The current age of video games is a diverse one. We have been flooded with a myriad each of fresh and experimental ideas, long-running series that continue to impress, terrible products that are nothing more than ceaseless cash-grabs by larger companies, and a slew of spiritual successors to games of years past. Of this latter category, many of the titles focus on providing experiences specifically from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. It’s about combining nostalgia with some fresh new twists. But with Ashen, it’s inspirations are much fresher.
I couldn’t help but perk my ears when Ashen was touted as being heavily inspired by the Dark Souls series, but it was made clear almost immediately upon starting the game just HOW much. Players are regaled with the story of the Ashen: a god-like bird who takes roost in a mythical tree and brings light to the universe. But after countless millennia, the Ashen’s life draws to an end. The being takes three final breaths before it passes, which are in turn symbolic of three separate ages of the world: one of the Bral (creatures of darkness), one of the Listeners (a race of humanoid giants), and finally, the age of man. Our player is tasked early on with locating the Ashen in order to restore its life force and bring about a shining new age…at least, that is what I was able to glean. Much like Dark Souls, the lore of this story is left intentionally vague, although Ashen’s feels much more mythological and ethereal than the concrete happenings of Gwyn and his seizing of the First Flame.
My point isn’t to make Ashen sound like a pure clone of Dark Souls, but the similarities are not negligible. The action-based combat system focuses entirely on stamina management and outmaneuvering opponents. Death comes quick if you get caught in an enemy combo or, even worse, amidst a group of foes. Players discover different weapons and armor as they progress, with each weapon having different animations and speeds (albeit with little overall variety here) while a variety of armors offer higher defense at the cost of paying more stamina to attack and slowing the bar’s regeneration. Weapons are upgradable using a variety of resources that are found throughout the world, as is the amount and potency of your Crimson Gourd: the main healing item of the game that refills at each Ritual Stone (save point). And of course, all of this is paid for with Scoria: a resource gained by defeating foes and completing missions. Should you perish in battle your Scoria stash will remain behind where you died, challenging you to retrieve it before dying again or lose the lot of it. Does all of this sound familiar?
While the main gameplay was created using the Dark Souls recipe, Ashen does bring a lot of fresh ideas to the table. For starters, players do not level up. Health and stamina are increased upon completing missions or finding the hidden Feathers of the Ashen sprinkled throughout the game, while your damage is only increased by upgrading your weapons. The world is much more open in its form than Lordran, starting you out in a lush red forest and eventually leading you to other beautiful locales that include a ruined crater of ash, a seaside port fortress, and a colorful, deadly desert city. The exploration factor is heightened even further with the addition of a jump button, which can be combined with running to perform a long jump that even Mario would be proud of. Items are hidden around every corner and it is well worth scouring every nook and cranny you stumble upon. An NPC from your hub village (or online player, if you’re connected) will join you upon your departure from a Ritual Stone, offering you an extra layer of security in combat as you make your way through the dangerous environs and explore to your heart’s content (although the AI can range from very smart to very stupid). Perhaps the most unique facet of exploration, though, was the need to use a lantern for dark caves. It added an extra layer of tension and realism to an already-challenging game (especially since it stole my ability to use two-handed weapons: my go-to). I’d love to see more games make use of the feature.
Visually, Ashen is a treat! Its minimalist environments and characters gave off a weird sense of melancholic beauty while exploring. The soundtrack is full of ambient piano and string tracks that further lending to the natural, abandoned beauty of the world. A few environments felt ripped right out of Dark Souls (Prophet’s Rise and The Gnaw are literally just Blighttown and New Londo Ruins, but without their respective poison and ghosts), but aside from these minor disappointments, I was continually wowed by each new area. The real peak of the game’s design is its brutal, sprawling dungeons: and one in particular. The Seat of the Matriarch is a vertical dungeon in near-pitch blackness, requiring the player to slowly descend its rectangular stone surfaces with their lantern handy while fending off shadowy warriors and other monsters without falling off the narrow pathways. Sounds thrum through speakers with a low frequency that made me physically uncomfortable- and I mean literally. The entire time, however, the player has a view of where they are going: a glowing door far below and well off into the distance. Between the awe-inspiring sense of scale in this dungeon and its oppressive darkness, I have never felt as powerless in a video game as I did here. And it was wonderful to overcome.
As much as I enjoyed Ashen, I do have some griping to do. The game’s combat takes the “style” of Dark Souls, but does not offer the same fluidity and precision of timing. Swinging a weapon often felt wonky, and while this also applies to the enemies’ attacks, it left me yearning for something more swift and exact. The frame rate also chugged at times when several enemies were on the screen, leading to several missed attacks on my part or unjust hits from enemies. Even the sound clipped in and out at certain parts of the game. Something that really hit me hard, though, were the lengthy loading times. I got out my phone’s stopwatch feature and found that after a death, the loading screen consistently took an entire minute just to put me back at a Ritual Stone. This applied to fast travel as well, and it really hurt the pacing of my adventure. And perhaps my greatest complaint of all is the final boss.
You see, I haven’t actually beaten Ashen. Your final foe is a two-phase boss fight at the end of a gauntlet of the most powerful enemies in the game. While getting there with no/minimal damage is simple with some practice and the first boss form is a pushover, the final form just felt broken. Between the stilted combat, lack of AI reliability for your ally, and the enemy’s ability to do damage to you with flailing arms just by being in a close vicinity, the fight feels more focused on having you spam healing items than learn the fight and improve. She even has a combo that can kill you instantly if you are caught within it, regardless of having the maximum amount of health available and strong armor equipped. I refuse to farm items for extra potions for hours just for one fight, and nor will I throw myself against an unbalanced foe over and over and over until I finally win a hollow victory that wouldn’t feel rewarding. It’s simply not worth it.
Ashen was a journey that felt like a strange child of Dark Souls and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The game shines in its exploration and I was constantly rewarded for finding out-of-the-way places, but combat left a bit to be desired with its sluggishness. The journey was exciting and action-packed, yet flawed, and its final portion left a sour taste in my mouth that I doubt I’ll ever be able (or, perhaps, willing to take the time) to remedy. I’m glad I played Ashen, but I don’t see myself coming back for a return trip.
Final Score: 3.5/5
Review Score Translator
5/5- Magnificent! A quality game that goes above and beyond to deliver a near-perfect experience
4/5- Great! A game that is a joy to play despite a few minor hiccups along the way
3/5- Fun! A good game that has some issues, but is still worth playing despite the frustrations
2/5- Meh! A game with at least a handful of redeeming qualities, despite the majority of it being a mess
1/5- Yikes! A game that shouldn’t have been allowed past the final stage of developer approval