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Ashen (PlayStation 4) artwork

Ashen (PlayStation 4) review

"Rob presents: Another Souls-like Review. In what will likely be a never-ceasing series of them. "

Ashen, the latest Souls-like that Iíve played, was able to easily keep my interest throughout its reasonably short adventure. It never reached the heights of its inspirations, was a bit clunky and definitely had its annoying points, but at least avoided pitfalls so deep Iíd have to call them deal-breakers.

To start with, if youíve played a Souls game, youíll quickly recognize a lot of their elements are present in this game. Youíll be able to equip one-handed and two-handed weapons and can use both light and heavy attacks with them. By killing enemies, youíll obtain a form of currency which is used for such purposes as buying stuff and upgrading weaponry ó unless you die, in which case itís left behind and youíll have to reach that point before perishing again, lest it be lost forever. Youíll also gain an item which holds a few swigs of a healing potion that also can be upgraded. And of course, the difficulty. Enemies can hit hard, you arenít the most durable chap, it can be distressingly easy to fall to your death, you have a stamina bar that prevents you from swinging your weapon constantly and checkpoints, which restore your healing flask and eventually provide you with the ability to fast travel, arenít always placed as conveniently as one might desire.

A few differences keep this from being a carbon copy, if at a lower budget, of FROMís titles, though. First, that currency has nothing to do with your character gaining levels and incremental power boosts. Instead, you gain health and stamina upgrades from completing quests. Many of those quests are given to you by companions who will also fight alongside you when you venture into the wild. These guys can be pretty useful, both because theyíre good at both dispatching foes and drawing their attention away from you, as well as being able to resurrect you the first time you fall in a given life.

Ashen could be described as ďopen world liteĒ. From where you start, youíll travel through a variety of locations littered with ruins and caves; however, your journey will be quite linear, with you going from one land to the next while completing quests and returning to your hub to collect your rewards. Also, unlike the open world of Elden Ring, there are few dungeons to explore. A couple big ones and a few caves, which is a far cry from that gameís vast and cluttered lands. Depending on your perspective, that could be somewhat of a blessing, though. Most of those places are pretty dark and virtually necessitate you holding a lantern, meaning youíll be restricted to a one-handed weapon and no shield.

You start out in a ruined world with your goal being to bring forth a being known as an Ashen to mend things and allow the rebuilding of the land. Forces of darkness arenít particularly keen on the light coming back, though, and will oppose you, as will various hostile forms of wildlife such as spiders and giant crabs. It wonít take long for you to clear out some bandits in order to set up a hub town that will constantly grow as you complete missions. This will also lead to a number of companions gradually joining forces, each with their own series of quests. Jokell is attempting to remove a family curse before it consumes him, for example, while Flokirís journey revolves around his efforts to rescue his sister from the gang of cultists she joined.

By doing all of these quests, youíll likely explore the vast majority of the gameís world, which is a positive. Not just because of all the additional health and stamina youíll acquire, but also because there is a lot of hidden treasure to seek out, including the vast majority of your equipment, as well as the components needed for improving those weapons. It also probably doesnít hurt that the vast majority of the companion quests are quite simple to accomplish, with many requiring you to do little more than reach a location and either snag an item, talk to somebody or kill something.

Ashen is very similar to a FROM title, but not at the same level. Obviously, as the product of a smaller company (A44), you wonít have the same production values and a lot of the lands you visit sort of blend together as a result. At times, if I was trying to put some distance between myself and a foe I wasnít locked on, the camera would swing around erratically, leading to death by disorientation, either from enemies or via blundering into a pit. The final boss also was a real pain, being two separate fights against a powerful and durable foe capable of decimating a full life bar very quickly. Making matters worse, it was at the end of a cave containing no checkpoints, so if you failed, youíd have to make the entire trek back to it for your next try. I mean, the cave wasnít too long, but stillÖ

However, for me, the worst aspect of this game was its two major dungeons. With both of these places, youíll get a checkpoint close to their entrance and another one shortly before encountering their boss fight. And thatís it. Making this a questionable (at best) design choice is how these places arenít remotely designed like the typical dungeon of a FROM game. With those, you had a convoluted lay-out that would offer multiple opportunities to recharge at each checkpoint due to unlocking passages back to them as you progressed. In Ashen, you have a long and linear path that youíll have to progress through. Get ambushed by a particularly cunning foe and youíll be at risk of seeing a lot of progress undone.

The first of those two dungeons, Seat of the Matriarch, came close to killing my desire to finish this game. There are a lot of fatal drops if youíre careless and every kind of monster located there has the potential to ruin your day. Skeletons are slow, but hit surprisingly hard. The tall humanoids pack a wallop and are durable. Shadows can lunge at you, pin you down and assault you repeatedly, while the crawling ghouls can unleash painful multi-hit combos. If youíre careful and know what to expect, everything here is doable ó after all, I did eventually overcome this challenge ó but itís really easy to slip up and this is the sort of game where a slip-up can be fatal. And when you have such a long dungeon where you need to do virtually all of it before finally reaching a checkpoint, it gets easy for frustration to set in after a handful of failed attempts because youíre in that ďtry and try and gain no groundĒ territory.

But I do have to admit there is something about Ashen that kept me sucked into its world. While there arenít a great deal of locations to visit in its land, that world still is pretty dense, with all sorts of items hidden off the beaten path to give gamers a very good reason to delve into every nook and cranny. Adding in the multiple companions not only gives you allies in battle, but also provides you with all sorts of objectives to fulfill while exploring. There even are a few neat additions to the formula, such as the ability to eventually be able to throw spears at certain statues so your character can warp to their location. Itís not as polished as an actual Souls game, but it is a worthy addition to their pantheon.

And thatís the important part, right? No matter how much I love FROMís games, there only are so many of them on the market and as a guy who prefers new challenges to regularly replaying previously bested ones, ďonly so manyĒ will keep me satisfied for only so long. Hook me up with a game that delivers the basics, has their general feel and at least tries to do a few things of its own and Iíll be willing to (mostly) overlook how it doesnít look as good or have as much to do or be as proficient at doing it. Ashen isnít an unheralded classic, but it was an entertaining diversion for me, so Iím glad to have played it, even if I didn't always feel that way while doing so.

overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (April 18, 2024)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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