Review: Ashen


Breath of Souls

The action-adventure genre has come a long way. Once seen as inaccessible to some, the parking garage gate arm has lifted thanks to the proliferation of walkthroughs and YouTube, as well as clever and welcoming iterative design choices.

Ashen, the newest game on the block, borrows a lot from the past but doesn't lift it wholesale. That subtitle quip is the only one I'll make throughout this review as Ashen manages to forge its own identity throughout its arduous journey.

Ashen review

Ashen (PC, Xbox One [reviewed])
Developer: A44
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Released: December 7, 2018
MSRP: $39.99 (free with Xbox Game Pass)

After a beautiful intro involving a strange world with multiple ages (a narrative device that immediately brought Tolkien's Arda to mind), I was sucked in. Its dichotomy of light and darkness is relatively subtle (despite a demi-god-like guide that espouses a bit too much exposition), a mantra that developer A44 injects into Ashen's DNA.

Your job? To explore a series of inter-connected worlds and save the light. Getting to work almost immediately you'll recognize a lot of Ashen's staples, like one or two-handed styles of combat, left or right side (read: LB/L2 or RB/R2) normal or charged attacks and charges of a health potion that replenish whenever you visit a shrine (or die, which drops your money wherever you were slain). Yep, it's plainly obvious to see where I'm going with this, but it's perfectly okay to re-use tried and true mechanics so long as they work within the confines of that project.

Where Ashen succeeds is its haunting lure of exploration and its "improve and conquer" formula that makes us all feel so good. Very, very early on you can fight the first boss if you wish, but it's basically hard mode at that point. By completing a seemingly short series of sidequests (that turn into one or two hours of adventuring) you can return and best the beast with extra health, better equipment, and acquired skills.

It's not a chore because the world is presented in a wonderful way. It's linear but gives off the allure that it's completely open, with a long, winding, easily identifiable road that leads into giant hubs full of things to discover. Exploration is aided by a competent climbing system and a jumping mechanic that features a fluid long running leap. It allows you to get creative.

Now there's limits. You can't swim, for one, only wade for a short while until you drown and die. A lot of Ashen's architecture is also very closed off, mostly in regards to the borders of each zone, funneling back into the concept of the allure of freedom I mentioned a moment ago. It's never too frustrating, but you can't help but wonder what a fully-fleshed-out sequel might look like with more seamless spoke connections. I also had several full crashes on Xbox One (as I headed back into the hub the game freaked out and locked up my console).

But there's more polarizing choices to talk about. Ashen features a different take on the formula, thrusting an AI companion into the mix nearly at all times. Now here's where it gets weird: at any point if you're playing online, said companion could be a real person. This is where the game breaks down for some people. I found my AI mates to be perfectly capable for the most part, and in many cases, I simply felt like they could be turned off (which you can do) and I'd be fine. Your companion can even revive you: a far more forgiving concept than most games of this nature.

Ashen review

It's weird, as the AI ranges from badass adventurer to timid scamp at the drop of a hat. It's not that the game is deciding to role-play either as the pool of potential helpers is small, and I know for a fact it's AI as I played offline on a few occasions to test that theory, it's just a little bit of randomness thrown in for good measure. Again, as someone who doesn't mind turning off the mechanic entirely and just toughing it out, that's fine. For everyone else, it might be a source of frustration.

Ashen also suffers from weak boss fights. The raw number (five) isn't inherently disappointing, it's that most of them aren't memorable. Several sport the same summon or area-of-effect smash attacks, and with one exception, lack the element of surprise. There is a bit of tension to them, especially with partners in the mix fighting alongside you, but most of the nail-biting moments come from adventuring.

As I continued to make my way through Ashen a calm of complacency washed over me. It doesn't have quite the same highs as a lot of its predecessors, but it maintains its tranquil equilibrium throughout. If you have an adventurous spirit and the patience and time to put into it, Ashen will pay dividends.

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

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Ashen reviewed by Chris Carter



Solid and definitely has an audience. There could be some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.
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Chris Carter
Chris CarterReviews Director, Co-EIC   gamer profile

Chris has been enjoying Destructoid avidly since 2008. He finally decided to take the next step, make an account, and start blogging in January of 2009. Now, he's staff! ------------------- T... more + disclosures



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    Filed under... #action #Annapurna Interactive #open world #PC #reviews #Role-Playing Games #Xbox One



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