Ashen is all about forging a world out of darkness. Starting out with just Bataran and Jokell, you are set off in the world to find and protect the Ashen, a being whose rebirth has brought light back into the land. Throughout your journey, you develop a ragtag alliance of heroes, all with their own goals and motivations. A world that starts off barren and lonely ends up being filled with personality and family.
While the story itself is rather simple – to find and protect the light in the world from those who would prefer to have it snuffed out – the characters you discover along the way come with far more depth.
Each ally you find returns to your base camp and hangs out alongside wanderers who find their way to you. They all have lengthy side stories that each tackle unique themes too; while one character may have you travelling the world in the name of vengeance, another has you hunting animals to discover a cure for a disease plaguing the world. My favourite of the bunch involves Jokell and his quest to finally solve the disappearance of his brother and father, leading to discoveries larger than himself. A large part of this is due to the fantastic voice work the game shows off. The sorrow, desperation and determination is well expressed by each and every character in this game, adding a weight to each story that otherwise would not have been found.
As you journey out into the world and help your companions, Vagrants Rest, your home base grows. But it develops into more than just a place to store and upgrade equipment. Each character slowly builds their own home and you see this progress upon each return. Over the course of a couple of hours, an empty space will become a beautiful house, filled with a life not seen earlier. As you pass through each home, the music as well changes to fit the personality of those who inhabit them.
Progressing through these stories give you other benefits aside from the various developments and attachments they bring. One constant you will find with every mission is a buff to either your stamina and health. As the only main way to increase these stats, it would be a severe handicap to avoid these missions. They also unlock different upgrades, including the amount of health potions you can carry, their potency, actual equipment upgrades and more.
As you complete quests you also unlock various talismans that you are able to purchase. These run the gambit from minor stat upgrades to rather unique affairs that grant you more health the further you journey from home. You can also unlock special powerful relics after each boss fight, however you can only equip one at a time, but they can drastically change your experience by rewarding skillful play with major buffs. With four talismans and one relic to choose from, the system allows you enough freedom to play around and find a load out that suits your playstyle.
Ashen’s unique visuals add another layer to the fantastic world built between these stories. The low poly graphic style paired with a generally flat and more muted colour scheme sets the world apart from other games in this genre. Despite the lack of detail found in today’s market, all aspects of this world are brimming with character. Exploring ruins of once great cities to dungeons hiding away bosses twice your size, the world is beautifully crafted and designed. The duller tones of early game get traded for rich and bright colors later on as well, making your journey of protecting and filling the world with light feel more and more achievable as you go on, despite the insurmountable odds.
The gameplay will be nothing new for those who have experience with the Dark Souls or Demon Souls series, and much of your time will be spent managing your stamina meter. This is a skill best learned early as stamina is used for just about everything; running, jumping, dodging, attacking and blocking all use up it as a resource, so you spend much of combat juggling between them all. It doesn’t ever feel overwhelming though.
Combat has a nice pace to it, never feeling like a chore, and that’s partially due to the speed at which stamina regenerates, allowing for some errors like a missed swing of a club to not be game ending. That’s not to say that Ashen is a walk in the park. Combat can be punishing and a mistimed dodge or a hit from another enemy can cause you to get staggered and then beaten to death by the oversized brutes patrolling around the world. Thankfully, the game steadily introduces new enemies in each environment you explore and you are forced to learn and anticipate their moves. This leads the combat to become a fun puzzle, with each encounter feeling different.
As you fight your way through the environments, you will almost always have a companion. These take the form of one of the allies from your camp, but they can be controlled by anyone in the world. The system operates like that in Journey, by speaking through glyphs and noises produced by your character; there is no voice communication. This leads to a unique experience where you wordlessly create a bond with your new friend and explore the depths of dark dungeons.
Your experience will vary though, as you can sometimes be paired with the perfect partner, where you fight alongside and explore with each other. But other times you find the unfortunate situation where you are treated to an ally who couldn’t care less about your existence and is happy to abandon you. Ashen is an absolute blast when played with a person who sticks with you but can be a bit of a chore when played with those who don’t care. There are also times where your teammate will just abandon you, leaving you to fend off the darkness by yourself, in a game made for two.
Luckily if you run into too many people that fall into the latter camp, you are welcome to turn off multiplayer and play with an AI controlled companion. While this helps – as you will now always have a battle buddy with you – the AI is a bit thick skulled at times, almost always charging into battle with little thought about the number of enemies in play. I often found them dying half way through a dungeon, leaving me to push through on my own. This experience isn’t terrible, and is saved by both the fun and challenging combat, and fantastic level design. But once you get a taste of Ashen’s multiplayer when it works correctly, it will never reach those peaks by yourself.
As you lay down enemies on your run to save the Ashen, you’ll find skeletons and dead enemies alike filled with loot for you to equip. Many items can be crafted or upgraded often, using scoria and another item as a resource. Scoria is gained through stashes found or enemies killed, and like Dark Souls, death is a mere setback, causing you to drop any scoria you have collected prior to your death, before forcing you to grab it on your next life lest it be lost forever.
Often this isn’t too much of an issue and poses only a slight inconvenience to get back. It only becomes an issue in the later dungeons as the difficulty ramps up and they get progressively longer. This then leads to tense situations as you carefully inch through locations as to not get jumped by well hidden enemies and lose all of the scoria you’ve earned along the way, and the stash sitting upon your last death location.
This tension is also helped by the fantastic lighting found in Ashen. Dungeons are often extremely dark, forcing you to choose between equipping your lantern so that you can see, or using a shield for extra protection. Between the ominous lighting and how defenceless you feel when using a lantern, it leads to heart pounding experiences as you move further and further down, eventually reaching a point where it is more dangerous to turn back. It is within scenarios like this where the multiplayer shines, as you can see the hesitation and worry mirrored in your companion’s behaviour.
Though the world of Ashen starts out feeling empty and devoid of life, it ends up being absolutely filled with it. Each character brings a distinct and fully fleshed out personality to the table, and this sense of life is found in the combat itself, mixing a unique multiplayer experience with fantastic and satisfying mechanics.
Ashen manages to take a hardcore genre of games and make it accessible and approachable to those who are not fully experienced.