Even from its name, Ashen isn’t shy about its roots. The ever-growing list of Dark Souls inspired indies, including Salt & Sanctuary, Death’s Gambit, and Eitr, is enough to make your head spin. Of all these games, Ashen is by far the most like its forebearer, and perhaps all the better for it.
Playing nearly identically to FromSoftware’s action-RPG titles, Ashen is no slouch in the combat department. Sparring with enemies feels good enough, and while not as polished as something like Bloodborne, it rarely needs to be. This is thanks to a more forgiving difficulty; owing much to the companions which join you on your ventures. These NPCs are often found in the world before joining your fledgling town, handing out sidequests and offering services like estus flask (read: red gourd) upgrades.
Heading out of town and suddenly being greeted by one of my townsfolk always brought a smile to my face, especially when it was the pipe-smoking, ax-wielding Jokell. These partners are invaluable in combat, going so far as to prioritize problem enemies like harpoon-throwing bandits. Companions can also be revived if they fall and, more importantly, can revive the player in turn. This friendly presence is compounded by the fact that, on occasion, one of your townsfolk will be controlled by a human player via online. The world is already far less desolate and foreboding than the universe of Dark Souls, but having a traveling companion makes it all the more comfortable to explore.
The level design of Ashen is, predictably, very Souls-esque. Luckily, there are great pains taken to make sure the interconnectivity and zone transitions feel natural. Descending down a steep slope into a valley isn’t a one-way trip, as there’s a crumbling fortress nearby to make a return expedition possible. The ability to jump and clamber onto ledges adds a whole new dimension to Souls exploration, and I frequently found myself “gaming” the level design by cleverly leaping down ledges into more dangerous areas. This felt less like an exploit than an added degree of player freedom which makes Ashen’s world feel more like a real place and less like a museum hallway.
From dense forests to giant ash lakes, the world has a unique tone that’s serviced heavily by a unique, low-poly art style. I fell in love with the designs of the faceless characters and grotesque forms of certain enemies. There are also some jaw-dropping larger-than-life moments, allowed for by the low engine cost of the rougher models. The lighting (and sometimes lack thereof) is particularly beautiful, warmly splashing over the soft polygonal landscape to create a dream-like approximation of a more hi-fi world.
Exploration is as effortless as it is rewarding since savepoints are scattered near the beginning of each large (but manageable) area. Taking my time, I found weapons and armor that were all equally viable thanks to Ashen’s simple and intuitive upgrade system. While there isn’t as much diversity here as larger-budget titles (with a distinct lack of ranged options), each weapon’s moveset and feel was unique enough to make finding a new one a pleasant surprise. My only complaint is that some weapons, particularly two-handers, can feel a bit clunky depending on their swing motif.
Ashen sometimes falters in its more organic moments, when exploration can lead to unseen hordes of enemies silently gunning for your coattails. More than once I’d turn around to find myself tailed by five or more baddies that were stalking the shadows while I clumsily pranced about. Taking things slow is the safe approach, of course, but the zones are large enough that on repeat journeys, I found myself simply sprinting through them to get to my destination.
Even when I was in dire straights, the stamina system was forgiving enough that I could simply sprint past enemies to the checkpoint. This was of particular use during one seemingly endless pitch-black dungeon teeming with enemies. The worst part of this is the lack of real punishment for running past danger; there’s no leveling system in Ashen, and souls (read: Scoria) are easy enough to come by otherwise through side quests that I never felt the need to grind. Of course, there are nooks and crannies filled with loot to discover, but the risk of dying and losing upwards of 30 minutes of progress sometimes kept me from the unbeaten path.
The overall structure of Ashen, apart from its Souls-like skeleton, is a refreshingly traditional take on the formula. The ability to set out from your developing homestead and venture into far-off lands, knocking out sidequests and conquering huge bosses, feels constantly rewarding. The more structured approach is beginner-friendly, and the art style alone is more than enough to keep veteran players engaged. While I wish there were more systems at play to encourage more methodical exploration, I can’t fault the designers too much for allowing players to choose how they progress. Ashen is a beautiful game, one with heart and an obvious understanding of why Dark Souls entranced us years ago.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided by Annapurna Interactive.
Through an embrace of more traditional game design, Ashen's take on the Souls formula ends up feeling welcome, even after countless imitators. A solid quest structure and top-notch world design make this beautiful low-fi title a worthy homage to a quickly aging series.