Ashen, a new Dark Souls-inspired action RPG, made a surprise arrival. Going in, expectations were high — but did Ashen meet them? Was Ashen the holiday gift we were all hoping for or was it a lump of coal in our stockings?
After slashing, dodging, and bleeding my way through its 20-hour long gameplay experience, I can safely say that Ashen is wonderful, though it isn't a masterpiece. Still, the presentation in Ashen is nothing short of incredible, and the mechanics, while not exactly original, are both finely-tuned and engaging, resulting in a very satisfying and enjoyable action RPG — so long as you don't mind a challenge.
About this review
This review was conducted on an Xbox One console, using a review copy of the game provided to Windows Central.
What you'll love about Ashen: Story, presentation, and gameplay
Ashen's story isn't complex or deep, but it's well told. The premise of the game is this: long ago, mythical bird-gods called Ashen landed onto the Earth, spreading light throughout the world and evolving all forms of life. However, the Ashen eventually died off, and this caused the world to plunge into perpetual darkness. An Ashen has returned, and light has returned with it, but three evil darkness spirits called the Elder Dark are trying to attack and kill the Ashen so they can prevent the return of light. Your task is to embark on a grand adventure in order to stop them and save the world.
Ashen's voice acting is nothing short of superb.
This premise is very cool, but what really made the story for me was the excellent voice acting. Even though none of the characters were groundbreaking, I still found myself eager to hear what everyone had to say due to how well-done their voices were. You can really tell that the actors the developers brought in for Ashen were passionate and dedicated to their roles.
The thing that stands out about Ashen the most is its soft, stylistic visuals, which I can only describe as a mash-up between The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the stealth game Aragami. Ashen is rich in detail, right down to the small tears on clothing or the individual blades of grass, but the choice of softer color tones ensures none of it is ever hard on the eyes. Speaking of colors, Ashen uses a wide range of them, ranging from the vibrant greens, oranges, and reds of the natural world to the inky blues, grays, and blacks of places where enemies of the light reside. Overall, Ashen is simply a breathtaking game.
The game's music and soundscape are also works of art. The soundtrack is filled with a large collection of music that fits with all the situations you'll be in perfectly, and if you stand still in the game world, you'll be able to hear all the detailed sounds of things like wildlife, wind blowing through the trees, and more. Attention to detail like that really helps make the world feel alive and immersive.
Ashen's gameplay is challenging, and the mechanics are excellent.
Lastly, Ashen's challenging gameplay is crisp and responsive, with each attack swing, dodge roll, and shield block forming a trifecta of basic moves to learn and master. As you go through the game, both new weapons you use and new enemies you encounter will have different attack timings, which will regularly keep you on your toes and ensure this moveset never ends up feeling stale. Stamina also plays a large role, as you have to pace your button presses to prevent running out of energy and being open to attacks. The game definitely showcases inspiration from Dark Souls loudly and proudly, and overall, the mechanics are pretty much one-to-one ripped directly from the Souls series.
The progression system outside of combat largely revolves around loot drops, either from quests, defeated enemies, or hidden items in the world. Most of the gear is spread out in a way that makes getting a new armor piece or weapon rare enough to be exciting, while not so rare as to make you feel like you never get rewarded for your time and effort.
A cool thing worth mentioning is Ashen's approach to cooperative play. At any time (if enabled) a random player or a friend can join your session and play through the game with you. If you enjoyed the cooperative player-versus-environment (PvE) of Dark Souls III, then you'll love Ashen's multiplayer element.
What you'll love less about Ashen: Lack of originality and performance
While Ashen's gameplay is well refined, it's also a little too derivative for my tastes. If you don't mind the fact that it's unashamedly copying Dark Souls, then this won't matter to you, but I think more could have been done to make Ashen's mechanics feel like an evolution of the Dark Souls style instead of copy-and-pasting it. I'm not being hyperbolic either. Nearly every Dark Souls mechanic is present in Ashen under a different name, from bonfires to soul currency. At least the world of Ashen is much different than Dark Souls, though.
Ashen runs worse than I was expecting.
Another issue with Ashen is that it could stand to run a lot better. The game is far from unplayable, but some of the larger areas with lots on-screen to render can cause framerates to drop consistently, which can be annoying while in a fight with enemies. Also, there's some occasional texture pop-in too, which can break immersion slightly or significantly depending on how much there is. None of it is too bad, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me grumble to myself a few times.
Should you buy Ashen?
If you're a fan of Dark Souls, love gorgeous art and sound, and like quality stories, than Ashen is right up your alley.
- Well-written story.
- Superb voice acting.
- Tight, responsive mechanics.
- Fantastic presentation.
- Feels like it's copying Dark Souls.
- Could be more polished overall.
Ashen could have done more to make itself stand out, and also could have been optimized better for the Xbox One, but at the end of the day, it's still a great game. It may be $40, but I would have been perfectly happy paying $60 for AAA-quality like this.
Ashen is available now for $40 on Xbox One, as well as on PC via the brand new Epic Games store. You can also play it by subscribing to Xbox Game Pass.
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