Ashen borrows a lot from the Dark Souls series but adds enough new elements to forge its own way and create a friendlier experience.
You can’t avoid it – Ashen borrows everything from Dark Souls. The combat system, enemies that lurk in dark corners waiting to jump you, the healing flask, manual saving at checkpoints – everything. You even lose all your coin upon death.
But while other games, like Deck 13’s Lords of the Fallen, tried to compete with the original and failed, Ashen manages to surpass it in some aspects and succeeds in creating an accessible Souls-like.
Follow the Mystical Birds
Ashen is named after a mythical bird that once brought light into the world. When it died, all light gradually faded from the world. Now, with the rebirth of the Ashen, there will be those who try and extinguish its light. It’s up to our hero to guard it and help it enlighten the world once again.
After designing your faceless but graceful character, you will start your journey by clearing an area called Vagrant’s Rest from unwanted guests. The town of Vagrant’s Rest is your hub, where you return at the end of a quest to reap the rewards and see how it expands.
Developing the town quickly became the main reason I wanted to keep doing missions – more than the actual story. I often found myself playing into the night to defeat a boss, or complete an errand, only so I could return to Vagrant’s Rest and see how it changed and what’s new.
Unlike many other Souls-likes, Ashen wants to tell you a clear story. It does so through the NPCs that come and populate your town. They send you out on different missions, and through your conversations with them, you can learn more about what is going on. The NPCs even tag alone from time to time, all except Bataran. Bataran, the blacksmith with only one arm, keeps sending you to your death while he wastes away from an incurable sickness.
AI or You and I?
One of the features that sets Ashen apart is the companion system. Every time you hit the road or go on a mission, another character will join you. In case you haven’t turned off the multiplayer option, it is very likely the character beside you is actually another player. They are usually in the same story chapter as you are and are on the same mission.
The game won’t tell you if a live player is playing with you, or if it’s just an NPC. Over time, you can learn the AI behavior and figure it out on your own, but you will find yourself wondering more often than not.
The situation works both ways – you will also appear in other players’ worlds. You can even set up a private game to play with a friend, but otherwise, you’re left wondering who is this person fighting beside you. While the game is supposedly built around friendships and relationships, they are as fleeting and faceless as the character you’re playing.
Soft Visuals and Sounds
Ashen’s game world looks good and easy on the eyes. The characters may be faceless, but something is their design has a certain magic about it. Since you’re not focusing on their faces, you’ll notice other, smaller details that were carefully designed to fit personality and lore.
The different areas in the game differ from each other in both sights and sounds. In Vagrant’s Rest, you can hear the gentle trickling of a nearby stream, the music is soft and welcoming, and colors are bright and warm. But in Solitude, you hear the wind shrieking all around you, the land is covered in white, muted snow, and everything is darker.
On your way to the bosses, you will travel through gloomy and dreary dungeons, where you’ll need to use a lantern to see ahead. The way the light from the lantern shifts and enhances the shadows is nothing less than and mesmerizing.
The game’s vast, open areas run pretty smoothly, though you might notice a tiny frame drop at specific points where the game loads in a new area. But overall, playing Ashen is a fluid experience without loading screens, which is an impressive feat for any game.
A Challenging, but Not Difficult Souls-like
Ashen’s fighting mechanics will be familiar to every Dark Souls fan: it’s a stamina-based combat system.
You constantly need to manage your health and stamina with healing items or rest. Health goes down whenever you’re hit, and the stamina bar slowly depletes with every hit, block, and dodge. The Crimson Gourd is your main healing item – a flask you can drink from to gain some health. You can refill this flask whenever you rest at a Ritual Stone (the game’s version of a Bonefire) or at specific points on the map.
To survive and eventually win, you must learn the attack patterns of the enemies and their behaviors on the battlefield. When to block, when to dodge, and when to go in for the kill. It is the only way to fight the game’s managery of enemies while managing your stamina.
Ashen is an Action-RPG, but there are no classes to choose from when you first start the game. You develop your character by upgrading its health and stamina bars, and enhancing your weapons. The upgrade system is very straightforward – after every mission, your bars get a small boost. You can also explore and collect the Ashen bird’s feathers, which provide the same effect. There are no stat upgrades you can invest in, unlike the other titles in the genre.
However, you can impact the way your character plays with amulets and relics you equip. These trinkets work together to enhance specific abilities. Concocting potions with different effects on your hero is also an option to help you survive. You will need to collect ingredients from the world and fallen enemies to make them. You can’t mix-and-match different clothes, nor can you upgrade your favorites, which is a real shame.
Your weapon and Groud can be upgraded in Vagrant’s Rest by investing Scoria, the game’s currency. Whenever you die, you lose all the Scoria you collected, and need to go back to the place you died to pick it up again (if you don’t die again on the way). Eventually, you will unlock the ability to Fast Travel and to ‘Shadow Step,’ two options that make traversing the big map a lot easier.
Your Entry Ticket to an Unwelcoming Genre
Ashen’s magic is in its accessibility to newcomers to the hardcore action-RPG genre. It bypasses the meticulous character development, while still letting you discover how everything works on your own. The game is just a lot more straightforward than others in the genre, but the fighting mechanics are still as tough and demanding as you’d expect.
It also helps that Ashen is easy on the eyes and ears, and slowly slips the player into its magical world while balancing the difficulty with the story progression.
Ashen is not as grueling as the Souls-series but will still be enough to give newcomers a proper challenge. The boss design is pretty lacking for a genre that is famous for it’s creative and unique boss fights. While they do differ from each other, they’re not challenging or memorable enough.
Nonetheless, Ashen made me think about it even when I was busy with other things. Vagrant’s Rest, and how I’m going to change and develop it after the next mission was always on my mind.
Ashen is highly recommended for both Souls veterans and newcomers looking for an experience to ease them into the Dark Souls series.
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Release Date: Dec. 9, 2019
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