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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Dear Villagers
Developer: Nameless XIII
Release Date: April 15, 2021

About Lauren "Feffy" Hall

I am a freelance writer based in Canada, where it's too cold to go outside; therefore, we play a lot of video games. I'm an expert zombie slayer (the virtual kind), amateur archer (for actual zombie slaying and general apocalypse purposes - it could happen), and a work-in-progress wife and mother (IRL). My claim to fame: I completed the original MYST without looking up cheats. It took several years. What other accomplishments does one need in life?


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PC Review - 'Ashwalkers'

by Lauren "Feffy" Hall on Aug. 26, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Ashwalkers is a survival journey through a harsh world without rules or judgement, where only the player's choices matter in the face of moral dilemmas.

Finding a survival game that I like, or even finish, is harder than it should be. So often they are unrealistic first-person shooters, or desolate, linear ventures that are neither challenging nor interesting. Ashwalkers by indie gaming company Nameless XIII is different, and its narrative-driven survival simulation was so enjoyable, I found myself immersed at my computer for hours at a time. For a self-confessed toe-dipper when it comes to games, this is no small feat.

It's no wonder, really, when you consider who the clever folks behind Ashwalkers are. Developed by a few of the original brains from Dontnod, who created another great game, Life is Strange, the playthrough experience provided by Ashwalkers is a far cry from the monotony that somehow finds its way into survival sims. Strange, too, that survival games are often full of doldrums and menial tasks that don't entertain or engage their players, when surviving an apocalypse is probably the opposite of boring and tedious — but I digress.

This narrative-driven, postapocalyptic journey is an extremely well executed "choose your own adventure" tale and point-and-click survival simulator rolled into one tidy package. Ashwalkers has a few elements of some of the best survival games in my gaming repertoire, such as the stat tracking and inventory management system found in the well-received winter survival game, Distrust. Just as is the case in Distrust, you need to monitor and effectively handle each squad member's warmth, hunger, and energy levels, and you need to keep them relatively encouraged along their journey to be successful in your playthrough. They need strength to gather materials to fuel their journey, and it's your job to make sure they use those materials appropriately. As far as I know, members of your group can die, although I didn't ever let any of them get so low in any area that this was a significant threat, but it's worth noting, especially considering the importance of having a full group as you make your way to your goal. All four are valuable members of the team.

On that note, Squad Three's goal is a heavy burden to bear, and there is a lot riding on its success. The squad's mission is to travel to the fabled Dome of Domes, a safe haven rumored to be the only hope for long-term prosperity for 250,000 cataclysm survivors. The Dome, however, may not even exist, but that's why the success of the team is so vital, and since a cataclysmic disaster wiped out most of the planet, the very lives of those survivors are depending on Squad Three to find a new, more permanent home.

Squad Three consists of Kali, Nadir, Petra and Sinh, all of whom have their particular strengths and weaknesses to round out the party. Donning gas masks to help them breathe the unclean air, they walk (slowly) along the ashen terrain, gathering resources, picking up tidbits of information, and escaping mortal peril along the way.

The terrain is a work of art; the game as a whole is a work of art, and that's saying something, considering that almost the entire game is colored with a relatively bland, gray palette. In the current noir-obsessed gaming environment, black and white contrasts are the go-to choices for color schemes, if games like Limbo are anything to go by. Other games defer to bright, bold splashes of color to help them stand out from the crowd. Surprisingly, the muted gray in Ashwalkers is eye-catching by comparison to these other games, and the ashen wash of gray on the screen ties in well with the story. The world, in this dreary apocalypse, is literally covered in ash and soot, so the solitary shade that paints it is perfect.

Even the cut scenes are mostly varying shades of gray and white, and the scene transitions are done with the visual effect of paper burning into — you guessed it — ash. It's not easy to tie the art to the theme of the game, but Ashwalkers pulls it off nicely.

The only variant from the ash palette is seen when a player is injured, in which case splashes of red demonstrate a player's injury status. I found this to be an alarmingly glaring indicator that bothered my obsessive need to soothe my weary team, so it was an effective use of the only other color in the game. I felt satisfied in stopping and camping to heal and encourage the squad as often as I could to avoid the angry red creeping on my screen. In addition to the dreary but effective art, the music paired nicely with the title, adding to the dystopian feel of the environment and the squad's dire mission.

