Expanding Visions and Expectations – How the Heart Machine Hopes to Impress Players with Solar Ash.

Solar Ash represents a dramatic leap forward for the Heart Machine. After releasing the 2D Zelda-inspired Hyper Light Drifter in 2016 to critical acclaim, fans of the game shouted to see what was next, and many were surprised to see something completely different. Solar Ash is bigger and bolder than Hyper Light Drifter in every way, from its shift to a full 3D world to its new emphasis on high-speed traversal over battle-focused dungeon crawl. But what is Solar Ash? Heart Machine’s creative director, Alx Preston, took us through a tour of the game to discuss its origins, gameplay and how he tackles fears of the second vintage.

In Preston’s words, the “stupid elevator pitch” for Solar Ash’s Super Mario Galaxy meets Shadow of the Colossus. Given that Solar Ash takes place in a beautiful abstract alien world, offers tons of platform games and pits players up against titanic bosses, the description has value. 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 gave him an immersive escape during the advent of 3D graphics.

“I certainly had ambitions at some point beyond just 2D that I wanted to get into with 3D because that’s where, I think, games really changed my perspective on what was possible creatively,” says Preston. . “My first few 3D games I really loved [Super] Mario 64 and all that, it just opened my eyes to a whole new world. “

Heart Machine still holds most of the details of Solar Ash’s plot close to his chest, but we know players control a voidrunner named Rei. What is a voidrunner, you ask? Think of them as cosmic gamblers exploring black holes in search of resources. Preston describes Rei as a “very skilled” voidrunner with a good head on his shoulders. She will have to be good at her job because a particularly dangerous black hole known as Ultravoid threatens to swallow her home world. To prevent this, she will have to dive head first into the void to find a way to save her planet.

Inside Ultravoid lies a fragmented world of surreal alien beauty. Trees the size of trees, sea anemone-like grass and bright orange rivers – all surrounded by a layer of thick green clouds – are just a few of the natural sights that players will admire. Solar Ash is a trippy visual delight that leaps with color.

Ultravoid is divided into various expansive biomes, fragments of worlds that have been consumed over presumably eternities. Everything is designed to emphasize the game’s primary selling point: high-speed platforming. While designing Hyper Light Drifter, Preston originally wanted the game to include fast-paced elements. However, these ideas fell aside due to Drifter’s more limited scope and to focus on its stronger combat aspects.

Rei is fast personified, and gracefully explores Ultravoid using a form of skating that Preston says is inspired by games like Tony Hawks Pro Skater, Jet Grind Radio and Super Mario 64. Especially for Mario, Preston was primarily fascinated by how speedrunners chained together. together the plumber’s moves to complete the game quickly. “It’s like seeing the speed and how they do it, there’s a flow in it. It’s super inspiring for me, ”says Preston.

In addition to skating and jumping, Rei can also grind on rails and use a practical lasso to hook on grip points to pull over holes. Solar Ash is all about the flow of movement and traversal, and Preston hopes it feels as satisfying as it seems to bring these movements together to overcome obstacles. It looks so cool that it hurts the ego to miss a jump, but luckily nothing else thanks to the lack of fall injuries.

Along the way, various monsters will appear to hamper Reis’ progress. They do not pose a steep challenge; you can take them down in just a few hits. Also, don’t expect to learn new combo strings or anything so complicated. Heart Machine wants to keep players moving, so the battle consists of simple hack-and-slash elements while using speed boosts and dodging to maneuver enemies before quickly returning to exploration. Since you will probably still be in the middle of platforming while engaged in combat, the depth comes from how players incorporate the environment into their attacks.

“We throw a lot after you during platform challenges to somehow lift it,” Preston explains. “So it’s a mix between the environment they are in and the individual mob or mob itself. It’s such an interplay and intersection that we try to balance.”

To that end, expect to encounter plenty of flying enemies or enemies sitting on platforms that fire range attacks, in addition to opponents just coming head-on against you. But at the end of the day, enemies are more or less glorified speed bumps. They will get in the way, but if you are both fast and knowledgeable enough, you can drop them without losing your forward momentum.

