Anyone who has been interested in the more niche games shown off at E3 over the last few years may remember Ashen by A44 when it was shown at Microsoft’s showcase in 2015. The game immediately caught a lot of attention due to its unique art style and character designs, with the characters having blank faces and going on an expedition into an ancient tomb filled with intimidating creatures. Despite how little of the game was shown before release there was a definite atmosphere that was well established and was captivating to a niche crowd of players. Several years later it seems most have forgotten about this game and yet the memory of that small murmuring of hype stuck with me. So, after revisiting this game how does it compare?
The gameplay loop of Ashen will feel very familiar to a lot of people, yet it still has its own identity. The bulk of the gameplay involves exploring an overworld while fighting against fantastical creatures or raiding humans. Ashen is a third-person action roleplaying game with very clear inspirations from FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series. Now I’m not simply making this comparison due to the game having difficult moments, but because of gameplay mechanics such as multiple weapons to hold in either hand, having to find where you had died to retrieve your currency and multiple areas to save your game which functions much like the campfires in Dark Souls. To put it in more official terms, it’s an action roleplaying game where you adventure across the land to find better weapons and materials to improve your character’s stats and make some challenges easier.
One element of the game which I heavily appreciated was the base building mechanic which slowly comes into play as you proceed in the game. In one of the first areas of the game, you get to slowly build up a small colony through doing side quests and investing materials and currency, allowing the barren world to have one small element of civilisation. Unfortunately, this leads into one of the elements I feel was not implemented well in this game and that’s the multiplayer. The multiplayer in this game is passive and fairly basic, it involves one of the NPC companions that sometimes accompany you across the overworld and help in combat being replaced by another player online. While it can be said the passive nature allows the immersion to be maintained even when another player is involved it unfortunately means it is very difficult to communicate with the other player (at least on the switch version which I played) and as such doesn’t feel like you’re actually playing multiplayer.
The aspect of this game which stuck out to a lot of people from day one was the art style, with the characters lack of faces and fantasy creatures creating a very intriguing world. This world is definitely realised in the wider picture with a good variety of environments with their own animals and visual vistas which while not the most graphically jaw-dropping do feel like a location that was once alive. With this art style being placed in a game with mostly dead land feels like a missed opportunity personally. Aside from the town which the player starts forming themselves there aren’t many signs of structures or towns which I feel would’ve looked very interesting in this art style and would add some more variety even if the structures were more dilapidated. The one exception to this is near the end of the map and is called the ‘Palace of Lathyrus’ (Pictured Below). This palace was perhaps one of the more memorable locations in the game and felt like it had extra attention put into it. The amount of time spent in dark caves can also be seen as a concern. While it was not an issue for me most of the time playing, the caves are very dark with some enemies being essentially shadow demons which may be a small concern in terms of eye strain.
The music in Ashen can be best summed up as, good, suitable but not truly special. The light guitar piece that plays in your hub town of Vagrant’s rest is the most memorable piece of music as you hear it fairly often and does have a very quant atmosphere. Aside from that one instance, the game’s music is suitable but nothing that truly sticks out which is a real shame.
Story/Ashen‘s Main Issue
Ashen is certainly a game with ambition and heart put into it, that much is apparent from a glance. Unfortunately, when put under heavy scrutiny the game has a lot of areas which it could improve upon. Within this review I have chosen not to talk about the story, that is due to how limited the story itself is, with your unnamed character being placed into the world to find the story themselves. The story which they can find will not be incredibly nuanced and deep which is a shame but if you go looking there is something to be found.
I feel that this story problem is a great example of Ashen’s main issue and that is it feels like it’s holding back in a lot of areas. With gameplay not altering too much from the start, just new weapons of higher damage, a soundtrack that is ambient but not too memorable and environments that feel mostly repeated with one notable exception, the pieces are all there but just needed to be pushed a little further to be truly great. I would still recommend anyone interested to play it and check how they feel for themselves as this is a game that will rely to some extent on personal experience.
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