Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PC

When Epic Games launched its new Epic Store digital storefront earlier this month, one of the store’s exclusive games immediately caught my eye. What initially drew me to Ashen, a new game from developer A44 and publisher Annapurna Interactive, was its fantasy RPG setting and unique minimalist visuals which reminded me of Sloclap’s Absolver.  However, when I also found out that Ashen’s gameplay takes several cues from the Dark Souls series, I knew I had to play it.

Having now experienced a great deal of Ashen for myself, I can confirm it plays like a Souls-like game, albeit one with a very different tone. Despite some noticeable technical flaws, Ashen successfully draws players into a world that’s equal parts Dark Souls and The Legend of Zelda, combining challenging combat with a serene ash-covered world full of monsters, gods, and ordinary people in need of a hero.

Light reborn

Much like its visuals (and the Dark Souls series), Ashen takes a minimalist approach to its storytelling, conveying only the most basic of details to the player. When a massive light-infused bird god grew old and perished, its death resulted in an age of darkness from which monsters, giants, and other dangers emerged. Humans exist in this world as well, and the player takes on the role of a nameless human who sets out to restore the dead god’s heart, thus triggering its rebirth.

When you start up a new game of Ashen, you can craft your human protagonist from scratch, customizing their gender, skin tone, and hair style (there’s no facial customization since the game’s visuals render humanoid characters without distinct faces). Once you’re in the game proper, a pair of NPC’s guide you through the opening moments and help you in establishing a base camp of sorts called Vagrant’s Rest.

Ashen’s combat and movement mechanics will feel instantly familiar to Souls-like fans, but it’s in Vagrant’s Rest that the game takes its first serious deviation from the established Dark Souls formula. As the player explores more of Ashen’s landscape and helps various NPC’s, Vagrant’s Rest slowly evolves from a small camp into a fully fledged town. The NPC’s that players help in turn come back to Vagrant’s Rest, offering their services and, in some cases, even venturing out alongside the player as combat allies.

These NPC’s are also more than just merchants and fighters. They’re fleshed out characters with their own personalities and backstories. In fact, many of Ashen’s side-quests involve helping the NPC’s fulfill their own quests and goals.

This two-pronged approach of helping NPC’s with their quests and bringing them along as combat allies allows players to organically build up personal connections with those NPC’s. They’re not just stock vendors who you occasionally visit in town and then forget about, they’re dynamic characters who grow alongside the player in terms of both narrative and combat acumen.

There’s even a unique multiplayer system where actual human players can spawn in and play as your Vagrant’s Rest allies. The system is seamless, and often the only way you can tell whether your ally is a player or an NPC is by their behavior. Sadly, due to reasons I’ll get to, I had to manually disable the multiplayer component early on in my playthrough. Players looking for a real challenge can also disable the entire combat ally system, barring players and NPC’s alike.  

Taking the bad with the good

Unlike the Dark Souls games, Ashen also has a slightly more linear world progression system. The game is technically “open-world” in the sense that there are large open spaces you can explore, but those different spaces are linked together in a clearly defined “path.” By looking at the in-game map, you can tell where the path “ends” in relation to its “beginning” (the zone which contains Vagrant’s Rest).

As you accept quests and missions from different NPC’s, those quests will lead you along into newer open-world zones, providing a sort of story-based benchmark of which zone you should be exploring. It’s also important to utilize each NPC’s associated crafting/upgrade station since that is how you advance your character in Ashen.

Slaying enemies and completing quests awards a currency called Scoria, and true to the Dark Souls formula you drop any Scoria you’re holding when you die. Instead of direct level-based character upgrades, Scoria is instead used to augment your character’s equipment and attributes. For example, one NPC offers passive upgrades like enhanced stamina or health for Scoria, while another can use Scoria to upgrade your Crimson Gourd (Ashen’s version of Dark Souls’ Estus Flasks).

Systems Shock

These simplified and streamlined systems help in making Ashen feel like a more approachable Souls-like game. Thanks to the quest system, you always know where to go next. Scoria, meanwhile, streamlines the character upgrade process while still allowing for diverse build strategies. And the slow build-up of Vagrant’s Rest provides a clear indicator of the player’s positive influence on the world. However, for all the good there is within Ashen’s framework, there are also some less-desirable elements.

If you’re a Dark Souls player who prefers using ranged weapons or magic, Ashen sadly wasn’t built with you in mind. The game focuses almost entirely on melee combat, using weapons like clubs and axes (no swords, interestingly enough). You can either use one-handed weapons and a shield or larger two-handed options, and you can throw ranged spears as a backup, but that’s about the full breadth of Ashen’s combat variety.

 Ashen also has a number of technical shortcomings which is strange given its small size (on Xbox One it’s about a 7GB download). The game’s loading times are a bit long, a frustrating prospect to deal with when you end up having to backtrack after dying in an inconvenient spot. I also had the game crash on me a few times early on, but I’m fairly certain those crashes were tied to the multiplayer system. As soon as I manually disabled multiplayer the crashes stopped.

Of course, having to rely entirely on NPC combat allies proved to be a challenge as well. I found the combat ally spawning mechanics to be erratic to the point of unreliable. Oftentimes I’d exit Vagrant’s Rest with an ally in tow, only to have them mysteriously disappear a few minutes later, leaving me in the wind during a tough enemy encounter. There’s also no rhyme or reason as to the specific weapons an NPC ally wields, which can significantly impact their combat performance.

Granted, having allies by your side, even NPC ones, can make all the difference when it matters most. In fact, it’s because of the NPC ally system that I was able to defeat most of Ashen’s boss enemies on my first try. I’m hopeful that a future game update fixes the multiplayer crash issues since I can only imagine the advantages of having an actual player watching my back.

Light in all things

Even with such noticeable technical shortcomings, I still enjoyed my time playing Ashen, and would wholly recommend it to fans of the Dark Souls series or adventure/RPG games in general. The game’s tough combat challenges are offset nicely by the NPC ally system. The character advancement and world exploration mechanics, meanwhile, are far more accessible than what you’ll find in any of the Souls games.

Suffice it to say, those looking for a more laid back Souls-like experience or, at the very least, a solid entry point into the genre, would do well to give Ashen a try.