Ashen is full of nonsense. I don’t mean its gameplay. The fighting, exploring, advancement and traversal mechanics are all well thought out and a ton of fun. I’m talking about the story. Every time a character in Ashen speaks, my eyes start to glaze over. Then I snap back to attention and realize that the story isn’t boring at all — it’s totally bonkers.
At its core, Ashen bears a lot of similarity to Demon Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne – the Bloodsouls games if you will. You travel through an ostensibly open fantasy world. Areas are blocked off by locked doors or difficult enemies or secret mechanisms though, so you travel through the world in a somewhat linear fashion. Combat is made up of a combination of light and heavy attacks, with a number of different weapons changing up the basic formula. You can dodge-roll and block with a shield. Most importantly, you have limited stamina, which discourages you from hacking and slashing. You clear areas and illuminate beacons, giving you a spawn point to return to. Otherwise, enemies return when you die though you can pick up your lost bits if you return to the spot where you died.
Ok, About the Story…
The story though is crazytown bananapants. Okay, so there was a big bird made of light called the Ashen. The title refers to the bird, and not what happens when you don’t use moisturizer. The Ashen died and, erm, each of its last three breaths became the ages of the world. There was an Age of Darkness, ruled over by a Great Darkness. Then there was an Age of Monsters and Gods. Then light came to the world, ushering in the Age of Man. The whole thing feels vaguely Norse, what with there being nine realms and a World Tree, but this ain’t like any Norse Mythology I’ve ever read.
The game starts after the end of the third age, at the beginning of… I guess the fifth age? Or the fourth and a half? The light has gone out of the world, but it is returning, and a group of humans wishes to bring the Ashen and its light back to the realm. And so you run around as NPCs recite their nonsense fantasy speak, and helpful prompts tell you that what they are really saying is you need to collect the hammer of an evil blacksmith, and it can be found over there.
I’m giving the game a hard time, but I rather like the whole Ashen nonsense aesthetic. The game tells you what it’s about from the beginning. You get to create your main character, who is of the silent school of video game protagonist. You choose a man or a woman and a hairstyle and the like, but not the face. You don’t get a face. Nobody in Ashen has eyes or a nose or mouth. That’s because Ashen is going for minimalist weird, and boy does it get there.
There’s something to be said about a confident art style. Ashen probably could have been run on PS2/Gamecube-era technology and not looked all that different. That’s not because it’s ugly — far from it. This is a gorgeous game. It makes deliberate (and weird!) decisions, and looks like itself. This puts it in the same family as Journey or Valkyria Chronicles or the Persona series. It just looks like itself. And the incoherence of the plot and dialogue creates a strange coherence with the graphics and sound. Right on!
As a Bloodsouls game, Ashen isn’t as tight as the From Software classics. Its dreamlike style is matched by sort-of-floaty controls. Towards the beginning of the game, I noticed that my character didn’t have enough stamina to kill even the simplest enemies. I had to combo them, then hop away like a fool, recharge, and then finish them off (I quickly leveled up, and increased my combat options). For better or worse, Ashen is also a lot more forgiving than those other games. Health restoring items are never too hard to find. You even get a companion to fight at your side and revive you if you fall. That drastically decreased the difficulty.
Crazy Like a Fox
Playing Ashen, I pondered what made those Bloodsouls games so classic. Ask someone, and without a thought they would tell you it was the difficulty — Dark Souls is hard! And Ashen is not, at least not in the same way, but I don’t think that’s it. Superficially, it might be the gameplay style. These games are all action RPGs, but the simple stamina meter prevents you from engaging in button mashing. That’s key, but I don’t think it’s the most important thing.
Because I realized that much like Ashen, Dark Souls and Bloodborne are games of utter nonsense. The stories of the land of the undead, or the cursed city of Yharnam, or the revivification of the bird of light are more impressionistic than anything else. They are stories revealed through gameplay and exploration. A single line of a dialogue, or an item description, or the way an area is lit tells you more about the world than the inscrutable cut-scenes. And this is why I think Ashen is going to be a hit. Its gameplay is familiar and fun, but its world is like nothing you’ve ever seen. You have to work to see it all, and you’ll want to.
** An PC game code was provided by the publisher **
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Ashen Review – Sad, Inscrutable and Absolutely Beautiful