Demon Souls and Dark Souls hearkened in an era of pattern-and-stamina based combat; you have a limited amount of stamina to use in combat until you need to rest before blocking, dodging, sprinting and striking. New Zealand’s studio A44’s Ashen took this inspiration in stride and condensed it down for an indie game.
Ashen boasts a beautifully polygonal world driven with deep blacks and bright whites, snappy controls, and simplified combat. Though the story is simple and doesn’t really standout against other narratives that blossomed in the year of 2018, Ashen is a fine game to pick up for about a week of on-off game play.
In the beginning, there was a being named the Ashen: a deity who brought light to this world. It grew old and died, and the light with it, plunging the world into a time of darkness and despair. Within the darkness, evil, monsters, and humans were born. But not all who were in the dark dreaded existence; giants worshiped light and what it brought – they were allies to the Ashen.
Eventually, the Ashen began to rebirth. It’s a violent rebirth of light in the world, in need of protection from those who sought out to snuff it out once and for all. Meanwhile, a lone human (you) tries to find their way to a place they can safely call home.
As I mentioned, the story does not stand out against the luscious backdrop of stories that were born this year. In fact, it seemed rather uninspired and even a little derivative; a land of darkness needs light to be brought back in the form of a birthing god to supply the light and it’s up to one protagonist to venture forth and brink in a new era of light and life. To me, this sounds awfully familiar to Dark Souls and due to the lack of complexity, a little drab.
Though unoriginal and simple, the story wasn’t bad; it was actually told very well through decent voice-acting, environment, bosses, and NPCs I came across. The NPCs were a story detail that did shine very brightly (no pun inten-… ok, it was pretty much intended). Each NPC I came across was fully voice acted and they had fleshed out personalities, stories and side-quests as well as both narrative and game play significance.
Not many plot-holes were to be had, as I mentioned the story was simple, so it was solid and concise; I didn’t need to scratch my head much. The only times I was mildly puzzled, however, was when I found myself asking, “Huh… this sounds familiar.”
I customized my character to have a groovy cavalier mustache and goatee and set forth on my adventure. Though very similar to Dark Souls, the game held its own personality and take on this kind of action RPG. The Souls series had slow and deliberate game play, with its signature highly-difficult play style that would mercilessly punish the player if they didn’t choose their moves wisely. Ashen is not as punishing. In fact, I found it a tad easier than I initially expected from a game that drew much inspiration from Dark Souls; you block, dodge, strike, dodge, block, run, all the while keeping an eye on your stamina. You even have a one-button item slot and a flask of sorts that you fill up and use for healing.
The similarities ended there. Yes, the game is very similar to Souls/Born, but that stops at the surface. What made the game stand on its own is the fact that it felt less like Dark Souls and more like Dark Souls “Lite” and its own pacing; it was faster paced, with limited mechanics, a dedicated jump button and the use of light in pitch-black caves.
Just because the game had limited mechanics doesn’t make it bad or boring. Because I didn’t have to worry about several systems, like magic and utility items, I found myself focusing on the combat, the world, and NPCs. I actually started feeling like the game was more align with Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time when it came to the over world mechanics: a single item, simple weapon combat, a shield, and exploration.
What I really, really enjoyed were the pitch-black caves that are nearly impossible to traverse unless you’re using your lantern in one hand and a single-handed weapon in the other. With HDR and an OLED TV, the black caves and lantern-weapon juggling was a blast! I had to set my lantern down in order to use my shield to fight bosses, enemies and other horrors in the dark.
The bosses were fun! Very, very fun! A lot of bosses used different game mechanics (like using light and the lantern) in order to be defeated. Not only were they straight fun to fight, but they were absolutely cool looking! They weren’t overly difficult, but not pushovers.
