When battling darkness, either internal or corporeal, you’re not alone. In the world of Ashen, a RPG game that justifiably earned comparisons to Dark Souls after its surprise debut during this year’s Game Awards, it’s actually dangerous to go it alone. When choosing to explore the minimalistic animation style of this fantastical landscape, help will always be given in the form of either a fellow gamer (in multiplayer mode) or an A.I. travel buddy (in single player). The former is Ashen’s biggest selling point, despite a few kinks.
Ashen refers to a god-like bird made of light that disappeared from this medieval world long ago, plunging the land into darkness. People waited for the return of the Ashen and of the light, and a burst of white energy signals its re-emergence. But there are entities, like the Elder Dark, who thrive in the shadow and will do what they must to squash the light. As a faceless, nameless traveler, you must fight to protect the Ashen from the brutal world.
Aurora44, the indie game developer based in New Zealand, first announced Ashen at the E3 Expo in 2015 as an Xbox One console exclusive, promising to bring a unique multiplayer experience in which other gamers can tap in and out of your own personal journeys to face the biggest challenges together. You don’t speak, but lightly nod and gesture to each other. The comparisons to Dark Souls do run deep: a Crimson Gourd replaces the Estus Flask for healing, ritual stones for saving your progress and fast travel replace fireplaces, and Scoria replaces Souls as a form of currency, which you’ll lose if killed. As, again, with Dark Souls, returning to where you were slain before getting killed again will allow you to regain what you lost. Even the light and heavy attack buttons are the same, but Ashen still feels like it’s own story with a multiplayer experience that serves to reinforce its themes.
Combat is quite brutal in this world, sometimes laboriously so. Each swing of your one- or two-handed weapon is a slowed, arduous maneuver that takes up stamina. It all must be conserved and timed perfectly — along with a dodge function that also consumes your energy — or face the brunt of truly punishing blows. It can be frustrating and tedious at times, especially if you’re just trying to continue the main mission. Ashen‘s battles begin rough at the start of the game and don’t let up. Whether you want one or not, a companion is therefore necessary to defeat massive bosses, as well as to fend off herds of enemies or simply open dungeon doors.
If killed in battle, your partner can revive you to continue the fight. It’s about cooperation, choosing to help your fellow neighbor and stand together in the light instead of choosing to wallow in shadow alone. As a single player, your A.I. companion isn’t always as responsive as the co-op mode, but it can still serve as a decoy while you go off to recover your health and stamina. If killed, don’t fret too much; it will return… when it feels like it.
Ashen is also about building a community. Vagrant’s Rest is the main camp where you interact with most of the main characters that will further propel you along your path. They offer main missions that progress the story and side missions that are necessary to unlock certain items, crafting stations, and upgrades. (Word to the wise: Elia’s mission unlocks fast travel, so complete that sooner than later for your own sanity.) The more characters you meet in the world, the more you can recruit to join your community. The more prosperous Vagrant’s Rest and its people become, the more powerful you’ll be.
Some players commented on a faulty system that barred them from the multiplayer option and A44 has since been working to smooth out the cogs, though a few minor glitches still persist. I encountered packs of hyenas that swarm you only to freeze in place (an admittedly welcome relief after just trying not to die in the wastelands), enemies that seem real but aren’t really there, and one floating, flaming head that bobbed up and down in mid-air. They aren’t enough to distract much from the experience, which includes a far richer lore than you might expect.
Nothing last. Everything is cyclical. Light and dark are in a harmonious dance. Sometimes the light prevails, sometimes the dark. They yield a compelling story and an intriguing world to explore, even one as unforgiving as Ashen. B