PC, Xbox One
There are two words that, as much as they have become a handy comparison for a certain kind of game, are inevitable when describing Ashen. From Software’s reinvention of the dungeon crawler was seminal, spawning an entire subgenre around its particular set of innovations – but we’ve never seen a Dark Souls tribute quite as direct as this.
Each of the key components of a Souls game has a direct analogue here. Bonfires become Ritual Stones, the place where you return after dying, the world having reset in your absence. Souls become Scoria, a currency, surely named with tongue firmly in cheek, collected by defeating enemies and dropped in the world when you die, challenging you to push back to the point of your defeat to reclaim it. Estus Flasks become sips from the Crimson Gourd, a limited supply of healing potions that automatically refills at each resting place.
This isn’t unusual, necessarily – these are by now the elements of a distinct genre. But the lore of
Ashen’s fantasy world also sticks tightly to the usual Souls themes of light and dark, death and rebirth. The game is set at the close of the Age Of Man, as a reawakened bird god brings daylight back to the world. Because its inhabitants have lived in an eternal night, though, this light brings with it a mysterious sickness.
Visually, Ashen doesn’t so much run with these concepts as sprint flat-out. While the premise and mechanics might be familiar, its graphical style is unlike anything else. This is obvious right from the character creator, as you notice the avatar you’re bringing to life has a smooth, mannequin-like surface where their face should be. It’s a striking artistic decision that works because this same minimalism applies across the entire game. The world is made up of beautifully uneven geometry. When light falls on the flat, polygonal surface of a wall or rock or piece of clothing, there is a chalky quality to it. You can almost feel the texture on your fingertips, like a smooth pebble picked out of a rocky beach. Paired with a muted and occasionally sickly colour palette, Ashen communicates the sense that this is a world covered in a thin layer of aesthetically pleasing dust, where light is a recent invention.
That world, presented as a single open map, is a pleasure to explore. It’s low on the shortcuts and interconnecting routes you expect from a Soulslike, but pushing into corners is encouraged and often rewarded. The game dangles items, marked with glowing white icons, just out of reach – on high ledges, around impassable corners, off the edges of cliffs. Figuring out how to access them is one of Ashen’s greater pleasures. It’s not exactly Breath Of The Wild, but the game lets you clamber your way to most spots – including ones that seem off-limits – through a mix of vaulting, a generous sprint jump and partner-assisted climbing.
Yep, partners. You’re rarely alone in Ashen, which is probably the game’s biggest divergence from the Souls template. While From’s games allow you to summon another player for assistance, or be invaded by one with more nefarious intentions, Ashen constantly pairs you with a fellow adventurer. Initially, this role is filled by a computer-controlled NPC, but as you progress these AI characters get substituted for real human players whose games happen to have converged with your own.
The impact of this addition is felt most clearly when you’re locked in battle. Combat offers the usual range of options: one-handed weapons with a shield or lantern to light the way; weightier and more powerful two-handers; projectiles in the form of throwing spears. Each weapon has a light and heavy attack, while enemies’ attacks can be dodged or absorbed with your shield, both of which drain your stamina bar. It’s functional, but certainly not as fine-tuned as the games by which it is inspired. Fighting alongside a partner fundamentally alters its rhythm, for good and ill. They take some of the heat off your back, but AI characters in particular have a tendency to rush in, finishing off a combatant just as you’re charging up that last carefully timed heavy attack. As combat isn’t that inherently satisfying, this can make it tempting to just stand back and let them do the hard work. After all, you get that precious Scoria either way.
Ashen’s other great departure from the Souls formula lies within its structure, which is closer to a traditional RPG or MMO. The game’s structural backbone is essentially a series of fetch quests – go here, grab this item or kill this many creatures, then return for your reward. It’s rather stilted, especially when the character who gave you the quest is the same one accompanying you on it, standing silently by your side as you achieve the goal, then suddenly returning to their usual spot in the village when you arrive so they can congratulate you on victory.
The occasional trips into dungeons fare better, mostly because the game is willing to turn out the lights, switch off the map markers and let you push ahead into the unknown, knowing that something deadly awaits you at the bottom. This is the feeling that familiar arrangement of waypoints, droppable resources and rechargeable health flasks is designed to achieve. Reaching a Ritual Stone when you’re at the last of your health, or battling your way to a huge deposit of Scoria, is a deeply satisfying moment. But these instances also put Ashen directly in the shadow of the games it borrows them from. With combat that feels lightweight and inexact by comparison, in service of a broader structure which doesn’t quite suit the core mechanics, the game’s strengths – in particular, that winning, distinctive aesthetic – don’t provide enough of a spark to let Ashen find its own way in the dark.
You’re rarely alone, which is probably the game’s biggest divergence from the Souls template