As we’ve observed before, Dark Souls-like games are now part of a fully-formed sub-genre of action-RPGs, implying an approach to design and gameplay mechanics that everyone by now understands. There will certainly come a time when those games falling into this sub-genre will no longer be compared to the Souls games directly, but simply judged on their own merits - or shortcomings. We’re not quite there yet, but getting close, and Ashen is a great example of a game that has a strong enough identity that a direct comparison to Dark Souls would be missing the point.
Certainly, Ashen takes the Souls template as a starting point, with stamina-based combat, risk/reward management, renewable healing items, a bonfire-like save point system, loss of acquired “souls” upon death, and more. But from its abstracted, cel-shaded graphics to its unique take on cooperative play, Ashen begins to distance itself from Dark Souls. It doesn’t take long to understand that the game aims for an altogether player experience. Not exactly kinder and gentler, but maybe more lyrical.
Inspired by the desolate environments of Carmac McCarthy’s The Road, Ashen’s basic story is the quest to return light — the powerful bird-god Ashen — to a dark and blighted land. The journey is not a solitary one, as the player will always have the companionship of an AI ally. One of Ashen’s most interesting hooks is that the player’s home base camp will expand through the addition of NPCs and crafting stations encountered along the journey. While this is similar to the expanding roster of shopkeepers and NPCs populating Dark Souls’s Firelink Shrine, some of Ashen’s NPCs can be swapped in and out as fellow explorers.
It’s a good thing, too, as each NPC has one of three or so weapon specialties that can prove useful in boss encounters. Although there are a number of variations and upgrades for each, the basic weapon choices are fairly limited and focused on melee (there are no bows or swords, the only ranged weapon being limited to a spear). Each weapon type has the same basic moveset as others in its class as well, making combat feel simplified, at least compared to most action-RPGs. Simplified, but not simple; timing, stamina, dodging and pattern memorization are still skills to be mastered and some encounters are very challenging.
Ashen has very ambitious ideas about cooperative play, but these haven’t entirely materialized, with the PC online component launching with serious issues while Xbox version’s online play works more reliably. Unlike the Souls games, players cannot invade each other’s games but neither is there a simple system for calling for help. Ashen’s multiplayer system is not well explained in-game at all. On the other hand, AI companions are fairly competent in battle, if sometimes willfully disobedient and hellbent on following their own agendas. Sometimes this can frustrating, as your ally runs off to follow his or her own path, leaving you to struggle or die in combat, heedless of your call.
Ashen’s art direction suggests the faceless characters of Absolver, and while I initially found the presentation a little on the abstractly bland side, over the time I began to appreciate this minimalist approach. Map design includes some Souls-like shortcuts and I particularly enjoyed the lighting in the mysterious and dangerous dungeons. Like the visuals, Ashen’s music and sonic landscape are evocative but very spare. Dark Souls (the original game) told an oversized story though NPCs, item descriptions and clues gleaned from its locations, and it was at once mythic and emotional despite being fragmentary and a little vague. I suspect that Ashen aims for the same sort of tone but it begins with a word-salad narrative that does almost nothing to personalize the story to follow. It takes a very long time to warm up to the NPCs or Ashen’s overarching, not entirely realized, story.
Ironically, although Ashen is one of the better Souls-like games, its strengths emerge the more it deviates from the template. With a distinctive art style and approach to co-op, base-building and character interaction, Ashen suffers in those areas in which its Souls model outshines it: fluid and varied combat being the most obvious area. Taken apart from its inspiration, though, Ashen is still an entertaining and elegant experience.