As a kid, Alx Preston spent a significant amount of time as a member of the audience, watching his brother sing in choir and opera groups. One night, he found himself sitting in a pew at the heart of a large, elegant church, letting the sounds of yet another performance wash over him. He was tired. He also happened to be playing a lot of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time at home.
“I kind of fell into a dream state,” Preston said. “I was playing a lot of Ocarina of Time at the time, and so the vocals of that mixed with this kind of fantastical vision of going through a forest. I think for me that Ocarina of Time was one of those formative games that really allowed me to see what was possible within the medium.”
Preston was the creative energy behind Hyper Light Drifter, a pixelated 2D title that helped define a generation of neon-coated indie hits in the mid-2010s, and he’s the founder of LA-based studio Heart Machine. He and a growing team of developers have been working on their sophomore release, Solar Ash, since late 2016. It’s a third-person, 3D game set in a dreamlike sci-fi space called the Ultravoid.
To put it in terms of Zelda titles, Hyper Light Drifter is A Link to the Past, and Solar Ash is Ocarina of Time.
“[Ocarina of Time] was really the game that felt so much bigger and limitless in its scope and scale and adventures,” Preston said. “It built a believable world that I could live in and it was 3D, and so of course I always had some idea I might jump into 3D.”
Today, publisher Annapurna Interactive announced Solar Ash will hit PC and PlayStation platforms on October 26th, five years after Heart Machine began working on it.
“Hyper Light was a way for me to get started, it was a way for me to be more grounded and put together a crew and understand, can I do this? Can I actually make games?” Preston said. “And so having answered that question, then the natural next step for me was something in 3D. Can I put something out there that really opens up the world and makes you feel like you can truly escape into something, a creation that is otherworldly, that you otherwise wouldn't have the experience of? A lot of my childhood was spent escaping into those bigger experiences.”
Hyper Light Drifter was a deliciously difficult 2D action RPG, and at first glance, Solar Ash looks like the third-person, 3D interpretation of that same game world. It’s bright and ethereal, with an emphasis on massive enemies and rapid-fire mechanics. The protagonist, Rei, is a slender assassin on a journey to save her home from the Ultravoid, a supermassive black hole hungry for whole planets.
Even though it’s 3D, Solar Ash looks so similar to Hyper Light Drifter that Preston has had to clarify whether it’s a sequel a few times over. To be clear, it’s not. But to be fair, Preston has personally contributed to the confusion.
“I did ambiguously say it's in the same universe,” Preston said. “Not like Marvel Cinematic Universe, but literally in a universe. So a million galaxies away, technically sure. It's still in a universe. So it's kind of a goof way of saying it. I would say that there are connected threads between the games, because I am who I am as a creator, as an artist... but it's its own game, it's its own identity in many ways. It's not trying to say ‘I'm a sequel’ or anything like that to Drifter.”
Solar Ash is an action platformer with Heart Machine’s DNA baked into its code. It doesn’t attempt to do too much, and the team instead has focused on implementing a handful of core mechanics and making them feel as perfect as possible. Solar Ash is filled with radioactive environments and grotesque enemies, and it's all about fluidity and agility, surfing through the ruins of lost civilizations at the center of a black hole.
There are about 25 people on the Solar Ash team, including Hyper Light Drifter and It Follows composer Rich Vreeland, otherwise known as Disasterpeace. That’s a bigger dev team than the original Hyper Light Drifter crew, but then again, Solar Ash is a bigger game.