The soulslike genre is still in its infancy, but From Software's Dark Souls series has already spawned a host of imitators. Ashen is the latest in this ever-growing line and the debut game from A44, although to label it an imitation undersells all of its own merits. It's much more than a Dark Souls clone. It's a gorgeous world brimming with its own unique lore and a rich sense of discovery, which will collectively leave you in awe and push you to persevere even when the game will often beat you down with its demanding combat.
Ashen borrows a lot of its outline from Dark Souls, making the comparisons impossible to ignore. The lock-on melee combat is challenging if not brutal throughout the entire 15-30 hour story, and it'll demand your excellence if you want to succeed. Dying will cost you Scoria, the game's Souls, which can be retrieved on your next life, and you'll rest not at bonfires but at Ritual Stones to refill your Crimson Gourd, which provides immediate health boosts in tough situations. Dodging, parrying, and well-timed attacks are the keys to staying alive, and thanks to an array of different upgradeable melee weapons, defensive gear, and spears to throw, there's a ton of freedom to build the character best suited for you. Agile hack and slashers have their options, as do defensive tanks or even distance fighters, using massive two-handed melee weapons and projectiles like explosive spears.
It's at once familiar and fresh because A44 has taken these systems genre fans know and love and inserted them in a world that is overflowing with discoveries and awesome sights. Arriving at a new area will always introduce a host of new and intimidating enemy classes, and learning how to counter each of them remains a highlight during the game. Frequent melee bouts are interspersed with a handful of memorable boss fights, and neither they nor the dungeons that often precede them are for the faint of heart. Ashen is quite happy to beat you down repeatedly, just like its inspiration, but it almost always feels totally fair.
The exceptions come when the game occasionally bugs out, which may have enemies dipping through the geometry or attacking from above or below a ledge where they can reach you but you can't reach them. These moments make it feel less polished than a detail-oriented game such as this needs to be, as so much rides on every swing of your ax or every dodge you perform. Such moments are the exception, however, and most of the time the combat is every bit as good as genre fans have come to expect. When you die, you can almost always be assured it was your own fault, and despite how challenging it can be, it's rarely disheartening because it feels like you're just one or two improvements away from getting through a tough section.
Although the game is often brutally hard, it's made slightly easier thanks to its passive multiplayer system that will pair up two players when they're in the same general area and in the same part of the story. Having a nearly constant co-op partner, be it a human or the AI that stands in their place should your world not be populated quickly enough, means the intense dangers of Ashen feel just a bit less formidable. You can still be undone by a bad partner who leaves you hanging or, worse, an absence of any at all leaving you with the AI that holds its own but can't compare to the most proficient human players. Generally, though, there's safety in numbers and having the anonymous and silent partner by your side is a fantastic boost to one's confidence.
You can pair with a friend too, but it involves a process that is arguably too complicated for most players to bother, using multiplayer filter codes and trying to stand in the same general area as your friend with, crucially, similar story progress. It's usually just best to forge ahead with whomever the game gives you. The vast majority of other players were plenty competent and sometimes even carried me through some tough spots. That makes sense as this is a game that will quickly dismiss anyone not getting the hang of it.
Ashen also improves on the genre in a few interesting ways. For one, its safe space called Vagrant's Rest undergoes a charming and fun to watch transformation over the course of the game. As you make story progress and regularly return to Vagrant's Rest to spend Scoria, manage inventory, and improve your character, each ally's home or workshop will evolve, from the humble beginnings of a simple tent and table to ultimately what feels like a well-populated small village. These NPCs will dole out valuable side quests and offer hints of lore that goes very deep and is not as hard to find or follow as other games like it tend to have.
Overall, it's enjoyably a much less obtuse game than the genre progenitor. You won't need to follow a guide to ensure you're playing the "right" way, and although there are plenty of divergent paths to explore, the game generally keeps you on track better than a Dark Souls does. Playing with a guide out the whole time is excruciatingly boring, especially when you really want to like a game. Ashen avoids that trap by toeing the line between exploration and linearity. It's all of the charm and intrigue of Dark Souls without the YouTube-induced nausea.
Noticeable right away is also the game's beautiful, vaguely low-poly art style. It's a game of muted colors out of necessity to serve its story of a world blanketed in ash and shadow, but play long enough and variety is imbued into the color palette, which makes an even greater impact because of those earlier gray hours. Characters' faces are featureless, other than a few cosmetic customization options, but it works surprisingly well. It feels like a studio that knows their limitations and turns them from weaknesses into strengths.
Ashen looks unique, and its use of light and shadow is both symbolically and ludologically important. This style is perfectly supplemented with the game's introspective, quieted tone and memorable original soundtrack, leaving the entire project to be an unforgettable audiovisual experience. Ashen is a game that connects all its dots and presents a world that makes sense every step of the way. Its tone feeds into its art, which feeds into its combat, which feeds into the rewarding sense of perseverance that may turn even those normally disinterested in the genre into fans.
The achievement list, should you make it to the end, is actually very generous. If you complete the story, do every side quest, and hunt every animal once, you'll finish with all but one achievement. That last one is to defeat the game in its rather ironic hard mode called Children of Sissna. It unlocks midway through your first playthrough so if you want to, you could get every achievement in about one and a half playtthroughs if you abandon your original saved game for Sissna once it unlocks. It's the game itself, not usually the achievements, that will be difficult.
SummaryAshen is a soulslike, but to call it a clone would be a betrayal of the awesome job A44 have with their debut project. It manages to stand on its own thanks to rewarding exploration, deep combat systems, and an audiovisual experience that masterfully builds atmosphere. You'll see the game over screen often in the game, but you'll keep coming back and fighting again because Ashen never ceases to reward your victories with a world of stones begging to be overturned.
- Gorgeous and surprisingly varied aesthetic
- Deep combat system that feels fair but demands excellence
- Backstory that runs deep and is fun to chase for those wanting it
- A dangerous world that rewards exploration
- Great use of light and darkness
- Multiplayer system can be confusing and problematic
- Some AI issues or bugs get in the way occasionally
EthicsThe reviewer spent approximately 30 hours in the world of Ashen, dying a lot and ultimately triumphing while gathering 30 of 31 achievements for 940 Gamerscore. An Xbox One review code was provided by the publisher.
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