Well, how’s this for an early Christmas gift? An objectively good game releasing on the Xbox Game Pass!
One thing I will say before anything is that Microsoft can eat a bag of sand for not even bothering to promote the sudden release of this title. Surprises are one thing, but Ashen is a title that isn’t going to ring ears or drop underwear. This isn’t some AAA studio funding this, this is just Annapurna doing what they do best; publishing weird shit. Whether it was intentional or not, imagine my shock when Ashen arrived.
This is the debut title from New Zealand studio Aurora44, who I cannot find any information for. Let’s focus on the publisher then, which is the notoriously arty Annapurna. Responsible for producing films like The Master, Her, and Sausage Party (No, seriously), they moved into video-game publishing territory in 2017, starting with the seemingly infallible What Remains of Edith Finch. Ashen is a step in a different direction compared to the titles they’ve published before.
You play as a lone wanderer, a wanderer so alone that even Courier Six would gaze in envy. Your character lives in a world without light, and with your introduction, it is time for the light to return. The Ashen lights the stage and wipes the proverbial slate of the Dark Ones clean from the planet, and now? Now you have to rebuild, and find yourself a home, all the while doing the work that the actual good guys couldn’t.
One thing that almost turned me off from Ashen immediately was the unnecessary density of the writing. A lot of the characters speak in riddles when they shouldn’t, and something like “Go over here” would be a stupid rigmarole like “Adventurer! Hark as you hear thy words! Arrive at the land where feet don’t move, but hands are working!”. Thankfully, the pretentious air over the dialogue begins to dissipate shortly after the intro, and everything from there is really bloody good.
Honestly, I don’t think anyone was expecting Ashen to be as damn good as it turned out to be upon booting it up, from naysayers to people unaware of its existence until now, to people actually excited for it. From the second you begin to realise what you need to do, the life of the game flourishes in a way that no other game truly does. The sound, the feel, the tone, the fire, it all begins to click, and truthfully, I don’t even know where to start.
The combat’s a great place to begin, which is unashamedly Souls-like in design, something the developers are proud to admit, which is fair. The battles that take place within Ashen aren’t breakneck clashes of steel and anime poses, nor are they For Honor levels of slow and sticky. What it is, is the sweet spot, something that Bloodborne supposedly executed also.
Hits have weight and power behind them, enemies can be right cheeky sods with some powerful moves behind them, and the bosses? Oh good grief, the bosses are fun to fight. Ashen is one of the first video games to do Ads right in a video game. They don’t exist just to give you some form of external power, and they’re not there to completely take over the players intentions. They’re nothing more than the bosses minions, and they don’t spawn quick enough to completely screw you over, or slow enough that they’re never actually a threat. What they are is the perfect balance.
While playing through the game, I was confused by how my AI partner was acting. Dressed as an NPC, I assumed that he was running off and getting killed due to bad design of the AI on A44’s part. The real answer however, is that these partners are actually other people playing the game at the same point as you are, in a passive state and replacing the AI’s character model slightly.
Narratively, it works. I believe the point of Ashen is a focus on rebuilding society as a collective, and not as separated sections of people. It’s a joint effort at the end of the day, and no matter what your title is or was, you were just as important as the other guy. Sure, he might have killed one monster and pissed off, but that’s still progress.
Nevertheless, do keep this in mind if you die because your partner splits off from you and dies immediately; it’s not the games fault, it’s just people being people. That being said, since you don’t know who’s supposed to be doing what within their progress of the game, it’s kind of understandable that somebody in your game is going to run off and do their own thing. Is that Aurora44’s fault? No, it’s just a small sacrifice the game ideologies had to make.
Honestly though, you might not need the extra help, as battles rarely tend to be these massive feats of dodge-rolling skill. You’ll be overwhelmed with enemies, sure, but never truly outmatched, and this is all thanks to a combat system that is both paced and weighed down appropriately. I’d even go so far to say that it’s the nicest-feeling combat in any Souls-like NOT made by From Software and its partners.
One interesting thing to note about the mechanics of progression in Ashen is that there’s no real way of levelling-up. Instead the progression of your skills and endurance comes from how you progress in the game, coming off as more natural and free-flowing. You won’t be levelling up or min/maxing your stats to the nth degree, you’ll adapt as you see fit, and if you choose to just run straight to the finish line instead of biding your time, you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself.
Obviously the game has a currency that you obtain by destroying enemies and monsters, and that comes in the form of “Scoria”. If you’re wondering what Scoria could be used for, it’s mostly to do with the crafting system the game has in place. Do enough tasks and missions for people in the town and they’ll slowly open up the possibilities of being able to craft, upgrade and attune better stuff to your character. Mechanically, it’s as tight as it gets.
