STAFF REVIEW of Ashen (Xbox One)

Wednesday, January 2, 2019.
by Brent Roberts

Ashen Box art When someone tells me a game is along the lines of Dark Souls, I instantly picture myself spending an exorbitant amount of time dying and respawning in a seemingly endless cycle until a checkpoint or goal is reached/obtained. I personally am incredibly poor at games like this, so when I had the chance to dive into Ashen, I thought it would be best to begin the game with an open mind; and I'm ever so thankful that I did. When I saw that the price tag was $39.99, I was optimistically cautious that what we could be looking at is an amazing sleeper of a hit. Let's get right into it and find out what we have here in Ashen.

Ashen refers to a god-like entity of light. This light radiates from the Ashen and bestows upon the various kingdoms its radiance by which each culture adapts it to fit their needs. Ashen boils down to a generic 'save the light from the dark by killing the dark' experience that we've had before. I'm not going to spoil the plot because it's one you have to experience to enjoy. I will say though that you'll experience all of this in the opening segments, and be thrown right into the story where you'll learn about Ashen's core, the creation of bonds.

Ashen thrives upon you developing relationships with others that you meet. Individuals will help you along your way, but require a side quest in order to gain their favor. Throughout your questing you'll come across items that will fulfill side quests, and you can choose whether or not you wish to complete the quest and give the items to their designated people, or you can keep the item for yourself. Should you decide to relinquish your item, then they will provide you with various skills that you can utilize.

These bonds that you create are unique to every character you meet, so you will get to experience a number of diverse side quests that most of the time will boil down to just go somewhere, kill something, collect reward and repeat. As you complete your quests and grow your home base, Vagrant's Rest, you will find that more abilities will open up for your character in regard to crafting and upgrades. While you make your progress and tend to others, you will watch as your base begins to grow not just in population, but also in development. As you help others, it become startling how you see your base almost blossom in front of your eyes. Now remember, these quests are optional, but they do serve a critical purpose, and that is to teach you to work together.

Yes, you'll have an NPC character accompany you, however, that AI can be replaced by another human in a seamless drop in/out method. You'll rapidly become to realize that to access various areas of the map itself, you will be required to work as a team to traverse and explore the wilderness and caves. It must also be noted that if someone joins your game, they can go off on their own and completely leave your side as well. While this doesn't bode well to fostering good teamwork, remember that you will also be needed should the other person wishes to access areas that require cooperation. This harmonic balance is what will keep people working together and is a remarkable trait that is rarely found in gaming today.

Should you decide to go at Ashen solo, you will be granted your AI teammate, but their playstyle will forever be less than a human controlled character. There is a knock against the co-op though, as if you want to have a dedicated friend join up rather than a random player or an AI counterpart. To accomplish this, you must first go into settings, then after you adjust your settings, you then must enter a code which you have to give to your friend so they can link to your game and join you, then you are required to essentially stand in the same spot in the world. Should all of this work flawlessly, then your friend will be directly linked to your game. I don't know, but I thought a simple invite system that's found on almost every other game that allowed for co-op would be a lot more simplistic, because, should one step fail, then you have to do this all over again. Also, should you fast travel on the map or perish, then guess what you're going to be doing again? For a game so centered around developing bonds and cultivating friendships and teamwork, Ashen really puts a lot of confusing steps in place to do it.

Outside of the cumbersome steps needed to partner up with a friend, you'll quickly come to terms with the Right Stick and the B button, as you realize that a majority of the game involves combat, and the Right Stick allows you to lock onto an enemy, so you don't end up flailing your weapon around hitting nothing but air. Your B button is your infamous dodge move which will save your hide, provided you have enough stamina, and that is also another sad reality; that Ashen boils down to simple stamina management for its gameplay. Your Right Bumper gives you a light attack, Right Trigger gives you a hard attack, and each take away their own amount of stamina. Your dodging as well takes away stamina, and if you have to dodge twice you may not have enough left in the tank to engage your opponent right away. This technique of managing your dodging with your attacking, and stamina amount, will be of the upmost importance to master, especially when dealing with the game's bosses who can one shot you without a successful dodge.

After you perfect your mastery of the controls, you'll be able to enjoy the incredible lands of Ashen. Beautiful scenery blankets every unique area and adds an artistic flair to the realistic graphics we have come to know and expect. Caves and underground labyrinths feel enclosed and can be tricky to navigate, while the wide-open space of the world of Ashen can leave you vulnerable to unseen spear and arrow attacks from a distance, so I learned quickly to always be aware of your surrounding areas. I will say though, that one of the biggest surprises to me, by a mile, is the soundtrack. An acoustic wet dream of harmonies that play off the lands and your actions make every single moment of Ashen an incredible experience. After playing games since the early 80's, I would easily rate this within my top 10 gaming soundtracks of all time. While the tedious grinding of enemies after I expired would become mundane after doing it so many times, it allowed me to listen to more of the soundtrack, which was a perfect tonic to my depression over my failed gameplay.

There are some technical issues though that plagued Ashen. For instance, I would encounter some screen lag when multiple moving items were on the screen at one time. I also would experience game crashes should I spin the camera around too fast and for too long. I also encountered some more game crashes when I tried to do a trade with some of the NPC traders. Each one of these crashes involved me having to restart the game entirely. Thankfully though, all of my currency and items were still there when my character got back into the world. I must make note though, if you're a purist when it comes to achievements, brace yourselves because there are numerous 17-point achievements that you can obtain.

For a hack and slash game that adapts the traits of a Dark Souls, to focus on the formation and cultivation of bonds between characters, Ashen is a game that came out of nowhere to positively surprise me. Despite the technical glitches, the grinding and the dying, I found the game beautiful to behold, angelic to listen to, and a story that delivers a tremendous punch. A44 did a tremendous job developing a game that is worth every penny of the $39.99 asking price. It goes without saying that if you're a fan of adventure games, hack and slash games, or Souls type games, then Ashen needs to be on your must buy list.

do away with the 17 point achievements.

Overall: 8.8 / 10
Gameplay: 8.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.8 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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