Let’s get it out of the way; disparagers of Ashen will instantly say “bUt Itz A dArk sOULs cLoNe” (know your memes, dear readers). The combat operates on the same principle — everything from the smallest warrior to the mightiest monster will murder you quickly and efficiently unless you dodge out of the way (or block with your shield should you have one), wait for an opening, and rain merry hell upon them for leaving their defences down. Save points are scarce and you will scream when you inevitably fall to tooth, claw or blade and drop all your hard earned scoria deep in a dungeon which you had spent so much time meticulously delving into. You lose concentration for a split second, and your only reward will be a hammer to your chest and your spirit sent right back to the last point of sanctuary, usually some miles away.
But Ashen, despite its vicious brutality, is a story about hope and it absolutely plays as such. You are on a quest to bring light to a world that has been in perpetual darkness for centuries after the Ashen (the ‘God-Bird’ that essentially behaved like the world’s sun) fell and, with its imminent resurrection (because reasons), the land has begun to illuminate again. You are tasked with quickly seeking out relics to aid the Ashen, save those souls seeking the light and banishing those who wish to remain in darkness. Indeed, there are no real moral grey areas in Ashen’s narrative. Everything from the dungeons, the sweeping forests, the sounds of water and the way everyone speaks has a wonderful sense of clarity and gravitas.
This clarity is echoed by how Ashen handles character progression. Essentially, you don’t level up — you only get new gear, or upgrade it. You do this by defeating enemies and gaining scoria (the game's currency) and trading it with the appropriate vendor. There are no stats for your character, only that of the weapon, armour, lantern and shield which you choose to wield. There are also talismans you can wear to garnish your champion with a little individual flavour — I, for example, chose to eschew a shield for constantly having my lantern equipped with a talisman that stunned enemies. Admittedly I did this primarily for aesthetics, it felt in keeping with the story, but there really is a myriad of options available to any individual’s personal playstyle — even if the weapons generally boil down to ‘hit with big club’ or ‘chop with fast axe’ (or vice versa). There are a good number of variations cosmetically, and you can find new weapons with overall improved stats during your travels across the world, too. I found myself using the more nimble single-handed options rather than the monstrous double-handed weapons available. Though in my travels I found my decision to be the exception and not the rule in comparison to my companions.
As mentioned at the beginning, combat is where Ashen could be accused of being derivative. However, I can’t help but feel that that's unfair — Dark Souls may have laid the foundations of what stamina-based combat looks and feels like, but that doesn’t mean it has the monopoly on it. Ashen uses a familiar mechanic, yes, but it is very much in keeping of the spirit of its world and narrative. To be a simple hack and slash would cheapen the gravitas of the game — it simply needs to be this brutal, because the world and its darkness are utterly unforgiving. The battle for the soul of a world, one could say, does not come cheap or easy.
And it is that battle between light and dark that gives Ashen’s world a real sense of drama. Whilst you begin in a relatively rainy, though bright, region you get an immediate sense of danger that darkness brings when you head into your first dungeon. It is utterly oppressive. You find yourself having to balance using your lantern to see potential dangers, versus equipping a hardy shield to protect yourself from the inevitable attacks from the shadows. With no map to speak of, either, you have to keep a mental note of where you have travelled and where you are going as well. However, reassuringly, there is a certain logic to dungeon design, allowing for extremely few moments of frustration.
This dynamic of light and dark is keenly used within the vast open world as a whole. Whether trudging through literal ash-wastes, plundering through ancient ruins, or chasing down your quarry in pastel-coloured plains, you develop a keen sense of the world changing in the face of your quests. This is none more evident than in your settlement of Vagrants Rest which develops, offering you more tools to aid you the more successful you are throughout the game. It’s largely cosmetic, but it helps in giving you a real sense of accomplishment as you progress.
In an interesting twist, you are never alone in Ashen. You are always accompanied by the quest-giver of your currently selected mission. They are more than capable and rarely a nuisance or a burden — but that is not just down to the AI. Ashen operates a passive multiplayer system, in that at any given moment, your companion may be being controlled by a human player. The avatar does not change, it is still the quest-giver accompanying you, but you can often tell that you are joined by a fellow human by just observing their actions. More running around and reacting to whatever is near them, rather than seemingly following a strict path. Having a companion significantly lowers the difficulty of the game (though it is still extremely unforgiving), and it does have the option of actively joining a game with a friend via inputting a multiplayer code — which to date has not given me a single issue, and was very enjoyable, especially when trying to complete a dungeon.
There are some technical issues that mire an otherwise seamless experience. Sound sometimes came across in stutters for a few seconds, especially during particularly busy fights or when running across a significantly populated area. There was also some vagueness to enemy hitboxes, as well as just a slightly sloppy graphical tendency to allow your character to blend in with the enemy character models when up close and personal. These things didn’t happen a lot, but they were noticeable when they occured.
Ashen has gripped me in a way I rather wasn’t expecting. The cel-shaded art-style, with its blank faces barring a few key features, enraptured me rather than alienated me. Its music and soundscapes are full of whimsy and wonder, rather than dramatic orchestral beats meant to get the blood pumping. Everything about it has a sense of calm in the face of very real danger, and for that reason it feels like a warm blanket when you’re playing it — even if it only takes a momentary lapse of concentration to allow the knife to slip between your ribs and into your heart.
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