Ashen on Xbox One
From the start, it’s pretty clear where Ashen’s primary source of inspiration comes from. If you’ve played any of From Software‘s Soulsborne games, the control scheme should immediately clue you in. I don’t want to start a whole line of discussion about how Ashen is yet another Souls-like, though, because it’s not.
Developed by A44 Games, Ashen is a third-person action RPG that does take a lot of inspiration from Souls as far as the combat goes, but it also adopts styles and elements from various other games as well. It comes together in a decent amalgamation, but the game itself ends up lacking any sense of individuality, or that X-factor that makes it distinct or stand out from other games of its ilk.
Ashen puts you in control of a faceless character that you can customize. After some brief introductions to the world, you learn that your task is to journey across a dangerous land in the hopes of awakening the legendary Ashen to restore balance.
The comparisons between Ashen and Sloclap’s Absolver are immediately apparent. The faceless characters have this unsettling, iconic look about them, and the game’s environments are largely devoid of intricate details, but they’re also saturated with just enough color to pull you in, inviting you to explore further. It’s a beautiful game to be sure, and it’s ripe for exploration.
And this is where Ashen starts to deviate from the Souls formula. Whereas the Souls games rarely hand-hold —if at all— and opt to have the player just explore and die at their own free will, Ashen features a more traditional quest system you’d see in other open-world RPGs. After founding a town in the middle of the map, you’ll be able to talk to various NPCs and do favors for them. Ashen features a map you can check at any time, clearly indicating all quest locations. There’s even a compass at the top of the screen to show you where your nearest objectives are.
What’s interesting about Ashen is that despite having all these traditional RPG elements, there’s also no straightforward way to level up or customize your character build. You’ll gain health and stamina boosts by completing quests or finding key items out in the world, and your strength will increase as you craft better weapons and equip them. But if you’re looking for an in-depth leveling system, Ashen just doesn’t have that. You won’t be agonizing over pouring points into either strength or dexterity here.
The quests themselves serve to flesh out the game’s lore and story, though they’re sadly weighed down by some overly cheesy or hammy voice acting. It also doesn’t help that most quests are simply a case of you going to one location or another to pick up some item and bring them back. The fetch quest-y nature of the game, coupled with the lack of a leveling system, is certainly the weakest part of Ashen, as it can sometimes feel like you’re just grinding out quests to ‘level up’ enough to take on the next main story mission.
Thankfully, the combat is actually rather good. As I mentioned earlier, the control scheme in Ashen is nearly identical to your typical Souls games. The shoulder buttons are for light and heavy attacks, as well as blocking. You’ve got an Estus-like healing system in the form of crimson gourds, and you’ll rest at checkpoints to refill them. To use the Souls parlance, your dodge rolls also have invincibility frames that will allow you to roll through most telegraphed enemy attacks.
By and large, the combat in Ashen feels responsive, and at times, it can even feel more punishing than you might initially expect. Successfully dodging an attack and rolling back in to bash an enemy to death feels good, especially when you learn to read enemy patterns. The stamina bar is also crucial to managing your moves. Just like in Souls, Ashen queues up your actions as you hit your button inputs. But unlike in Souls, it continues to queue them up even after your stamina is depleted, so if you’re not managing your stamina properly, you’re gonna end up in a roll a second later than you wanted, potentially leading you to another death.
However, there are a couple of key absences that hold Ashen’s combat from being as in-depth as it could be. There are no parrying/riposte or backstab mechanics, and enemies always seem to have large aggro ranges, preventing you from sneaking up on them for some fun combat encounters. Weapons are categorized as one-handed or two-handed types as well, and there’s definitely a lack in variety when it comes to weapon types, which can really limit your play styles in Ashen. All of these factors compounded together lead to Ashen feeling a bit one-note in terms of combat and how it plays.
You can make combat significantly easier as well, as the game’s default settings allow you to bring an AI companion with you wherever you go. This can be disabled of course, but there are several parts of the game that require you to have a partner, which led to me just having them enabled all the time. The AI companions are extremely competent in battle, and can even show you the way forward at times. Depending on whether you prefer the combat or exploration aspects of the game, this can be a good or a bad thing.
By now, you can probably tell where I’m going with this review. Ashen adopts tons of great elements from great games. The world itself is beautiful, and the traditional RPG elements like maps and objective markers will surely feel welcoming for players who might feel daunted by the Souls-like combat. And yet, the quests themselves are painfully insipid and sometimes uninteresting. The combat system has tons of potential, but Ashen never quite goes all the way with it to allow players to experiment properly. The lack of a proper leveling system also holds the game back from feeling like a fully-fledged RPG.
As a result of all of these things, Ashen feels rather mediocre. Now don’t take that the wrong way; this is still one of the best Souls-like games out right now, and A44 definitely nailed the game feel with the way character movement and reactions work. But after spending a few hours with the game and realizing how lacking it is in variety, things will start to feel stale before long.
Ashen feels like it’s trying to be too many things at once, and perhaps because of that, it ends up tasting like a bland pot of soup without any punchy flavors to really catch your attention.
Score: 3/5 – Fair
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