You still do not manage to sweat the little fry for too long. Your primary task in each zone is to seek out and kill its remnant. These massive beasts come in all shapes and sizes, but they are hidden and need to be pulled out. To summon the remnants, Rei must first take out Dregs, strange eyeballs attached to walls, and other surfaces scattered around the environment. It will take some platforming finesse to reach and destroy them all, but doing so provokes the remnants to arrive in all its majestic beauty. The remnant we got to see has the shape of a massive flying snake protected by a thick, bony armor that looks like a spine.

Of course, it’s the easy part of getting the beast to show its face. The real challenge lies in taking it down. Defeating this particular remnant requires Rei to jump on top of his back and work his way to the head. The rest hovers through the air, challenging the player to stay on board while twisting his body in an attempt to knock Rei off. Rei gradually jumps and skates her way to the front, removing glowing nodes along the way until she reaches her goal. Once she has sat on top of the skull, she gives one last stab to the head as a lethal blow, the effect of which flushes the screen out in a black-and-white flash for a striking dramatic effect. Although I got to see how Rei removes this specific residue, Preston says that other residues have different behaviors and patterns. As for the number of Remnants players, Preston simply says there will be “a good amount” of them.

When the debris falls, a knot on a towering device called the Star Seed lights up. In every level we saw, this strange thing can be seen pretty much everywhere, and the central goal of the game is to activate all its nodes. A visit to Star Seed reveals that the impressive corpse of Remnant Rei, who has just been killed, now rests at its base. One would assume that this area will be the last resting place for the other remnants, but Preston says cryptically that “they lie as long as they can lie.”

Zones in Ultravoid may seem like a little more than a series of platform challenges, but there are plenty of secrets and knowledge to reveal if you decide to find your way around. Certain pockets, which Preston refers to as narrative spaces, allow players to take the time to inspect ancient architecture and artifacts for information that is part of the game’s world structure. Solar Ash explains his narrative in a more straightforward way compared to Hyper Light Drifter. It has e.g. actual text. Talk to NPCs and they will share personal stories of how they ended up inside Ultravoid.

“Our crews spent a lot of time and effort concretizing and expressing a lot of different ideas about the kind of events that have happened here, and sad or tragic stories that have taken place through these different biomes that have been sucked into Ultravoid. , “says Preston.

When we talk about other characters, Rei will also receive assistance from allies. One of them is Cyd, a sentient AI that provides guidance on each zone and background history on voidrunners. She also equips Rei with some limited upgrades. There’s also the giant, ethereal humanoid seen in the trailers. Rei visits this creature often, and its role is one of the game’s most tempting mysteries. However, Preston is still not ready to dive into that element of history yet, so the creature remains left to our imagination.

Solar Ash has been under development for four years now, and Heart Machine has grown from having less than 10 permanent employees during Hyper Light Drifter’s production to more than 20. Much of that growth has been staffing designers with expertise in creating 3D worlds. , and while the learning curve has brought its share of challenges, Preston says the secret behind overcoming these hardships has been to ensure he has good people on his team. “I think that’s the key for me, it was to make sure to keep bringing in talented, good-natured people who would build really stupid things together, who were good collaborators … it’s going to be a lot more fun and easier to bear the burden of challenge. “

Of course, for every study that has a successful first outing, there is always the fear of the second year. As a designer, Preston says he suffers from the same anxiety of failing 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 occasionally raises his ugly head.

“That being said, you can not let it get the best out of you,” Preston says. “And you need to be able to push yourself forward and focus on the things that are right in front of you. Not what-could-be or anything like that. Otherwise you will spiral, you will just get caught. And that’s all it is. It’s a trap. “

Despite these concerns, Preston could not be more proud of what Heart Machine has achieved with Solar Ash and is convinced that it has created a fun and unique experience.

“Regardless of the score, by people who are disappointed because it’s not Hyper Light next time, or whatever, there are a ton of really cool stuff in here that you’d be a fool to miss.”

This article originally appeared in issue 337 of Game Informer.

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