Review – Ashen
Souls-like games have been a dime a dozen lately, some mimicking the style better than others: The Surge and Nioh are great examples of the difference. Dark Souls is one of my favorite franchises, and while I have still enjoyed the spin offs it has inspired, none have perfectly mimicked the gameplay like Ashen has. It takes a lot more than only re-creating Souls tight gameplay to develop a great game, so lets see how Ashen stacks up and how it makes the Souls-like style its own.
The Ashen’s rebirth has restored light to the ash covered plains and the dark world. You’re tasked to protect the Ashen if there is any hope for the new light to survive. Fret not, on your mission to protect the Ashen and destroy those who prefer the dark, you’ll come across many friends that will help you on your journey. Each friend has unique knowledge and crafting abilities to help you on your quest in exchange for your help with their own personal journeys. Relationships are the core of Ashen and the more you create and cultivate, the better your chances of survival are and to build a new life.
The story itself is a pretty standard affair, but it is told in a more traditional fashion unlike the Souls games. Where as Dark Souls tells its story through cryptic messages and hidden lore, Ashen tells it through its character’s progression and narration. What’s unique here is that as you meet and recruit new people they will start helping to build up the settlement you created. As you go out and explore and complete missions, the town slowly gets built constantly giving you visual feedback and a sense of accomplishment from your progress.
Your settlement remains your main hub for everything throughout the game and where you’ll upgrade your gear, craft items, change skills, and level up. Each of these are handled by the characters you bring back and as you complete their side quests they will unlock more things to craft. The leveling up happens a few different ways in Ashen. When completing quests you will gain upgrades to health and stamina instead of needing to spend your Scoria like you would would spend Souls in Dark Souls. Depending on the upgrade, it can range from ten to fifteen additional points. These are automatically applied as there isn’t any character menus for abilities.
As I mentioned above, you acquire Scoria to spend on just about everything besides your health and stamina upgrades. You gain Scoria by defeating enemies or using items that give additional Scoria. These are also able to be lost if you die and fail to recover them on your next life. Scoria will be used to upgrade your weapons, equip talismans, craft items, and upgrade your Crimson Gourd (Health potion) by how many swigs you can take and how much life it gives you per swig. At a certain level, upgrading your weapons will require additional items as well as crafting potions and spears will require items like mushrooms and spear heads to craft. Making sure you check all pots and hidden areas is crucial.
Talismans the key to your success as they offer buffs to your various attributes or grant you additional attack or defensive properties. These are unlocked by completing main and side missions as well as exploration, so make sure you check your surroundings. For example, a Talisman can provide up to five orbs that will appear over your head with each successful attack on an enemy. Then these orbs will fly at your closest enemy doing additional damage. Some will provide constant healing, boosts in defense, or the ability to add an explosion when you pull off a charged strong attack. There are a lot of Talismans and each time you make additions or want to change them it is a thousand Scoria for regular Talismans and ten thousand for Relics, so make sure you only change if there is a worthy new Talisman.
None of this would mean much if the moment to moment gameplay wasn’t any good, but fortunately, Ashen plays amazingly. As I have mentioned already, Ashen happens to be the best at replicating the Souls-like tight gameplay. In fact, it feels so familiar that you could easily hop right into it and feel right at home if you have ever played a Souls game. Light attacks, heavy attacks, dodging, blocking, parrying, and the general movement all has a very familiar feeling. However, it is not as in depth as there are less attack moves, less weapon types, and no magic to use. Instead you’ll only be swapping between one and two handed weapons as you can have all your gear equipped and not worry about any weight restrictions. This allows you to do on the fly changes to your combat styles depending on the enemy you’re fighting.
What is more unique to Ashen is the way they handle companions that travel with you. Everywhere you go you will either have an AI or a human companion that travels with you and they will often switch as you progress through areas. The transition is seamless so you don’t need to worry about losing your companion if your human player decides to quit on you. Depending on the characters mission you’re on, your AI partner will be that person which I think adds to their mission more. It is also nice that the AI tends to stick closer to you allowing you to go at your own pace and explore, but also always being there to help in fights. It helps that they are also more than capable at holding their own weight in a fight and not only used as cannon fodder while you do all the work. Having a partner allows you to get knocked out and wait for them to revive you, but if you get knocked out again or your partner also gets knocked out, then you’ll die and go back to the nearest checkpoint.
Having the companion there does make Ashen a bit easier as you always have help and a bit of a crutch. Playing alone does provide a much harder experience and if you’re looking for an extra challenge you can turn off the AI or human co-op. That being said, I had some amazing experiences joining up with strangers and taking down a level and a boss. Also, there are a couple of sections that I was grateful to have a human player as he showed me some shortcuts through one of the extremely long dungeons that don’t have any checkpoints until the end. I then paid it forward and helped someone else out on their first time running through the dungeon.
Speaking of the dungeons, the map design is very well done and each section has a unique look to them with their own variations of enemies. The overall map isn’t huge, as Ashen isn’t a very long game, but there are enough nooks and crannies in there to keep you exploring. Exploring will often land you with new armor, weapons, talismans, and even feathers which will upgrade your health and stamina. I do wish there was more variety in total enemies instead of re-skinning them to match the specific region, but it never felt let down by this.
The regions and enemy design Ashen sports have an intriguing art style that is very basic, yet at times striking. Character faces are non-existent, hands don’t have fingers, most of everything is lacking textures, but the art direction is a design choice and it works well. Environments often still look beautiful with the great lighting effects and overall layout and details it has. If I had to compare it to any game, I’d say it looks a lot like the art style from Absolver. Unfortunately, despite the simplistic art design, there is studdering here and there which is most noticeable when it’s loading in sections. There is also a problem with enemies loading in too close or taking too long to load in at all. I have a feeling it is a side effect from the rendering technique as the enemies only load in when they’re in your vision or close enough to you.
The sound design is a bit hit or miss because the soundtrack, sound effects, and random ambient noises are well done, but the voice acting is often times atrocious. Characters like Jokell and Vorsa are all acted decently, but Elia and Flokir are ear grindingly bad, and the game does feature full voice acting. The soundtrack, however, deserves great praise with its wide range of music that fits intense moments and the the more grandiose moments of first entering a new region. There are many moments when the sound will cut out though due to loading into a new area.
Ashen is a fantastic Souls-like clone that also carves its own path with its ideas and story telling. It’s a perfect example of how you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but just make a solid game with your own ideas in a certain genre. The tight gameplay, the more focused story, the focus on relationships, and co-op within the game make for a fantastic experience that any Souls fan should definitely check out. It isn’t perfect and I wish it had some more depth in the character building, but it is the best Souls-like clone to date.
Did you enjoy the review, but need some help with your quest to protect the Ashen and defeat the darkness? Check out my tips article!
Ashen utilizes a very simple yet bold and often striking art design. Character models look like unfinished renditions, but the environments stand out nicely.
The best Dark Souls clone I have ever played. The controls are tight and feel right at home for anyone who has played Dark Souls. I wish there was more RPG elements to customize characters gear and stats.
The soundtrack and world ambient sounds are well done, but some poor voice acting and audio cracking while loading hurt the experience.
It does start off a bit slow and made me feel like it was just another run of the mill Dark Souls clone, but Ashen ramps up nicely into its own style and provides a satisfying experience.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Ashen is available now on PC and Xbox One.
Reviewed on Xbox One.