Ashen Review

A Cozier Reimagination of Suffering
 

"Ashen, a great game for those who can't get enough of the unforgiving souls-like combat..."

Ashen is an open world co-op action RPG about a wanderer in search of a place to call home according to the developers description. The game is heavily inspired by the 'souls' genre, where you have to manage your resources, and combat is unforgiving, but it has its own twist to it, not being simply an adaptation of the successful genre.
 

Produced by an indie studio called A44, the game really impresses with its superb visuals and narrative, reminding me a lot of Breath of the Wild for its art-style. The game starts with a short movie playing where it tells us about Ashen, a bird-like figure that is said to have brought light to the world and existence.
 

After eons, it is said that Ashen fell from the tree of worlds into the darkness, being consumed by it, and its final breaths became “The three golden ages of light” the first age was the one where three creatures of the dark raised above all others, the second was the age of the “Listener Matriarchs”, titans who revered the light, and the third breath was the age of men. It is important to know all this for the plot revolves around the resurrection of Ashen, and with it, the sweep of the darkness from the world.
 

The game
 

The game mechanics are very similar to any other 'souls' game you can think of, the combat is the usual slash, roll, block, and it doesn’t add any original touch to it. The difficulty in the game is also substantial if you’re the reckless type, as the combat can be very unforgiving at times, and I have to admit that even after playing through most souls games, Ashen proved to still be quite challenging.
 

Overall, the world we play is very well constructed, with a beautiful landscape that takes place in a mountainous region, with veins of rivers flowing through it, and a wild-life that is starting to regain its forces, as the whole world is literally recovering its strength after ages in the dark. All in all, it’s a great experience just stand there admiring the nature.
 

Cover image of the game Ashen with logo
ESRB Rating for Teen

Developer: A44

Publisher: Annapurna Int.

Release Date: December 7, 2019

Weapon variety in this game is really lacking, and many of the existing weapons share almost identical move sets, which kind of takes away the excitement to try out new weapons to find something that fits you better. Another thing, and one you’ll surely notice as you play through the game is that there aren't any swords, nor any similar weapons, and the developers say that’s because swords are really hard to craft in real life, and adding them to the game wouldn’t quite fit with the crude environment they were aiming for, which is totally understandable and I can’t really argue with that, for I believe it may be pretty hard to create swords as we know today with the technology available in the world, knowing they were literally in the darkness for ages.
 

But the strange thing is that there are actually some other weapons such as axes that following this rule of limited technology shouldn’t really exist. While I think it is possible they were crafted in other ages that may have had the resources to craft them, it still doesn’t explain why these ancient beings wouldn't think of creating swords.
 

The game also doesn't have any magic system and the only form of ranged combat you'll find is through throwable spears, which wasn't really a big problem for me, but for any magic lovers out there, it may be a big issue. I'm not sure if there weren't enough resources or time to add a magic system to the game, or if they simply just felt like the game wouldn't benefit from it at all.
 

When playing through the game you'll often find yourself struggling, and that is if you decide to play the game solo, as the game is heavily pushed to the side of multiplayer, and playing co-op to progress in the game is almost essential. Even if you don’t have a friend to play with you, the game has an option that lets you play with an AI-controlled NPC, that gets the job done… most of the time.
 

Exploration
 

Exploration in this game at first was great, I really was surprised that the effort of turning around the corner and going out of my way just to explore was actually rewarded, but this sense of surprise quickly faded as the items you find are very limited, with most of them being weapon upgrade materials and bags containing an amount of the game currency, much like the ‘souls’ from in the Souls series, and the biggest issue is that these items become useless after a while.
 

Nearing the end I gave up on exploring the map almost completely, — I was already carrying hundreds of thousands of these coins, with my weapons, as well as other items at max upgrades, why would I even bother going out of my way ? This is a really great issue for the game as many people won’t feel the incentive to explore after a while and end up missing many of the stuff the developers took their time to make.
 

