A soulful sojourn.
The impact that Dark Souls has had on this generation of games is undeniable. Its trademark mechanics like hunting for bonfire safe zones and having to recover your experience upon death have been adopted by the likes of Nioh. The morose Gothic atmosphere has been recycled by many, such as Hollow Knight. And then, of course, are the more direct copycats like Lords of the Fallen and Salt and Sanctuary.
Ashen fits neatly within the latter category, borrowing enough ideas from Souls games that you’ll be left in no doubt of its inspiration. But whereas few have succeeded in recapturing the lightning in a bottle, Ashen comes remarkably close while still managing to craft an identity of its own.
Sorry, I know this isn’t the first review comparing a game to Dark Souls. It won’t be the last, either. So let’s get the obvious comparisons out of the way first: Ashen is a third-person action RPG; you can die in a few hits; upon doing so you’ll have to recover souls from your corpse; souls can be used to upgrade your abilities; these include a limited-use health potion; visiting shrines restores your potions, saves the game and lets you fast travel and reset the world’s enemies. Any of that sound familiar?
But Ashen sets itself apart in crucial ways. An important ingredient of the Souls formula is oppression. Claustrophobic labyrinths twist and turn back upon themselves, around every corner a horrifying ghoul waiting to take you unawares. Ashen’s world is comparatively vast, an expansive landscape which is rewarding to explore and provides breathing room for the encounters within it.
Its abstract art style is less intimidating, too. Objects have a geometric quality to them, painted in washed-out textures. Characters are polygonal and lack facial features. In spite of this, the world is lovingly detailed and has a somber beauty to it. The lighting is a standout feature, from the golden glow of the sun seeping over the horizon to the overbearing gloom of dungeons – the one time that Ashen does get a little creepy.
Ashen throws a lot of challenges at you but equally puts a lot at your disposal to try and even the odds. You can significantly upgrade your potions and gear, amass a hefty armoury of weapons, equip various perks, use extra health items on top of your potions and collect feathers across the world which give a permanent little boost to your max health or stamina.
As you travel further across the world, you gather more NPCs to Vagrant’s Rest, a town you set up early in your journey. A neat added touch is that over time the NPCs construct more buildings in your absence, making it more of a home. This expanding town consequently opens up a wider breadth of activities, like crafting, and side quests.
It’s no secret that open-world games have become bogged down in an excessive amount of stuff to do – looking at you, Ubisoft. The temptation can be to put the blinkers on and focus on the main story, lest you lose days of your life. In Ashen, the side quests won’t waste your time, and damn, do they make a difference. Each one is not just an entertaining expedition in its own right, they deliver valuable experience, equipment or ability unlocks and a stamina or health boost. Ignore them at your peril.
The characters of Vagrant’s Rest also form part of another important mechanic: the companion system. One will accompany you on quests, providing company in your otherwise solitary endeavours. Even better, they can either be a strong AI character or a real player facing the same odds. And in Journey style, it can seamlessly switch between the two without your knowledge. It’s a fantastic system. In theory.
The problem is, both halves of the system are broken. The online function was completely non-functional at launch and still isn’t totally fixed. I experienced times where not just my companion but the whole world around me would lag, with enemies seemingly not registering my attacks. At best it’d break immersion; at worst, it’d crash the game and lose my progress. Disabling online multiplayer is the most reliable solution but not only is this a shame, but the AI is also far from perfect. They have an uncanny ability to wander off during the most gruelling fights and saunter back, nonchalant, as soon as the danger has subsided. “Oh, I hope I didn’t miss anything?”
I felt this the worst during a particularly arduous descent through a story quest dungeon. A sprawling cavern in which every death sent me back to the beginning, I was relying on my companion to help me through. When it works, your partner is a lifeline that makes Ashen less punishing and frustrating than others in its genre. But my companion regularly fell off a ledge or vanished altogether, leaving me to tackle the remainder by myself.
On a more superficial level, NPCs are also hit-and-miss in delivering the story. Voice acting ranges from flat to embarrassing. Some characters proclaim their dialogue in a drawn-out, over-the-top manner bordering on parody. Ashen’s plot is serviceable fantasy fare, a tale of an ancient god and its resurrection. But it’s notable that in a Souls-like which puts story more front-and-centre than its inspiration, I still find myself more interested in the implicit storytelling – the world building of its crumbling ruins, shanty towns of rag-clad savages, plains swept by dust storms and mysterious depths of its caves.
Ashen is one of the most approachable and well-accomplished Souls-likes we’ve seen to date. It offers a bewitching world to discover with a character all its own. It’s unfortunate that one of its best and most unique features, companions, isn’t in a very good state right now. I believe this’ll get fixed with time. More concerning is the possibility that this gem of an action RPG gets passed over due to its absence on the most ubiquitous PC games platform. Don’t let that be a reason to miss it.
[Reviewed on PC]