Dear Phil Spencer and Microsoft, if you’re serious about locking down unique, creative ‘must-have’ exclusives to the Xbox platform, you should probably take a long hard look at bringing A44 in as a Microsoft first-party studio. Because this little joint the New Zealand crew have made in the recently-released Ashen, well... it’s a helluva thing. Conversely, Sony, if you’re listening -- make a play, son. Either way, whoever snaps up the services of this incredibly talented outfit will be bolstering their creative stocks tenfold.
Ashen is just beautiful.
It’s also brutal to a fault, and this is why taking on a fledgling studio whose debut title, full of wonder and promise as Ashen is, would make so much sense. The mind boggles at what the studio’s possibilities would look like with a bigger budget, but to also be part of a larger network of stable talent would help them refine their gameplay. Ashen is many things, but perhaps its biggest flaw is in its repetitive nature. Part of the game’s repetition, it should be said, however, forms both its economy and its gameplay loop, but it can get tedious and even frustrating at times. The game’s AI companions are actually very good, but because of the above it’s definitely more highly recommended you try and coax a friend in to return to the light with you.
"The themes aren’t too heavy, and the story is also lite-on, but that’s okay. Ashen sells its world through art-direction and set-piece design..."
All that being said, I should probably tell you what Ashen exactly is. Well, this is a Souls-lite action-RPG (equally lite) set in a fantasy world where you, as a human, are attempting to find a home while also returning the world to one of light. The themes aren’t too heavy, and the story is also lite-on, but that’s okay. Ashen sells its world through art-direction and set-piece design. There’s a sprawling sandbox overworld as well as interiors such as caves and dungeons. Your character is equipped with either a single or two-handed weapon, with the former being light and the latter heavy (you can also get throwable spears). Stamina and stamina management plays a key role in both how you choose your weapons and how you wield them. And in keeping with the light and dark theme, you’ll eventually gain a lantern which can be held in your off hand when you’re wielding your single-handed weapon, or even placed on the ground to illuminate an immediate area.
Where I mentioned the game’s economy earlier, each fallen foe will reward you with Scoria. You use Scoria to then buy items or upgrades, but each time you die, your Scoria, err, score
, is left in the place you karked it. You can go back and collect it, of course, but every time you die (one of my favourite bands) the world resets. This is also true of traveling back to your village or resting at a Ritual Stone -- the game’s eventual
fast-travel points. The risk-reward here is on your way to collect your lost Scoria, due to the reset world, you’ll likely be killing baddies again and now gaining new Scoria. Reward: if you make it to your lost Scoria with your newly gathered points, then they’re added together. Risk: die before you reach the lost Scoria token and it’s now replaced with the current amount you’ve been accruing. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had over 20,000 and lost that in place of a measly 1000 or so in reset world Scoria re
"The pacing is very good and combat, while relatively simple is built around a combination of stamina, timing and frame-data management. So if you’re a Souls player, this game is definitely up your alley..."
There’s a point to how this system works, but problematically, the game is quite slow to move through. You don’t unlock fast-travel for quite a while, and even if you do, it’s such a big and barren place, it can still take you a long time to reach destinations, especially if you’re on the game’s rinse-repeat cycle.
Much of that probably sounds negative, and if you’re not the sort of person who can deal with grinding in games, Ashen might be a large ask. But its upsides are huge. As mentioned before, it’s gorgeous. The pacing is very good and combat, while relatively simple is built around a combination of stamina, timing and frame-data management. So if you’re a Souls player, this game is definitely up your alley. Moreover, progression here isn’t tracked by XP, rather successful completion of missions helps your village grow. Growing your village and helping people brings them into the camp and as crafting and items gradually unlock, you’ll be able to manage most of that from your home base. It’s also just awesome to see the village slowly build and eventually come alive. More games would do well to look at this system of reward.
"Our eyes are firmly locked on what A44 does next, especially if they stick to this wonderful new IP and build on it as a franchise-in-waiting..."
Ashen is a rare breed of Indie release, and it comes from our mates across the Tasman. And as is customary in Australia, that means it’s now ours. Well, nah, we don’t want to steal it off them, but we can be proud our ANZ compatriots crafted such an incredible game. There’s challenge here in both combat and your patience with the game’s economy system (and in its slow movement), but mastering both and even jumping in with a buddy means you’re in for a gorgeous treat. Our eyes are firmly locked on what A44 does next, especially if they stick to this wonderful new IP and build on it as a franchise-in-waiting. Well worth your time and Dollerydoos in our humble, Aussie opinion.