Ashen was announced a couple of years ago as an ID@Xbox exclusive, complete with a unique art style and haunting atmospherics. The project basically went dark since then, and fans of that early trailer have been wondering what form it would eventually take.
We knew it would be an action RPG. And we knew it would feature asynchronous, passive multiplayer. But what do those things actually mean for Ashen? At E3 2017, I met Aurora 44 Games, the developer, to get answers to these burning questions.
Getting started with Ashen
Ashen takes place in a large open world without sunlight, and light is an important device both in terms of gameplay and passive story telling. Volcanic activity, coupled with luminosity from the constant eruptions reflected by the ash in the sky, gives Ashen both its unique personality, and its namesake.
Ashen's gameplay demo gave me a glimpse of its central features. Make no mistake, Ashen is an action RPG in the truest sense. It's challenging, unforgiving, and crammed with secrets, loot, and open-world exploration. Aurora 44 describes Ashen's gameplay as harsh and skill-based.
After just twenty minutes with the game's conservative demo, it was readily apparent that Ashen has evolved far beyond its humble "indie" roots. Ashen's polish, scope, and unique features scream of AAA quality making it something I'd expect to see from the industry's biggest and most prolific players. Ashen is one game RPG fans everywhere should be following with unwavering focus.
Hello darkness my old friend
I embarked into the wilderness without any inkling of what to truly expect. I found myself in a gorgeously cel-shaded forest, submerged in dense mist, dotted with hints of civilization and roaming critters. I discovered a familiar inventory system, complete with the ability to consume food to regain health in lieu of passive health regeneration. I discovered both heavy and light attacks, and the ability to combine swings into combos. I also discovered the ability to climb ledges, sprint, and dodge - all standard action RPG fare. It was only when I discovered that a random player had appeared in my game that I began to appreciate how special Ashen could turn out to be.
When a random player appeared in my game I began to appreciate how special Ashen could turn out to be.
Ashen's game world was described to me as huge and open, including opportunities for dungeon crawls and secret hunting. There were invisible walls to block my progression in the demo, but across the river, I could see shanty towns, makeshift structures, and deep forests, which looked as inviting as they were threatening.
I got the impression immediately that Ashen could be an explorers' paradise, for those willing to brave its dangers.
The chap who spawned into my game was wielding a large, two-handed club and didn't seem at all hostile, thankfully. Aurora 44 says that's by design. Ashen is supposed to be a solitary experience, albeit with connected "encounters" delivering passive emergent play that AI simply isn't capable of.
During these encounters, you'll only be able to communicate with physical emotes, waving, pointing and that sort of thing. You won't be able to find any co-op partner's gamertag or communicate with voice. There are no lobbies either. These encounters are designed to be fleeting, and perhaps at times, poignant moments because you'll both live and die together as you tackle some of the game's hardest content.
Ashen doesn't seem like a game that's out specifically to punish.
Indeed, some of Ashen's dungeons require two players to unlock and enter. Aurora 44 was careful to ensure that it would be effectively impossible to troll other players in these situations. There is no team damage, nor character collision, meaning that connected players can't interfere with your game at all – save for helping you tackle the horrors that lie within. If there are no players available, Aurora 44 says an AI non-player character (NPC) will eventually spawn instead.
The dungeon we dived into was among Ashen's earliest and designed to get players acquainted with the game's systems and features. It was here that I got a true taste of what Ashen is all about.
Secrets within secrets
Giant spider-like monstrosities emerged from the darkness, attacking with unforgiving voracity. Each attack was preceded by a cue to dodge, similar in design to games like The Surge and Dark Souls. I'm hesitant to describe Ashen as a "soulslike," but it's certainly not far off. A better comparison might be The Witcher 3 on hard or higher. It's supremely easy to die if you're not careful, and Ashen's tight and responsive controls make combat all the more rewarding. But, at least early on, I wouldn't say Ashen seems like a game that's out specifically to punish.
Heavy attacks are slower, and are thus, high-risk, but they come with the added benefit of stunning enemies. Depending on your weapon type, you could also stun several enemies at once, swinging a larger weapon in a wide arc. Light attacks are much faster and are great to follow up and quickly dispatch a stunned foe. Ashen is still in active development, but it already feels incredibly polished and exciting to play – as I type this, it aches that it'll be several months before I get the opportunity to dive back in.
As we proceeded further into the dungeon, Aurora 44 dropped hints about hidden secrets off the main path. Aurora 44 says that many of Ashen's dungeons are interwoven, and may reveal other areas you can reach later in the game. We discovered secrets within secrets, too, rewarding with health-sustaining cave mushrooms and equipment. Loot is per-player in Ashen as well, so you needn't worry about players stealing all the treasure.
