Its become a bit of a joke around the Internet that game reviewers often cite Dark Souls in their work. Anything remotely challenging is compared to Dark Souls, and any vaguely similar game design elements are, too. But in the case of Ashen it’s a very fair comparison. In many ways Ashen is Dark Souls Lite, a game that takes what people love about Dark Souls and finds ways to pare it back into a streamlined package. Somehow, Ashen still manages to be its own thing, too.
- Available On PC, Xbox One
- Reviewed On: Xbox One X
- Developer: A44
- Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
The story can be initially daunting due to the terminology that gets thrown around. I admit to feeling a tad lost at first. But then everything started coming together, and while Ashen won’t win any awards for its storytelling it manages to create an intriguing premise of a world without sun. As the game opens a new age of light has begun, the lore behind the how and why being something I won’t delve into. But ultimately you can opt to play without paying too much attention to the strange words, names and concepts floating around if you prefer. For those willing to take their time, though, there’s a rewarding world to be found.
While Ashen is frequently dark it smartly contrasts that with plenty of light, too. The art style is nigh-on impossible to describe using just words, so it’s a good thing that there plenty of screenshots scattered around this review. The broad strokes let the developers hide their budget restraints when it comes to texturing while painting the world with personality. What grabbed the most was the consistency in terms of world design within Ashen. While some might argue that it can and does result in a slight feeling of repetition, the end result is more than justified as everything feels cohesive.
Even the people in Ashen’s world are surprisingly cheerful. Sure, there are lots of people who want to clobber you, but outside of enemies the inhabitants of Ashen are a chirpy bunch who seem to look for the beauty within their world. Who can blame them, since their world was once blanketed in darkness but now is bathed in light?
Your time in Ashen is split between exploring the world and fighting off the many humans and horrible creatures that inhabit it. In keeping with the streamlined theme the combat has a stripped down feel yet still manages to remain satisfying and fun. Armed with either a two-handed weapon or a one-handed weapon with a shield you have access to light and heavy attacks, as well as a dodge and the ability to block incoming blows.
There’s a weight and deliberate feel to the combat that at first can be jarring as it feels slow and clumsy compared to many of the slick, fast styles seen in other games. Even your light attacks feel slower than normal, and that’s because Ashen wants you to focus on timing and knowledge of enemy types over everything else. You need to pick the right time to go on the offensive, especially since your dodge and block can’t always get you out of trouble.
Stamina dictates everything you can do in a fight. Run out of it and you can’t attack, block or dodge, so you always need to keep a weary eye on the bar. This stamina system sets the pace of fights, forcing you to take your time and go on the offensive at the opportune moment.
Ultimately the combat is simplistic but the execution is generally superb. I also appreciate how different weapons do handle differently. But it’s also fair to say that as I drew closer to the 10-15 hours needed to complete Ashen I was wishing for a little more variety in the fights.
You don’t level up throughout Ashen, instead your power will increase through the slow acquisition of new gear as well as Scoria, a type of currency you earn that will be dropped upon your death. Luckily, in another Dark Souls nod you can retrieve your lost Scoria, though should you die again it will be lost. It’s a smart system that ratchets up the tension as you explore, constantly whispering that you should head back to safety rather than press on. It makes dying feel like a blow to the solar plexus, as well.
A lot of your upgrades will come from the town of Vagrants Rest which, in a beautiful touch, gets slowly built as you complete quests and progress through the main storyline. You can invest in making your weapons more powerful, craft spears for ranged attacks and even equip special relics that boost your stats or provide other helpful abilities. As you stumble across new people on your journey they’ll move into the town, opening up new options. None of them get much characterization via dialogue, which is a shame, but their designs help give them personality. Quite a few of them offer up side-missions as well. The design of the quests might be generic but doing them feels worthwhile, both in terms of upgrades to your gear and getting to watch Vagrant’s Rest expand.
The potential breaking point that will likely determine if you love or hate Ashen comes when you seek out the third boss. This section involves a challenging delve into an underground labyrinth filled to the brim with monsters who love to hide around corners and narrow ledges where falling off is easy. Down in the darkness you have to choose between forgoing a shield or two-handed weapon in favour of holding a lantern, or having impaired vision. Weirdly when you climb a ladder your avatar just hooks the lantern to their belt. Why can’t they do that the rest of the time, huh? Video game logic is weird.
Just before you reach the boss you encounter a ritual stone that refills your Gourd (it contains health replenishing sap) but unlike most of the other stones this one doesn’t allow for fast travel. If the boss kills you, you face another 20-40 minute trek through the dungeon. It’s a brutal section of the game, a wall of difficulty that almost broke me a few times. Finally beating it, though, does give you immense satisfaction. Still, this might be the point where some players simply switch Ashen off.
Along the way you’ll frequently have a companion that’s sometimes controlled by the A.I. and other times by an actual person who has been plopped into your game, provided you have the appropriate option enabled. The way the system has been handled is interesting, as the transitions between A.I. and player can frequently leave you without help during crucial moments. On top of that your A.I. companion is just as prone to wandering off as real players are, sometimes simply vanishing. I encountered long stretches where the A.I. would disappear, but no player would enter the game, either.
Yet despite tending to vanish at the wrong time and despite the so-so characterization you come to care about whoever is running around with you. Much of that comes down to their timely saves just when you think all hope is lost. They aren’t puppy dogs that follow you around all the time and that makes their disappearance and their reappearance special.
From a technical standpoint, Ashen is mostly a very polished game with no major performance issues or glitches, at least on the Xbox One X. However, it wasn’t perfect; in a few areas audio would cut out for a second or two. Meanwhile, baddies occasionally get stuck on various pieces of the environment. Such small blemishes, though, barely mar the overall experience.
Perhaps Ashen is a little too Dark Souls-y for its own good at times, but it still forges its own identity. Its beautiful world and fantastic art style draw you in while the simple yet nicely executed gameplay keeps you going. It’s challenging without being overly punishing, the mid-game dungeon delve being the exception to this. Ashen is ultimately a superb title and absolutely recommended, especially since Xbox Games Pass owners can download it right now for no extra cost.