One final thing I want to add about the game play of Ashen is the multiplayer aspect. It wasn’t like other action-adventure RPGs’ (that I keep mentioning) multiplayer systems, where players can drop in by finding beacons and the like. Ashen uses a more “passive” multiplayer system; when I was walking through the world, I would notice that my NPC stopped acting like a scripted NPC and started acting like a scatter-brained player, which was actually pretty enjoyable! I didn’t like how I don’t get to see the other players’ customization, but I understand the rationale; they wanted to keep continuity and connection between the player and NPCs.
Visuals and Sounds
This is where the game shines… Literally! I want to start by re-emphasizing what I said earlier about the pitch-black caves and lantern usage. The blacks were deep, the whites were piercing, and the glows, well, glowed! It really made me want to exclaim, “If only I could be so grossly incandescent!”
Ye-… yeah I made another reference to Dark Souls… ok, continuing.
When in the caves, you must use your lantern; the light was such an incredibly comforting visual effect, the glistening off water-laden rocks, stretching black shadows, and the unveiling of the horrors in the claustrophobic corridors of caverns and dungeons.
Now that that’s out of the way…
The game is wonderful looking: cell-shaded style with simple polygonal models that makes NPCs and enemies stand out and feel unique. The world itself, though simple, was lush and vibrant, even with a muted color palette. Due to the world awakening light from an era of darkness, the atmosphere and color pallet is archetypal to autumn and dawn colors. Which, I feel, is the point of the color profile.
The sounds and music didn’t really stand out to me; no iconic sound effects to warn me of incoming danger, of important events and items, no standout ambiance effects… the world felt… hollow and, for lack of better word, “echo-y”. Music is subtle, and due to it being an indie game, I didn’t really expect a score from John Williams. However, the music I did hear was average, but nice.
The voice acting, for a small team, was actually really good! I enjoyed the personalities all of the NPCs had and how the acting brought them to life! The dialogue is completely voiced over with care. Now, it wasn’t The Witcher series level of voice acting, but it was pretty damn good for the scope of a game like Ashen.
I was first expecting this game to be a cheaply done rip-off of a particular game I keep mentioning, but I was sorely mistaken. The game drew a lot of inspiration from the Souls/Born games, but twisted itself into its own identity akin to Ocarina of Time simplicity and a “lite” version of Dark Souls inspiration! The game is gorgeous, with light that is comforting in the oppressively black caves.
What I liked:
- The color palette, visual effects, and atmosphere of the world
- Awesome models! (Especially the Ashen diety!!! You’ll see)
- Needing to juggle using the lantern with my off-hand weapon/shield while fighting in the caverns
- The unforgiving oppressive darkness in the caves bring a unique challenge to the game
- The bosses were cool, fun, and just the right amount of challenge!
- Roughly 18 hours for completion
- Memorable NPCs due to voice acting and individualized personalities
- Simple game play mechanics so I can sit back and enjoy the game
- Fast paced combat inspired from the familiar style of the Souls/Born games
- Very simple story, told very well
What I didn’t like:
- Unmemorable music and soundscape; dull and boring sound profile
- Some things felt a bit too familiar to Dark Souls; yes, the familiarity was comforting at times, but I didn’t like how it seemed a bit too easy to be “inspired” from the those games to have 1) “souls” as currency 2) losing them and picking them all back up again after respawning 3) and a flask filled with charges to heal with until refilling them at checkpoint stones act very similarly bonfires…
- Not seeing other players’ customizations, though I concede to the rationale. More of a personal gripe
All in all, I really don’t have many problems with Ashen! I actually had to rack my mind to try to think of things I really disliked about it. The game is fun, beautiful, fast-paced, with a simple story told very well with awesome enemy and NPC designs! And to top it off, well-designed, cool bosses that are straight up fun to fight? If I could travel back in time, I would’ve save this game to play over a week I was off of work and all responsibilities.
Yes, I scored it higher than 7.
Ashen is out now on the Epic Games Store, Xbox One, and available on Microsoft’s GamePass.