Also, don’t use the spears. I won’t spoil why but when you find out, you’ll be like “Ohhhhhh shit!”.
If there’s one part of the game that wholeheartedly takes the entire toilet bowl of piss however, it’s the enemy placement, which is just downright infuriating. If you’re going through a narrow doorway, there’s a 90 percent chance that some prick is on the other side, ready to slam you down without you being able to counter. Snobbier people would call that “Not being aware of your surroundings”, but it’s just claustrophobic bullshit.
When it’s not being trapped by a prick you couldn’t possibly foresee, you’ll have to go through an endurance test of nonsense just trying to see the end of your mission complete. Again, you’re never truly outmatched or outgunned, but some stretches of battles go on for way too long without a break in-between the action, which is something that not even the worst Dark Souls games do.
This endless barrage of enemies hurts the game more than it helps keep the player excited. It’s hard to believe that everybody came to Ashen looking for constant fights, because it betrays the games tone more than it helps. Trying to confront Amiren was a task easier said than done, as you’re forced to deal with this insane gauntlet of the toughest enemies in the game thus far, and former bosses. Every once in a while, you see enemies being inventive with the world and level design, but some of the placements go over the top in terms of normal difficulty structure. The entirety of Bronzed Mire can kiss my ass.
There is also light platforming which you’ll take part in throughout most of your adventure. Ashen rewards the more meticulous explorers with goodies like new armour, weaponry and upgrade materials, with a lot of it hiding in sections where you need to time jumps or inspect the land around you for a way up. Surprisingly, the control scheme works quite well, and the way most platforming parts have been designed don’t necessarily require precise movements, just speed and agility.
When it comes to how Ashen feels visually, and how it ties visually to the tone and the atmosphere, it’s fairly top-notch. The world feels massive, even if the map looks to be quite small, and the faceless nature of everyone paired slow redefinition of the lands definitely adds some impact once progress starts becoming more apparent. However, there’s a lot of it that feels stretched out, with grey (no pun intended) ashen forests dominating the colour palette for a good ten hours.
As for the tone, because of the design of how enemies approach the player and constantly want to have a scrap, a lot of the soothing atmosphere that’s set up throughout each level can be lost. Again, you can have these fights that are relentless scraps of iron and muscle, by all means, but that brevity needs to be there, and a simple transition between each new area isn’t enough.
One thing you will have to look out for is the performance of the game, which does chug slightly once you start picking up the pace. When you reach new areas or more graphically noisy sections, the game will drop frames like it’s bass, and will continue to drop frames until a co-op partner is found. Turning off the multiplayer entirely will stop consistent frame rate drops, but some will persist.
When the world of Ashen isn’t looking to kill you, you’ll be treated to a soundtrack varied in scope and nature, along with being really good. Foreign Fields are the band responsible for a score that doesn’t seek to be bombastic, nor does it seek to be overblown. It’s the perfect sweet spot of being both exhilarating and calming, blood-pumping and sinister.
Finally, the narrative is lacking. It’s no Dark Souls obviously, because that would require a water-tight, comprehensive and concise explanation of what happened in these lands, and as stated previously, the writing tends to get lost up its own ass. When it’s not trying to sound deeper than what it actually is, you’re treated to some simply weird voice acting from almost everyone involved.
Bataran, your first friend in this cold world, he’s not too bad, he sounds like someone who could give you a ride to the shops if you needed milk. Jokell and Vorsa play their roles a bit fast and loose with varying levels of charisma and conviction, Eila’s odd dialect proved to be somewhat charming and the best performance throughout, with the second place going to Flokir and his charming nature. Finally there’s Amara and Silaren, who were… well, they weren’t bad, but it certainly sounded like they were overdoing their own roles and presence within the story.
The thing that breaks my heart the most about Ashen is that it isn’t perfect. While that might sound like a redundant thing to say, I meant that out of all the games that came out this year, this one certainly had the most potential to break its own self-imposed shackles and show every other developer how you rip off Dark Souls in a graceful manner. As it stands, the journey was great, but not excellent.
In the end, Ashen hits most of the notes it needed to in order to be a faithful Dark Souls clone, and doing so without ripping off too much ideas, and without adding too many new ones. The combat is as close to From Software’s baby as you’re going to get, the characters are memorable, if hit-and-miss, the world is unforgiving, almost too much at times, and the music is exceptional. Anybody who’s looking to rip off Miyazaki, pay attention.
This is how it’s done.
This review of Ashen is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
Whatever missteps Ashen makes can be mostly overlooked, save for the worlds rarely unforgiving nature. This was a journey that enticed me from start to finish, and I pray to The Lord Bruce Lee that it'll do the same to you.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.