“Just like Dark Souls” is a phrase that is thrown around way too liberally in today’s day and age. Essentially, any game that is even slightly challenging is immediately likened to FromSoftware’s popular RPG franchise, with little regard for how the rest of the game is actually designed. But the relatively new subgenre that we’ve all come to know as Soulslike is about much more than just difficulty- more than anything else, it refers to a very particular style of game design that defines an entire experience and how it’s structured.
In that sense, Ashen is literally just like Dark Souls. There have been countless Soulslike games over the past decade or so, but Ashen is perhaps one of the purest and most polished experiences of its kind that isn’t actually Dark Souls. It wears its influences proudly and flaunts them unabashedly. That’s both a bane and a boon. It’s a bane because that can be seen as a lack of originality, or as the game being too derivative, which, to be fair, is true a lot of the times. But it’s a boon because what Ashen does, it does extremely well, and when execution of an idea, any idea, is as strong as it is here, a lack of originality doesn’t matter as much in the end.
"There have been countless Soulslike games over the past decade or so, but Ashen is perhaps one of the purest and most polished experiences of its kind that isn’t actually Dark Souls."
The staples that you’d expect to see in a Souls game are all here. Combat mostly revolves around three actions- heavy attacks, light attacks, and dodge rolling, all of which is done while being mindful of your health and stamina meters. In place of bonfires, Ashen has ritual stones that serve as your checkpoints and fast travel locations. Instead of souls, you gain scoria, which you use to level up your character. When you die – and you will die – you lose all your scoria, and have to go to the place where you died to retrieve it. These are all mechanics that a large number of people have become very familiar with by now, and thanks to excellent execution, they work just as well in Ashen as you’d expect them to.
Combat is tense and challenging, but never unfair. Enemies hit hard, and in larger numbers, can easily put you down, but learning their attack patterns and figuring out how they telegraph their moves is a fun exercise. Boss encounters are dangerous and thrilling, and though the game obviously has much fewer of these, given its relatively short runtime of 15 to 20 hours, every one of them is excellently designed, and victory against them always comes with a swelling sense of accomplishment. Dungeons often hold choke points and corners that hide enemies that jump out at you to deal massive damage, and figuring out bit by bit how to advance through such areas is familiar yet gratifying. In its moment-to-moment gameplay, in fact, “familiar yet gratifying” is the best way to describe Ashen.
That said, it would be unfair to say that Ashen is completely lacking in originality. Though its Souls influences are immediately and constantly apparent even to someone who may not have much experience with FromSoftware’s titles, the game does enough to make sure that it isn’t just a lazy cut-paste job. The best and most striking example of that is the game’s visual design- completely minimalistic, but breathtakingly gorgeous. Every frame in the game is strikingly subtle, with bold uses of colour, light, and shadow leading to an almost impressionist look that stays with you long after you are done. All the characters in the world of Ashen are faceless, with blank slates peppered with only hair and defined by only shapes. The world itself is richly detailed, and desolately beautiful. This visual style goes a long way toward setting the tone- and tone is incredibly important in Ashen. Like the games it borrows so much from, Ashen is an experience that is defined almost as much by its mechanics as it is by its atmosphere, which is sombre, melancholic, and haunting.
"Every frame in the game is strikingly subtle, with bold uses of colour, light, and shadow leading to an almost impressionist look that stays with you long after you are done."
Another way Ashen differs from Souls is its world design. While Souls games use an almost Metroidvania-like design philosophy, where intertwining levels are constantly looping back on each other, Ashen is more open ended. While its dungeons are pretty narrow and defined mostly by corridors, everything else is open world. It’s not massive, but it never feels tiny either, and always provides ample incentive for exploration, which mostly comes in the form of a desire to see more of the game’s hauntingly beautiful world. Progression is also much more limited. There is very little focus on individual stats in Ashen, and for the most part, your stealth and stamina are the things that you need to be most concerned about- but given that this is a tighter, narrower experience of much smaller scale, that actually works in its favour. As such, Ashen strikes the perfect balance between being attractive to veterans of the genre thanks to its immaculate execution, but also being welcoming to newcomers, since there isn’t quite as much here to overwhelm someone who might be unfamiliar with Soulslike games.
Progression in Ashen comes in other forms, however- most prominently, a location called Vagrant’s Rest, which is essentially your home base. As you work your way through the game to restore light to the world, Vagrant’s Rest continues to grow. NPCs become residents in your town and start building huts and houses for themselves. As you progress more, those structures start to grow in number, and the village slowly grows beyond a collection of huts, and morphs into a proper community. Traders and vendors set up shop, which, as you can imagine, is something that comes in very handy to you as the player, especially as the upgrades these shops offer become more and more useful. Watching Vagrant’s Rest grow throughout the game is incredibly satisfying, and the fact that its populated by NPCs that are interesting characters in their own rights makes returning to the location again and again much more attractive. These NPCs usually also have quests of their own to offer, which, for the most part, and enjoyable incursions into even more beautiful parts of the world.
Ashen also employs co-op mechanics in some very interesting ways. The NPCs you recruit to Vagrant’s Rest can often tag along with you on quests- in many cases, it is even necessary for you to bring a companion along, since some areas in the world require two people to work together for you to be able to progress. Interestingly enough, if you’re playing online, there’s a chance that one of these companion characters might be another player instead of an NPC. There’s no voice chat, and the game itself does nothing to let you know whether your companion is another player or an NPC, so it falls to you to judge that based on how they act in the world and during exploration or combat. It fits with the minimalist and ambiguous atmosphere of Ashen perfectly, and works very well because companions can actually be very useful in certain situations. They can revive you if you’re felled in combat (and you, them), and while this makes things significantly less challenging at times, it doesn’t neuter the difficulty completely.
"Ashen strikes the perfect balance between being attractive to veterans of the genre thanks to its immaculate execution, but also being welcoming to newcomers, since there isn’t quite as much here to overwhelm someone who might be unfamiliar with Soulslike games."
So yes, Ashen isn’t the most original game out there. It borrows a large portion of the core of its identity heavily from giants of the industry, and as such, ends up feeling very familiar in more ways than one. That familiarty rarely ever works against it, though, because the game displays an excellent understanding of what makes the Soulslike genre tick, and implements those borrowed ideas with great aplomb. Fans of the genre will definitely find something to love here, while newcomers might also find Ashen to be a great place to jump in.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Stunning, breathtaking visuals characterized by a strong art style; Incredibly atmospheric; Solid, challenging combat; Thrilling boss fights; Great world design; Co-op play is a lot of fun and tonally apt; Watching Vagrant's Rest grow throughout the game is immensely gratifying.
A bit too derivative.