Ashen is an open-world adventure game where you and a partner — either co-op or AI — take to a mysterious land in order to restore hope to the world.
Once a bleak, dark land, the Ashen, or bird-like god of this world, brings light to it. You play as a (customizable) faceless individual, looking to help the Ashen cure the blight of darkness from the land. Sitting down at a campfire, a person named Bataran is telling you of its power when a flash of light sparks off in the distance, which you head off to investigate. Not that there’s much of an introduction, but an AI (or player, through passive multiplayer) named Jokell also journeys along with you.
After reaching the summit where the light is, you fall, in cinematic fashion. As you pick up your club and a shield in the cavern you’ve landed in and head outside, you meet Bataran again, whose purpose is to help you better understand your purpose in this land. He offers to bind your soul to a ‘Ritual Stone’, in order to serve as a beacon beyond death’s veil, or, in other words, a respawn point. In order to do that, however, you must retrieve his ‘Hammer and Spark’ from a nearby district. A golden quest marker pops up at the top of the interface, directing you where to go, giving you your first task of many.
As you explore the region, you begin to come to grips with the basics of the rules that define this action RPG. First and foremost, like most ‘souls-like’ games, stamina is key. Swing a sword, jump, run, or dodge — it all consumes stamina. Managing your stamina while trying to fight effectively is the goal with nearly all of the combat situations found in Ashen. As long as you figure out the movement patterns of the enemy before rushing in, you can effectively dispose of most enemies with ease. It’s all about timing, memorization, and of course, a bit of luck.
Enemies themselves are various forms of vagrants found in this land, who, for one reason or another, want to kill you. As you explore the areas, you will find them tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the world, waiting for their next victim to attack. Most of these vagrants are close-ranged melee types, but there are some long-range attacking ones as well that will not think twice before chucking a spear at your face. You can find various weapons hidden amongst the landscape that will help you dispense of your foes faster, each with their own stats. One-handed weapons allow for a shield in the other hand and naturally, two-handed weapons do not.
After combat, your health does not heal by itself, but thankfully your partner can revive you once if you fall in combat or other misadventure. This leads to a major problem when playing with an AI partner, as they will often completely forget you exist or simply aren’t able to physically traverse some terrain. It’s best to not lean heavily on them and hope for the best.
Completing the first quest lends you the ability to use the Ritual Stone to move your spawn point to the new district: Vagrant’s Nest. You can use the stone to restore health fully and also use it to fill an item you get shortly after, called a ‘gourd.’ This gourd allows you to heal, starting with up to three times, out in the wild. It’s a nice convenience and makes it a little bit easier to not have to rely on the finite amounts of health items scattered about. Scoria is the currency of Ashen’s world and you — as in most games of this genre — lose all of it if you die and don’t recover it from your corpse. You can use it to upgrade weapons and various other helper items, plus there are merchants you’ll find around the ruined land that offer you goods for coin. It’s easy to collect, as you get some from every enemy you dispatch, but it’s certainly not fun to lose a huge pocketful if you die in a hard to reach spot.
Ashen is just like it says on tin — a challenging yet satisfying game. Fans of the genre will certainly appreciate a new take on the formula, but it’s still hard to recommend to someone new to the genre. You will die over and over, and if you’re the kind of person to throw a controller, well, be prepared to do so. The art style is a nice soft-edged and clay-like palette within a fantasy setting, and it lends itself well to the idea of being a hero molded from clay. It’s a fun game and the passive multiplayer certainly makes it a unique experience, especially given the limited communication between you and the other player — ‘come here’ and ‘go there’ are really the only two commands. It’s a worthy trek and a welcome take on the Dark Souls style of gameplay that redefined the action game genre.