For an industry that makes so much noise about innovation, it’s interesting to see how new video game genres tend to grow and develop through an iterative process rather than bold new steps. First-person shooters used to be called “DOOM Clones” for instance, and the MOBA as we know it is essentially just a few steps away from its roots in the Defense of the Ancients WarCraft III mod. Recent genres that have emerged have included the Battle Royale set of shooters, numerous virtual trading card games and, of course, we can’t forget the unforgiving “Souls-like” subgenre of action-adventures that were inspired by the vaunted Dark Souls games. That’s what we’ve got with Ashen, which tries to be a little more friendly while maintaining the same crucial sense of hard-won reward.
After a phoenix-like creature of light called the Ashen vanishes, the world is cast into darkness. It will rise again, but as you might imagine, those who prefer darkness, the followers of the Elder Dark, would rather maintain the status quo. The new Ashen and the world of light that will accompany it will need a protector, someone to keep the land safe as it rebuilds and lay low those who might strive to hinder that progress. Grab your weaponry and your gourd full of healing sap, because that’s going to be you.
First off, let’s talk about what might be the most important part of Ashen as a product: it’s on Xbox Game Pass. If you’ve got an Xbox One with Game Pass, you could be playing it right now. Why even read a review? You’ve got the game for about as close to “free” as you can hope for in a post-Gametap age. Hop on, download it, enjoy. Game Pass remains one of the most quality values in video gaming and a concept that I’d really like to see stick around. Meanwhile, the PC version is trapped on the Epic Games storefront, meaning you’ll have to have yet another launcher running if you want to play it on that platform. You win some, you lose some.
All that aside, with Ashen you’ve got another take on the Souls formula. You’ve got your slow and deliberate combat system, your stamina bar used to manage how often you can attack and dodge and your immediate punishments for poor play. It’s pretty familiar right from the outset. Fans of that beloved series are immediately going to find themselves at home, while newcomers are likely to be surprised by Ashen’s sudden and nasty difficulty spikes. Combat isn’t quite as tight and there’s a little more impact behind your actions, but you can tell what Ashen wants to be right from the start.
So what’s different? Well, the most obvious change is that unlike the Souls games, you’ve got an NPC companion at essentially all times. In Souls, this sort of multiplayer experience felt like a bonus at best and a crutch at worst; I typically felt like I’d summon a companion when I weren’t skilled or practiced enough to handle a particular challenge, but the “real” experience was intended to be me against a foe mano-a-mano. That’s not the case here. You’ve got a sidekick and they’re going to help whether you feel you need it or not.
That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, having help can ease newer or less proficient players into the subgenre, especially since (outside of the odd pathing issue) Ashen’s companions are fairly capable. They’ll kill foes without too much trouble, revive you if you die and generally make themselves useful. On the other hand, well, you’ve got help. They’ll kill foes that maybe you should have killed. Being revived if you die might make Souls aficionados turn a bit green. What’s more, as Ashen’s multiplayer works largely in the background you might find yourself assisted by more than just a competent AI, making the game even easier. You can disable companions and adjust the game’s difficulty, but by default this is what you get and it changes how Ashen feels in comparison to its inspiration.
Love it or hate it, you can’t get away from the idea of companionship in Ashen. That applies to non-combat activities as well, since a lot of what you’ll do revolves around finding NPCs to populate the village of Vagrant’s Rest. You do a bit of that in Dark Souls as well, where many NPCs you’ll find will eventually return to your hub area to provide services or advice, but in Ashen that feels like the heart of the game rather than just a nice bonus. Watching your village grow and evolve makes for a much less bleak experience than the dying world of Souls and Bloodborne. Finding a new pal makes returning home feel just that little bit more satisfying, especially if you managed to make it back with your life and cash intact.
From a presentation standpoint, Ashen aims for a stylistic approach rather than pushing too hard on graphical horsepower to impress. Immediately you’re going to notice that characters lack faces, for instance, which could be creepy but comes off more as a way of making the events feel like a story retold rather than a film you’re watching; it’s something similar to last year’s multiplayer fighter Absolver. Sound and music are the real stars of the show here, particularly the string-heavy music. It’s all lovely and the game runs at a fantastic, smooth framerate – especially on the Xbox One X.
Ashen is an easy recommendation if you’re an Xbox player. That’s because you should have Game Pass and if you do the price is as right as it’s ever going to get. If, for whatever reason, you don’t or prefer playing on PC, this is still an adventure worth taking, though the relatively short runtime – around 15 to 20 hours depending on how often you die – means the $40 asking price leaves a sour aftertaste. Still, Dark Souls fans are sure to find something to like here. Don’t expect the same level of tightly-designed challenge, but watching your world grow and expand with each new success certainly cuts to the heart of why that franchise is so popular.