Ashen Review

By Terris Harned (NWOrpheus)

As a gamer, I feel very fortunate to be alive in the times we live in. My Steam library has 242 games in it (that are visible; some others I’ve permanently hidden for one reason or another). There are games in virtual reality, and in alternate reality for my cell phone. There are survival games, and FPS games, and BR games, and MMORPG games. There are games that I like, and there are some that I know are just not for me.

And that’s okay.

Let me just say that again for emphasis: There are some games that I don’t like, and that’s okay. Not everything is about me. There could be any number of reasons why a particular game doesn’t appeal to me personally, from art aesthetic to the game’s particular sense of humor. It could be gameplay, difficulty, control style, or any combination of these things. Be that as it may, I can still appreciate when a game is well put together.

Potential spoilers I guess? Even though this is just how the game opens. I actually loved this cinematic, and watched it again the second time I started a game.

Ashen is not for me. I did not personally enjoy my time playing it, but I can appreciate it as the work of art that it is. The story and dialogue are elegantly written and conveyed, and what I suspect are some interesting undertones further along than I was able to make it probably exist. One can absolutely sense that the game is put together well, and that a good deal of thought went into it.

I personally just did not enjoy playing it. The reason being, it’s just too damned hard for my tastes. I never played Dark Souls, but I have watched it played on Twitch, and it’s clear that the developers for Ashen, New Zealand based Aurora 44 Games, got a good deal of inspiration from the Dark Souls franchise. If you’re a fan of that series, chances are that Ashen will tickle your fancy as well.

Let’s take a minute to go over some of the features. You are allowed a certain amount of customization of your character, but given the minimalist aesthetic of Ashen, which again, I do appreciate, your choices are somewhat limited. You can change your hairstyle, hair color, skin color, and facial hair. What I really found enlightened for this character creation was that there is no male or female choice, but rather masculine and feminine shaped bodies, which had only slight differences. Additionally you can select any hair, or facial hair, for either body type.

After you have done the character creation, you’ll play through a brief tutorial. In my opinion, far too brief. If you’re going to make a game with incredibly punishing combat, it seems to me it would be better to give people the tools they need to succeed in that combat, rather than just throwing them into the deep end.

Additionally, nowhere on the store page or when loading the game did I see mention of a controller being the preferred method for gameplay. I found this out only when speaking with a friend who was one of the writers for the game. This was incredibly frustrating to me, because while attempting to play on the keyboard I spent approximately two hours dying repeatedly, unable to advance beyond the first quest.

Each time I would die, I would get sent back to the starting area with less resources than I had before, making failure extremely punishing. In most games, if you die, you go back to a save point, and the world state is reset to how it was before. In Ashen, you go back to a save point, all enemies respawn, but items that you pick up and use, such as curatives, are now gone for good. Granted, anything you picked up along the way you do still have, but I still did not find this to be a system that I like. Especially because, again, the combat system is designed to be prohibitively difficult.

One thing I learned, although it felt a bit like cheating, was that your AI companion (who can be replaced by another player at any time, whether you will it or not, apparently) is a great tank, and generally a better fighter than you’ll ever be. The most effective way to handle combat was thus to let him run in and take hits, then to come and clean up. This is especially true against groups of enemies. It also seems that the companion has unlimited healing potions, which you most certainly do not.

Jorkell is a good dude, and usually I can tell if he’s an AI or not. Usually.

Your companion can also revive you if you’re taken down to zero health, but I think there’s a cooldown on that ability. He revived me one time during battle, but then when I fell again shortly after, even though he was victorious, he made no move to bring me back. Likewise, when my companion fell in battle during a boss fight I was able to help him up once, but not a second time.

Unfortunately, I’m just not good at this type of game, and when it comes to a review with a deadline, I just don’t have the time to get good, either. As I understand it, people put hundreds of hours into Dark Souls type games to get good, and more power to them. In my case, however, it means that there are likely features that I won’t get to experience.

I did manage to get the first little village, Vagrant’s Rest, set up, and even managed to recruit a couple NPCs to stay there and help our cause. I did also manage to find some parts of items whose descriptions suggest that crafting is an aspect of the game, but didn’t get far enough to experience doing any crafting myself.

Obviously, gaming is part of my job. However, I judge it as a hobby and a passion. It’s something that I want to enjoy in my downtime, and not obsess over or feel as though it is work. I enjoy a game with a good thinking challenge, and sometimes even the skill required to get good at a shooter.

That’s just me, though. If the Dark Souls style challenge of dying over and over and over and over and over and over again is your thing, then by all means, pick up Ashen. Maybe you got good at the DS franchise games and are looking for something similar, but outside that scope. Then Ashen would be a better fit for you, than it was for me. Despite this, I still give the game a solid 4 out of 5, because it is designed and executed well, for what it is.

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