This Thursday’s Game Awards had more than a few surprises, one of which was that Epic’s developer-friendly game store opened up and had a few great games already available. Impulse game buyer that I am, I snapped up both Supergiant’s Hades (because duh) and A44’s stylish but mysterious RPG, Ashen. Let me tell you, I’m glad I did.
Ashen tells the story of three races and a godlike creature above them all, The Ashen, who disappeared and thrust the world into darkness and despair. But it’s now aware and, your task as the hero is to find the Ashen and push away the darkness forever, before something more sinister or vile does in your stead.
The basics of Ashen will immediately make players think of Dark Souls - dodge-based combat, weapons and locked animations with stamina as a resource for everything. Collecting “Scoria” as a currency to use to level weapons and items. But the more I play Ashen, the more I think of it as a Zelda-like, rather than “yet another Souls game”.
Its massive open world, chatty NPCs, and evolving hometown of Vagrant’s Rest gives Ashen a lot more heart than any Souls game or Bloodborne have ever had. What’s more is that as you find companions throughout the world, you’ll invite them back to Vagrant’s Rest, to help rebuild civilization, and they’ll often join you out on your adventures in the wild. They bring their own weapons and often selflessly attack foes that are about to chop you down. In this way, it becomes easier than Dark Souls, but make no mistake - this can still be a hard game, especially in the puzzle-like boss fights.
All progression is achieved through finishing the game’s many main and side quests, sometimes rewarding you with new gear, new loadouts that change your character’s stats, or new abilities in camps where you can use Scoria to increase the effectiveness of your weapons and armor. You’ll almost always get increased stamina or health for finishing side missions too, giving you more than ample reason to help your neighbors.
The style of Ashen is bleak, but charming. Like Mad Max with heart. There’s something endearing about the faceless characters of Ashen’s world, and it reminds me of Devolver’s hit kung-fu RPG, Absolver. It’s also worth noting that the NPCs of the village, unless you turn the option off in the settings, can and will be sometimes controlled by other players.
This is how the multiplayer of Ashen works. You might not often know who’s with you, an NPC or a player, and the game does an excellent job of making it always feel like you’re the leader, as it filters in people in the world who are in the same area, doing the same things as you. It’s a technical marvel really, as without any means of communication, the NPCs wind up being more lifelike than people would be. You can’t play co-op, the game just sort of filters in real people in and out of your game, and to them, YOU look like the NPC, not the player character. It’s a crazy, genius way of doing things to make the in-game characters feel more alive.
All in all, though I’m just a few hours into what promises to be a lengthy adventure, my early impression is that Ashen is worth the $40 pricetag, if you like third-person harrowing action RPGs in the vein of Dark Souls or the harder Zeldas out there. It’s not heavy on stat sheets, character building, or idle chatter as much as it is on world exploration, dungeon diving, and secret finding. If that sounds like it’s up your alley, give it a look on the Epic Games Store.