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July 2019


Platform(s): PC, Xbox One
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Developer: Aurora44
Release Date: Dec. 7, 2018


PC Review - 'Ashen'

by Cody Medellin on April 26, 2019 @ 2:00 a.m. PDT

Ashen is an action RPG about a wanderer in search of a place to call home.

Buy Ashen

The success of From Software's Souls line of games has meant an increased presence of games that copy the formula and titles that take do something a little different with the inspiration. Lords of the Fallen is a good example of a game that has plenty of similarities but with a different mythology attached, while The Surge is a futuristic take with the ability to swap out robotic body parts from fallen enemies. Before From's own Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice arrived on the scene, Koei Tecmo had feudal Japan covered with Nioh, and Let It Die gave players a postapocalyptic setting wrapped in Suda51's trademark oddness. Ashen, the debut game from developer A44, also does its part in terms of adding something new to the formula, and the results are good.

The story starts off with the tale of the Ashen, beings who are made of light and live amongst the stars. One day, one of the Ashen happens to land upon a great tree, and that tree starts spreading light into the dark underground. The Ashen's eventual death led to the birth of three great beings, one of which was mankind. The fading light of the Ashen sparked unrest. As you and your companion hear this tale, you witness the birth of a new light near your campsite. As both of you approach the location, an explosion occurs, and since you come away unscathed, you're tasked with protecting the light as it grows and hopefully becomes a new Ashen.

In case you're unfamiliar with the core functionality of the Souls games and similar titles, Ashen is a basic 3D adventure game that's grounded in some reality. Stamina governs almost everything you do, and while walking is fine, running is limited to the amount of stamina you have. Endlessly flailing your weapon around is also grounded in your stamina reserves, with your heavy and light attacks taking away different amounts of stamina. Dodging and shield blocks are also affected by this, so all of your combat situations are dependent on stamina management and ensuring movements aren't wasted. Your stamina refills at a decent pace over time, so whiffed blows can easily be fixed up, but your health will not budge on its own, and even glancing blows take off a good chunk of your health. You can refill this with food and flasks or by praying at ritual stones, but the latter also resurrects any enemies you've killed before.

Ashen may take huge chunks of the Souls gameplay as its own, but it does a good enough job that you won't mind. The presence of one- and two-handed weapons isn't surprising, and neither are the different moves associated with them, but the smaller assortment of weapons and shields can surprise a few people. The loss of currency upon death is ever-present, and there's a need to go back and recover it before another death takes it away, but it doesn't seem to be an emphasis. For the most part, returning to your corpse and recovering the collectible is a nice bonus, but you get enough from regular combat that venturing toward your body isn't worth the trouble, especially if it's in an out-of-the-way place.

There are also plenty of fast-travel points you encounter through the game, and while some of the places are outdoor forests or dank caves, the world feels more varied with some opulent cities and such. The game also happens to give you some free rein with how you want your journey to progress, so while you can normally power through a bunch of quests before meeting the first boss, you can make it more difficult and go straight to the creature if you wish.

There are two major things that make Ashen very different from other similar titles. The first is the presence of a hub world that appears shortly after you clear out the first major area in the game. Progression through the title leads to some of the things you'd come to expect from a hub world, such as the ability to craft goods. New members of the town send you on side-quests to further power yourself up or increase the number of items you can carry at a time.

It's a nice addition to the formula, but its presence is amplified in little ways. Each character in town has a story to tell as you go through the game, so they become more than just avatars for certain functions. Playing through the game means you get to see some houses and structures go from simple hovels to something more ornate. Your accomplishments in side-quests are also reflected in the appearance of the town inhabitants. Many small things like that give you a sense of how your actions affect the world around you, and in a game where your journey to vanquish evil often feels lonely, the presence of the growing town is a neat way to combat that loneliness.

Speaking of which, the second major element of the game is the presence of co-op. You'll always be accompanied by an AI partner, and while that means there are arbitrary uses of co-op, like requiring two people to open some doors, it has more of an impact in combat. Flanking and ambushes can become a thing, and the AI is often adept at its job. For the most part, you won't catch them wasting away their moves, and they won't get in front of you unless you're hurt and they have a chance for a counter-attack. Those looking for something more akin to what other games provide can still turn off the feature, and that'll also result in a much more difficult experience, since the title is more balanced with another person in tow.

There are a few things that are lacking when it comes to the co-op experience, though. While the AI behavior is generally good, there are times when it seems like it can get stuck somewhere, but that hasn't happened as much as expected. There's no way to equip your partner to your liking. If you feel like your partner needs a spear and a shield but they're holding a two-handed club, there's no way to change their mind.

All of those complaints are nullified when you realize that co-op is also available for online players. At any point in time, so long as you have your settings active for online play, your companion character can be controlled by someone else. That helps solve the issue of having your partner be ill-equipped for the upcoming battle, and thanks to the lack of friendly damage, you won't have to worry about someone coming online to your game and griefing you at the worst possible moment. The presence of online players is completely anonymous, though, so there's no indication that you have a real person playing except that their behavior is more erratic than that of the AI. There's also no way of communicating with other players, which can make it difficult to pull off some of the more coordinated attack plans unless you can read body language very well and vice versa.

The presentation is wonderful thanks to a liberal use of light and shadow. The bright areas stand in stark contrast to other games that only use darkness to create atmosphere. While the colors can be quite muted, it makes the darker caves and other underground areas stand out more since the darkness feels suffocating until you get a lantern to illuminate the area. The game also has an interesting art style; most things are fairly detailed, but the faces of just about every person is blank. You only realize this when you find few options on the character creation screen, but it makes the game look distinct, whether you like it or not. Elsewhere, the music is moving, but the voicework punctuates the quality of the audio, with each actor nailing their roles so well that emotion is always seeping through.

Overall, Ashen is a great title. The Souls formula may be adapted nearly wholesale, but the art style gives the game a different vibe. The presence of co-op at all times makes each run feel feasible, since the odds rarely feel impossible to overcome, and the presence of a community to grow gives you a real sense of progression and purpose. Unless you're completely burned out by the formula, Ashen is an adventure that's well worth checking out.

Score: 8.5/10

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