Ashen is an enigmatic action RPG from Aurora44, coming first to Xbox One and Windows 10. The game will also launch day and date into Xbox Game Pass, and be part of Xbox Play Anywhere for those who want to play across Xbox One and Windows 10 on a single purchase.
We played a small vertical slice of the game at last year's E3, and found its ash-blasted world, responsive combat, and unique asynchronous co-op to be truly intriguing. This past week, I was lucky enough to see the game demonstrated in full, as it nears completion.
This is Ashen, my most anticipated upcoming Xbox game, aiming to launch before the end of 2018.
A vast, lore-filled open world
Ashen takes place in a melancholy, stylized world that's as stunning as it is sizeable. We were shown several truly huge areas players will be able to traverse, which really betray expectations of Ashen as an "indie" ID@Xbox game. Ashen's world is not only vast, it's also peppered with details and opportunities for exploration that should keep players engaged for dozens of hours (potentially over thirty, we were told).
Ashen's world is as fantastical as it is mysterious, and light plays a big part in the game's story and mechanics. The Ashen are a race of phoenix-esque Godlike beings, composed of light. It was the death of an Ashen that led to light appearing in the game's world for the first time, allowing new races to evolve and appear, including man. As the Ashen died, light left the game world, plunging it into an age of darkness. Dark creatures that thrive in the gloom emerged and led the grand cities of mankind to ruin.
At the beginning of the game, the gargantuan Ashen begins to reawaken, bringing back the first sparks of light mankind has seen in millennia. Teaming up with a mystical blacksmith named Bataran, you take it upon yourself to help ignite the Ashen's rebirth, while fighting back the dark forces who would see it destroyed.
Ashen takes place in a large open world comprised of various types of landscapes and ancient architecture. Much of Ashen's world lies in apocalyptic ruins, where the surviving humans band together in violent tribes to face off scavengers and dangerous predators. Throughout the game, you will traverse dense forests, stalk the ruins of ancient empires, traverse treacherous swamps, and dive through dark caves. Ashen's game world isn't all bleak and horror, though, the game has a surprisingly varied color pallet, which should satisfy all sorts of moods and tastes.
As you travel throughout Ashen's sizeable world, you'll find yourself doing quests and dungeon runs for various NPCs, who make up Ashen's eclectic (now, fully-voiced) cast of characters. Each one will also return to your home base, eager to take up your cause, adding progression to the story, your (custom-made) character, and the facilities available in your fledgling community.
Reclaim your world, with a friend or two
Your journey in Ashen begins with the reclamation of a settlement, where you and your trusty companion can begin work restoring the Ashen to its former glory. As you explore the game world, you'll encounter a large cast of characters that each have their own missions and motivations. Once you have made them happy, they'll return to your settlement and begin to add to it, bringing their own skills and facilities to your base such as crafting, and fast travel, all while building up their own homes. By the end of the game, you should have a sprawling, and hearty village to call home. Each quest you do, whether as part of the main story or one of the more light-hearted side missions will also grant bonuses to your health and stamina pool, granting you new gear as you progress to the end of your ultimate goal. But the road to get there is filled with danger.
Ashen retains its headline feature, (almost always) anonymous asynchronous co-op, which is required to enter certain areas and dungeons. This co-operative play forms an important part of Ashen's uniqueness, since you won't be able to communicate directly (or often, even know) who you are playing with. That said, you will be able to play with friends using Ashen's filter system, which lets you set up a pass key for your game, effectively enabling pools of players to randomly appear in each other's games sharing the same key. In theory you could play co-operatively with a single friend this way, sharing the same pass key.
Those players will appear in your game completely dynamically, and anonymously, as you approach an area that requires a second player. If there is nobody available (or you disable multiplayer completely), a smart A.I. companion will spawn instead. And it is indeed smart.
Ashen's randomized co-operative gameplay is exciting, not only for the fact that it adds co-op dynamism to its reactive action RPG combat, but also, because your co-op partner will often assume the role of an NPC in your story (and vice versa for them). For once, that escort mission will feature a truly intelligent character, which not only makes combat more interesting and manageable, but it somehow makes the characters seem more "alive" and engaging. Aurora44 cited this desire for asynchronous co-op as a driving reason for launching the game into Xbox Game Pass, to ensure that it will have a healthy player base to assume these roles, rather than fall back on the game's A.I. systems.
Reactive, brutal combat
Ashen drew inspiration from the likes of The Witcher 3 and the Souls games for its responsive melee combat, although the game is by no means comparable in terms of brutal difficulty. There are no "souls" or gear to lose upon death, but you will have to manage your health manually using a refillable health flask, ensuring your gear is as up to date as possible. Aurora44 prioritized character freedom and responsiveness for its combat flow, where step dodging, rolling, stamina management, and positioning is just as important as smashing and stabbing.
Most of Ashen's most difficult areas can be overcome either by leveling up, or sheer skill, but I wouldn't put Ashen into a truly "hardcore" ARPG category that some had expected it might be.
Speaking of gear, Ashen has all sorts of armor and weapon types to collect. Giant axes, clubs, shields, throwing spears, and beyond are all accounted for. But not, however, swords, as Aurora44 wanted to force its artists to think outside of the box. Some weapons have special effects and talents, for example, performing a heavy charge attack with a certain axe might produce a cascading lightning effect. Ashen also has talismans and relics which can be equipped to bestow the user with mystical powers or passive stats.
One relic we were shown generates shadowy orbs as you fight, which can then be hurled towards an enemy at range. Another relic gives you an opportunity to cheat death, resurrecting as an ash wraith for another shot at life. When you die, you will respawn at a fast travel point known as a ritual stone, which could set you back quite far if you aren't careful.
Some of the monsters we saw in Ashen include hulking humanoids, gigantic rocky, rhino-like monsters, hideous shelled bug creatures, as well as various fantasy staples like wolves. The game also has enemy factions in the lore, which can be drawn into fights with each other, allowing you to avoid potentially dangerous situations.
Ashen isn't a boss-rush game, but it is scattered with several set-piece boss battles that seem to have thoughtful and contextual mechanics, based on the dungeons and lore surrounding them. The one we were shown, without spoiling, was rather terrifying.
My most anticipated game of 2018
Even in our brief demo, Aurora44 showcased piles of surprises that defied my earlier expectations, elevating my excitement for the game to new heights. Aurora44 look like they could be producing an instant-classic here, which lands first on Xbox One and Windows 10, both as part of Xbox Play Anywhere and Xbox Game Pass.
Ashen is currently in a polish phase, nearing the end of its development. The studio is hoping to get the game out before the end of 2018, but it already looks ready for prime time. Don't sleep on this game.
Update July 3, 2018: We updated this article here to clarify some aspects of the game's co-operative multiplayer.