Open World
 

This game advertises itself as being open world, and it almost accomplishes it, there are no loading screens when getting to a new area making it all a very seamless experience, and I say it almost reached its goal of being a true open-world game in my opinion for how linear it was, with many quests following a, again, very linear path, not giving you too many options of places to go and where to explore first.
 

But don’t get me wrong, it has a very big world with 6 areas in total that are slightly similar to one another, but despite the similarities, they still manage to be unique in their own way with different enemy types and varieties in each one of them, but having a big world not worth exploring and the main content of the game being so linear doesn’t quite make it up for me. 
 

Quests
 

Very early on in the game, you make a few tasks and eventually you’ll get to a place that is like an outpost, that you can then reclaim for yourself and eventually all the NPCs you meet throughout your journey will all travel there and you can then advance in their questlines.
 

The fun thing with it all is that as you progress through each NPC’s questline, the population of your newly formed town will grow and new buildings will be constructed, completely changing the surroundings by the end of the adventure. This gives a really nice feel of progress to the game, and personally, it made me really happy and anxious to go back to the town just to see the new changes.
 

Now about the NPCs quests in on itself, to me, a few of them feel more like tasks that their sole purpose is to incentivize you to play through the map just to fetch something for them, not as blatant as it sounds, but they really do feel like it sometimes. But I understand it, we are the chosen one, so we are much more capable of going out to retrieve the lost screwdriver of a random dude than he himself. 
 

On the positive side, the quests offer great development to the characters,  adding context not only to these characters but to the world, adding lots of backstories and helping us comprehend the world and its past even more.
 

The Bosses
 

If there’s one thing I really liked other than the expanding town is its boss fights, and oh boy, they are beautiful. The arenas you fight the bosses aren’t all spectacular but the boss designs make up for it, sadly they weren’t all that challenging nor very unique with the one that I found to be the hardest killing me only 5 times. The only exception here to that cool design I believe is the first boss you fight — seriously, there was so much more that could be done with the concept of that little guy, it was a totally missed opportunity.
 

Sadly there isn't much more to be said about it, as none of the fights are really too memorable, nor exciting, with the exception Amiren, of course, as she has, in my opinion, one of the best boss design out of any souls game — a very unique and creative use of the enemy design to put it short. One thing I believe that would work really well with this game is the way you fight some bosses in Demon's Souls, where you actually have to think to figure out a better way to fight the giant demons, and it's not just a run and slash until it's dead type of thing. I think the game would greatly benefit from this concept, as it gives personality to the bosses, and by making the players struggle, it sticks to the memory, if done correctly, that is.
 

Final Thoughts
 

Ashen is a beautiful game that executes the 'souls' concept in it better than most do, and it definitely deserves big thumbs up for that. Sadly the game had some shortcomings that are hard to overlook, and I can’t help but feel that more could be done with the concept it had. Still, I believe the game managed to do well, and it was, in my opinion, an interesting surprise and I’m happy I didn’t miss it.
 

Its final score is a 6.5 for the beautiful art and unique, creative take on a different, hard to explore genre.
 

Ashen

A beautiful gem that despite its faults, it still managed to do better than many that try to ride the souls genre. It has an extremely cool concept, a few great original ideas, that despite showing great qualities, is dragged down by somewhat limited, reused content.
 

06/14/2020 - Caius, The Lost Swordsman

Original take on a concept many fail to get done right — adding lots of new interesting mechanics that fit really well in the game.

Incredible, really great soundtrack, as well as a beautiful art-style help create a distinct, truly charming atmosphere.

​Lots of really interesting NPCs with a really cool progression system that builds their character the more you progress.

A plot that is not amazing, but is not too bad either, and at the very least is enough to justify our actions.

Low replayability value lacking all that requires to keep players engaged after they finish the main story.

Flawed companion AI that even though it works fine most of the time, can be quite frustrating in some crucial moments.

Truly a game that isn't too difficult although it tries really hard to be one. The most I died to a boss was probably like 4-5 times.

Very straightforward without much space for impactful decisions even though the game is advertised as open-world.

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