Ashen

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper Aurora44 Pub­lisher Annapurna In­ter­ac­tive For­mat PC, Xbox One (tested) Re­lease Out now

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

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