A mixture of Dark Souls and Journey comes to Xbox One and PC and exploits the pleasures of non-verbal communication.
One day someone will make a Dark Souls clone that has a really happy, jovial atmosphere. Something with bright colours, cartoony characters, and a rock hard difficultly level – it could be a homage not just to FromSoftwares classics but old school Japanese games in general, which always seemed to get harder the cuter they looked. But that game is not Ashen, which is such a shameless copy of Dark Souls we feel we should be a lot more critical of it then we are. But rather than being a copycat the most important factor about Ashen is that its a really good game.
To be fair, most Dark Souls clones have leaned unnecessarily heavily on the originals, copying even relatively small details rather than inventing their own. Ashen is absolutely brazen though, from the way combat works to the respawning enemies and the story about trying to return light to a world where even the gods are dead. The fact there are also direct equivalents of souls, bonfires, and estus flasks is merely the icing on the cake.
The games magpie attitude to Froms ideas is odd though because there are also a number of important differences between the games and theyre easily the most interesting thing about Ashen. Whether they came first, or only after Dark Souls was scavenged for inspiration, were not sure but it elevates the end result into what may be the best Dark Souls game never made.
While the moment-to-moment gameplay of Ashen may be a dead ringer for Dark Souls the structure is quite different. Instead of cleverly interconnected levels the game world is much more open plan and accessible. There are more traditional dungeons, where most of the bosses lurk, but you also have your own camp called Vagrants Rest. This starts off almost empty but as you meet people out in the world you convince them to move in and are then able to use them as shop-keeps, mission-givers, and combat allies.
In general terms its not a particularly unique idea but weve rarely seen it work as well as this in an action game. Finding a friendly new face quickly becomes the most important reward in the game, as you head back to camp to see what favours theyre going to ask for and what weapons theyre equipped with to help you. Although the overall plot is fairly opaque the characters themselves are far less inscrutable than a From game and you quickly become attached to many of them, as they tell you their life story and you try to help them out through their sub-quests.
Whats especially interesting is that human players can take the roles of any of these non-player characters, if you choose to switch on the co-op options. Rather than being griefed by online hooligans weve found the Ashen community to be extremely friendly and helpful, perhaps because theres no in-game voice chat.
Its always interesting how much difference it makes not being able to talk to people directly, and theres definitely more than a hint of Journey about the game when youre trying to gauge the other persons intentions and co-ordinate attacks with each other. Playing on your own works fine, but it does tend to increase the difficultly and the computer-controlled allies have a habit of disappearing or not following properly at times.
While the combat may be far from unique it does at least get the Dark Souls formula right. There are no complex combos but instead a simple set of light and heavy attacks that rely on a quickly shrinking stamina meter and copious amounts of dodging. Theres very little in the way of ranged attacks, and more emphasis on platforming, but other than that the gameplay balance is largely the same.
The biggest difference is not in terms of the on-screen action but the scaled-down role-playing elements. This may simply be cause its a much shorter game than any Dark Souls title (even playing badly youll probably beat it in 15 hours or so) but your health and stamina stats are all you have to worry about. And while weapon upgrades are numerous the range of options are more straightforward, and the only significant complications are limited to optional talismans that confer various buffs and abilities.
In terms of difficultly, Ashen is certainly not an easy game, especially if youre on your own, but its not as consistently hard as Dark Souls. The bosses – who are very well designed, even when theyre stealing moves from other games – and dungeons are definitely the toughest part of the game but they can only be tackled with two people (computer or human) so theres always fair warning. If youre a Soulsborne veteran youll take to it immediately, while newcomers will find the game a little more inviting than usual.
Its exhausting comparing every element of a new game to one that already exists, but its impossible to discuss Ashen without also talking about Dark Souls. All the Dark Souls-esque mechanics are implemented extremely well but its consistently the differences that are the most interesting part of the game and we hope if theres to be a sequel that developer A44 are prepared to place more faith in their own ideas.
In Short: An inspired approach to co-op and non-player characters turns what couldve been just another Dark Souls clone into one of the most interesting action adventures of the season.
Pros: Maintaining the base camp and dealing with your allies works great, whether theyre computer or human-controlled. Solid combat, good art design, and great use of co-op.
Cons: Most of the gameplay, and a lot of the atmosphere, is identical to Dark Souls, which seems entirely unnecessary given the developers obvious talents. Some minor AI issues. Not cheap.
Formats: Xbox One (reviewed) and PC
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Release Date: 7th December 2018
Age Rating: 12