production to more than 20. Much of that growth has come from designers with expertise. in creating 3D worlds, and while the learning curve has brought its fair share of challenges, Preston says the secret to dealing with these challenges has been making sure he has the right people on his team. “I think that’s the key for me was making sure I kept bringing in talented, good-humored people who wanted to build some really crazy stuff together who were great collaborators… it just gets a lot nicer. and easier to bear the burden of the challenge. “
Of course, for every studio that succeeds on its first release, there is always the fear of the crisis in the second year. As a designer, Preston says he suffers from the same anxieties of failure as any other creative person. He’s his own worst critic, and despite his overwhelming pride in Solar Ash, the fear of disappointing players who loved Hyper Light Drifter sometimes does crop up.
“That being said, you can’t let it get the better of you,” Preston says. “And you have to be able to go ahead and focus on the things that are right in front of you. Not what could be or something like that. Otherwise you’re going to spiral, you’re just going to do. trap. And that’s it. It’s a trap. “
Despite these concerns, Preston couldn’t be more proud of what Heart Machine has accomplished with Solar Ash and firmly believes it has created a fun and unique experience.
“No matter the scores, people disappointed because it’s not Hyper Light then, or whatever, there’s a ton of really cool stuff in here that you’d be silly to miss.”
This article originally appeared in issue 337 of Game Informer.
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