The team is nudged along with a simple point-and-click mechanic; however, you have no control over the regularly changing camera angle. At times, as your squad slowly meanders onto a field or road, the camera suddenly pans to a top-down position and reverts to its previous angle once the team has crossed some invisible checkpoint. Many players found this to be a fault in the game's design, and while I, too, found it disorientating and frustrating, I don't believe it was an error on the part of the development team. The team is traveling in an ash-covered wasteland while wearing gas masks, so it seems likely that their vision might sometimes be hindered. What's more, the moments when the camera does something funky seem to be indicators that the group is about to stumble onto a predator or predicament, so in many ways, it is a creative way to punctuate the story.

Another way the artwork and visibility come into play is the fading daylight. I found myself cursing the darkness that surrounded my team at one point and realized, stupidly, that it was dark because it was nighttime, and my squad would not feasibly be able to see any better than I could. The best thing to do was to camp at night.

When the squad camps, you can direct them to guard, rest, talk (this helps to encourage each other) or explore for materials. Camp also provides you with an opportunity to manage their hunger, warmth, and need for medicine. Ideally, each camp leaves your team's status bars mostly full before you venture off again.

This is not always possible, depending on how you play the game. Ashwalkers offers many possible endings — 34, to be exact — and how you play not only affects the health and well-being of your group, but it also impacts where you end up at the close of the game. If you play aggressively, there's a chance that you'll waste a lot of medicine healing your entire party, but if you play too diplomatically, you may waste resources in trade with people who might hurt you anyway. Your decisions pave the way, and having several options at each interval made it impossible to tear myself away from the game.

The resources were surprisingly easy to notice in the interface: animated, swaying tendrils of light beneath each patch of a particular resource. It's important to keep an eye on the inventory, which is usually something I find tedious, but in Ashwalkers, it felt necessary. Inventory management goes hand in hand with squad member management, and it's a balancing act that isn't too difficult to handle. Use the resources when needed (often), and if you have an abundance, as I did at one point, you can stop gathering that resource until you need it again. The game is pretty forgiving when it comes to the frequency of the placement of the resources; exploring smartly while you camp can also garner some favorable resource gathering.

Keeping your party full and happy is important even when you can camp frequently, but it's even more vital when you are in an area where you are unable to camp. These stretches can go on for a considerable time, especially with your party wandering along at a snail's pace, so it's best to keep them sufficiently managed as often as possible.

At times, the party's progress stops, and given a choice to overcome a particular obstacle. The dilemmas are simply but appropriately named — one was titled "The Hound," for example — and are followed by a short description of the dilemma or obstacle in your path. You are then presented with choices, but sometimes, the choices are crossed off due to a lack of resources. These are the choices that pave the way forward for your crew, so choose carefully! The choices also give you a glimpse of your squad members' particular skills and natural advantages, much like in Dungeons & Dragons when a player with higher Charisma makes a better impression on a nomad than one holding a lower value. It's the same idea but a simpler execution.

Beyond the odd complicated or even morally challenging decision you need to make, Ashwalkers is not a difficult or action-packed game. It's more of an animated story that unfolds as you travel to your destination, and there's no genuine threat to your squad's safety as long as you pay attention. As a narrative game, it's certainly entertaining enough for the genre.

There are a few minimal bugs or design flaws that aren't deal-breakers; sometimes, a new block of text appears over an old block, making both harder to read due to the transparency of the frame. Other times, while walking as a team, one member's dialogue box partially disappears, but this text mostly served to add color to the game.

There are some features that make a player's life easier, such as being able to click on the text to make it appear faster (a feature that should be in any text-based game), and while there's no quick save option, there's no real need to reload the game at any point, since the expectation is that your choices affect the outcome.

By no means is Ashwalkers an action-packed survival adventure sim, but the story and importance of the journey was compelling enough to have me on the edge of my seat through my playthrough. I cared about Squad Three and wanted them to succeed, and for a narrative-driven game such as this, isn't that all you can ask for? If postapocalyptic survival games are your jam, Ashwalkers is worth its very reasonable $12 price tag and offers a different spin on the genre that you know and love.

Score: 8.0/10

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