I found an ax with special properties that gave me a significant boost to my attacks. Aurora 44 noted that Ashen's loot systems are less about finding hundreds of weapons, however. It's more about finding archetypes that you really enjoy, whether it's a one-handed ax or a two-handed spear, and then upgrading them later using the game's town system. Your weapons in Ashen are supposed to feel like a valuable travel companion, rather than something you'll readily throw away with the first minor stat upgrade.
Ashen's beautiful shapes and angles really pop in the game's rich lighting engine.
The main progression system in Ashen isn't about leveling up or loot crawling either, but more about finding upgrades for your settlement. From the outset, Ashen was all about "finding a home," and it is there where you will be able to craft and upgrade your gear, growing your population by inviting NPCs back to your settlement. Different NPCs have different skills, and for example, a blacksmith might have the ability to upgrade that ax I found in the depths of the game's first dungeon.
Aurora 44 plans to offer more details about the game's town feature at a later date, but even the scant details indicate that Ashen is far more than your average dungeon crawler, and the same goes for its unique story delivery.
The reasoning behind the state of Ashen's volcano-blasted world is unknown, but even in the small slice afforded to us at E3, there were hints that gave the world both believability and mystery. Murals inside the dungeon reacted to my lantern, showing shadows of previous events. Indeed, Ashen's dungeons can be completely pitch black, forcing the player to bring his own light source. Ashen's beautiful shapes and angles really pop in the game's rich lighting engine, which is certainly central not only to the game's story, but also exploration, and even in combat.
While I failed to get this far in my own playtest, Aurora 44 revealed the first boss behind closed doors, and the fight looked as exhilarating as it was spectacular. The boss will drain the light from your lantern and use it to create areas of effect explosions, which were beautiful while also being deadly.
The boss fight required some learning and careful tactics. The shadowy, humanoid creature did leaping swipe attacks, and also retreated into alcoves in the walls, requiring the player to use their lantern to flush it out. It also had a crazy amount of health and dealt impressive amounts of damage. Again, I'm not sure it's fair to say it will be as hard as Dark Souls, particularly since the dungeon requires a co-op partner, but the fight was difficult enough to be a rewarding challenge, particularly for fans of the genre.
As Aurora 44 exited the dungeon, we were treated to a narrated sequence with a shamanistic figure, standing on a ledge above a vast, cave lake. She relieved us of a strange key item – milk teeth – found along the way. I'm not sure if the key item was necessary to complete the dungeon, or simply part of an optional storytelling moment. Either way, the result was something entirely unexpected that dropped my jaw.
From the depths of the cave emerged a gargantuan, stone woman, adorned with gigantic jewelry and other fineries. She seemed to accept the milk teeth as some form of offering, before swimming back into the lake, submerging into the dark. The sequence was something I'd sooner expect of Shadow of the Colossus and slammed home the fact that Ashen has far more to it than meets the eye.
It was blatantly obvious from Ashen's first trailer that Aurora 44 represents a talented group of people, but the demo left me floored.
Up until that moment, Ashen had deceived me with its subtlety. Its low-key, minimalistic music, its delicate art style and passive narrative make way for epic and impactful set-pieces that are reminiscent of that original trailer we saw all the way back in 2014 with the floating whale. Aurora 44 waited for the perfect moment to reveal the game's true majesty, using the pacing of the dungeon and the passive story elements to give the final set-piece an extra punch. It was blatantly obvious from Ashen's first trailer that Aurora 44 represents a talented group of people, but the demo left me floored.
Seeing the light
The fact Ashen that effectively enlists human players to play the part of an NPC companion for dungeons makes it a truly unique, almost bittersweet experience. You'll triumph together, find treasure together, maybe die together, but you'll never know the person on the other end. The anonymity keeps you immersed in the game in a way that other co-op titles simply don't. There's no voice on the other end reminding you that you're not in the game. Ashen gives you no choice but to roleplay. You're there to be an NPC for your co-op partner, nothing more, nothing less.
The result is subtle but incredible, and I truly feel like Ashen could prove itself hugely influential on the way future RPGs handle co-operative play. Gamers today are obsessed with socializing and connectivity to the point where single player games are becoming difficult for AAA publishers to fund or justify. Ashen's brand of passive, anonymous co-op could be the bridge between compelling and dynamic gameplay only possible with other humans, while retaining the purity and immersion only possible in a single player game.
Ashen is my game of the show for E3 2017. It's unique style, thoughtful mechanics, and haunting mysteries spoke to me more than any other title at this year's event. Aurora 44 has increased the scope of the game massively in partnership with its new publisher, Annapurna, known primarily for movies like Lawless and American Hustle. The company is increasingly pushing into video games, too, supporting both Ashen and the PlayStation 4 (PS4) console exclusive What Remains of Edith Finch, which received widespread acclaim.
I'm rooting for Ashen, and you should too.
Ashen is expected to launch in 2018 on Xbox One, Xbox One X, and the Windows 10 Store as a Microsoft exclusive with Xbox One X enhanced visuals, cross-play, and Xbox Play Anywhere support.