Ashen review: a Soulslike with plenty of light and shade

Genre: Action RPG
Format: XBO (tested) / PC
Developer: Aurora44
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Price: £33.49 (Xbox), £35.99 (Epic Store)
Release: Out now

Like other imitators that have attempted to rise to the occasion, it would be easy to pick apart Ashen with regards to its similarities to Dark Souls, from the stamina management to the near-identical controller button-mapping, but New Zealand-based studio Aurora44 has also created something refreshing in its own right.

In a sunless world that’s been shrouded in darkness for eons, you’re on a quest to find and protect the titular phoenix-like creature that has recently awoken to bring back light. It’s a journey you never undertake alone – indeed, a moustached, pipe-smoking chap called Jokell is with you from the start, helping you defeat a band of hostile stragglers to establish your hub, Vagrant’s Rest. Before long, you continue encountering more allies to rally behind your cause, from a mysterious seer to a giantess. More interestingly, they may in fact be other players.

Taking inspiration from Journey’s multiplayer, Ashen’s seamless and anonymous matchmaking is a fascinating idea that creates an organic and unpredictable dynamic between you and a stranger – the trick being that, for the other player, it’s you who is role-playing as their companion while they are in control of their own avatar. That any stranger could inhabit these roles suddenly explains the characters’ lack of a face.

As unique as this might sound, the concept can also be easily nixed in the menu, where you can opt to use a password filter to ensure you’re matched only with a friend, or just stick with AI. The latter became useful when I just couldn’t deal with unreliable players during a difficult point or wanted to selfishly run on ahead – issues you don’t have to worry about with compliant AI, who also has a knack for warping over to you if they need to catch up.

Things get stricter once inside the game’s dungeons, where you won’t get matched with another player should you or your companion meet your demise. These are also the darkest environments in the entire game, requiring at least one person to sacrifice their shield arm to carry a lantern, as well as containing the most terrifying enemies, like the wraiths that rush for you then pin you down until your partner can fight them off. With no shortcuts, and only one checkpoint located before the boss room, they’re perhaps the most nightmarish gauntlets I’ve run since The Tomb of the Giants in Dark Souls.

Just walking up to a ritual stone replenishes your health and Crimson Gourd. It’s only when you sit down that it also resets enemies.

Fortunately, there’s only several of these dungeons to contend with, making them more like rare challenges to relish instead of an overwhelmingly oppressive feature.

Leaving these aside, Ashen is on the whole a more accessible Soulslike. Naturally, having multiplayer by default alleviates the combat, but you’re also free to equip any gear you happen upon, as nothing is restricted by character class or attributes. This equally applies to your companions, so it won’t feel jarring that the huntress Vorsa is accompanying you with a spear in one quest then swinging a two-handed hammer the next.

“Ashen’s anonymous matchmaking is a fascinating idea”

You’ll still be spending a lot of Scoria, the game’s equivalent of Souls (acquired and lost in the same way as you’d expect) but these are focused on upgrading your tools, from your weapons’ damage output to the potency of your Crimson Gourd (basically, this game’s version of an Estus Flask).

The ultra-hardcore player needn’t balk at these accommodations as they’re similarly catered for. It’s possible for you to fashion a talisman that lets you go through the game’s dungeons alone, while about a third of the way in, you’ll unlock a harder mode that you can start right away called ‘Children of Sissna’.

Regardless of difficulty, the basics of Ashen’s combat has much of the satisfying feedback as any veteran FromSoftware fan can hope for. What’s more disappointing is that it doesn’t leave as much mystery. While the wild open landscapes and ruins of forgotten civilisations can look wondrous from higher ground, on closer inspection it’s also essentially a linear path you’re journeying on (or rather a serpentine path, conveniently surrounded by mountains), where quests are marked on your map, and without any eureka moments of discovering an illusory wall or shortcut. And for all the unpredictable ways a player-controlled NPC might behave with you in the field, when it comes to speaking to them back at Vagrant’s Rest, I found their delivery often slow and po-faced, while the dialogue gets overly expository, lacking in ethereal ambiguity, mystery and humour – a far cry from Dark Souls lore.

Yet what Ashen has going for it most is that despite the hostile forces out to get you, it’s also a very inviting place to spend time in. There are scenes and architecture that recall FromSoftware’s masterpieces for sure, but when you get to take in the sweeping landscapes, it also conjures up the sparse natural beauty of Breath of the Wild. This world may have languished in darkness, but instead of a festering decay, it’s undergoing renewal, where you and your fellow band of wanderers are fighting for a place to belong and to safeguard a hopeful future, instead of merely surviving. Ironically, for an adventure where no-one has a face, Ashen is a Soulslike that feels like it has its own identity.

Highlight

There’s a genuine pleasure to routinely return to Vagrant’s Rest as it develops over time. Besides new characters setting up a useful workstation where you can craft talismen and potions, they’re also building homes, making the place feel alive with hope. It’s probably the most peaceful video game hub since Majula in Dark Souls II.

Verdict

Ashen is a competent Soulslike elevated by a sense of optimism and community amidst the darkness.

79%

This story is an excerpt from Wireframe magazine Issue #5. Interested in regular updates from the world of video games? Become a subscriber.

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