Not Just Another Soulslike
Games directly inspired by Dark Souls are more than a little too common these days. It seems that a new tough-but-fair action-RPG arrives every week, each one seeming less unique than the last. It’s a difficult space to stand out in, making it all the more impressive when one actually does. Ashen is one such game, bringing together a sharp art style, interesting gameplay ideas, and a fun and unique take on action-RPG co-op to create an experience that’s both familiar and original.
The elevator pitch for Ashen is that it’s a more accessible Souls-like with some neat ideas about co-op. That’s an accurate synopsis, but it doesn’t capture just how well it executes on its ideas. The progression takes the core formula of its inspirations and streamlines it in some key ways. You earn Scoria (the equivalent of Souls) from slaying enemies, which you use to purchase items and upgrade equipment. There are no classes to choose from and you only have a single armor slot, allowing you to simply equip full outfits. The stronger and heavier the gear, the harsher the penalty it’ll incur to your stamina. Ashen provides a good starting point for people who are new to the systems and ideas of a Souls game, but it hits enough of the major bullet points to resonate if you're into this unique brand of gameplay.
The world of Ashen is a ruinous yet hopeful one that revolves around light and dark. The titular Ashen is a legendary (and very, very large) bird that acts as the world’s sun. When this bird-God died long ago, its final dying breath sparked three increasingly dreary ages of light, which became populated by creatures that feast off the darkness. Your adventure begins as the Ashen is reborn, bringing light back to the world. The remaining remnants of darkness must be banished before the world can prosper once more. It’s a straightforward setup, laying a foundation of hope that compliments Ashen's online co-op component.
Evoking the Dark Souls name should let you know what you’re in for. Challenging and deliberate combat that’ll kill you pretty quickly if you start to get impatient. It all feels weighty and impactful and there’s a nice variety of weapons to mess with. You’ll come across a wide selection of light and heavy weapons, ranging from swords to axes, polearms, halberds, and more, as well as shields and throwing spears. The spears can be a helpful way to get some bonus damage on an enemy before engaging, but their real purpose (a satisfying feature that lets you jump major distances if your aim is sharp enough) reveals itself later on.
Talismans and Relics provide some of the most interesting upgrades you'll find. The various Talismans offer unique bonuses that pair with neat visual effects. One, in particular, gives you wings that grow over time. The benefits grow as well, topping out as the wings become fully grown. Some of the most fun I had in Ashen came from experimenting with the various effects and bonuses of the Talismans. Meanwhile, Relics are more straightforward and less memorable than Talismans, offering minor bonuses to stamina, health, or damage.
The bells and whistles of a quality Soulslike are all here, but Ashen feels like a distinctly more focused experience. There’s a pretty linear progression between areas, with the handful of quest chains tied to certain characters giving you a reason to stick around and further explore. Your max health and stamina increase as you complete quests, giving you a clear and steady feeling that you’re growing stronger as you play.
The multiplayer (which resembles Journey in its anonymity and mystique) has you seamlessly teaming up with strangers online in a way that’s almost too smooth, leaving you often wondering if you're rolling with an actual human or an AI. A companion joins you on your adventures at all time, providing assistance in combat and drawing the attention of enemies away from you. Players occasionally show up unannounced in your world, assuming the appearance of one of the numerous allied NPCs you meet along the way.
You can revive your ally (whether they’re AI or player) once if they find themselves in a sticky situation. They’ll disappear from your world if they perish a second time. The same goes for you. You’ll go into a down-but-not-out state upon your first death before being sent back to your last Ritual Stone (bonfire) after another defeat. You’ll need to watch out for each other if you want to survive in this world.
Of course, you could always turn off multiplayer and roll solo if you prefer to roam the dangerous lands of Ashen alone. Unless you’re looking for a punishing experience, you’ll want the extra help. The world of Ashen feels designed with two people in mind. Especially the later areas that throw five or six enemies at you at once. The AI partners aren’t always the most responsive, as they'll often disappear and reappear for no apparent reason. However, they’re pretty effective in combat all things considered. There’s an affecting sense of isolation that takes over when you’re left fending for yourself. It makes the world feel pretty intimidating.
On the flip side, there’s a fun sense of adventure that comes from exploring with an anonymous player. One of my many unknown comrades ended up being particularly memorable. During this one instance, my partner and I were exploring a challenging dungeon that neither of us had seen before. Slowly descending through this poorly-lit area, each of us clinging to the other, was a uniquely tense and exciting experience. Eventually, this poor soul got a little too eager and plummeted to his/her demise. I found myself actually quite affected by my companion’s tragic fate. It was a reaction I haven’t felt from an online game since Journey.
Dark Souls has always had a similar co-op system, allowing players to join your world to provide assistance. The multiplayer in Ashen may not sound like it’s doing anything original, but the online aspect of the Souls games always felt like a tacked-on addition. An afterthought that felt like you were breaking the game. Here, it’s a well-considered feature that feels integral to the overall design.
Some of Ashen’s strongest moments come from its small handful of major dungeons. These sprawling journeys into deep caverns or majestic shadowy palaces are as challenging as they are memorable. The conceit about darkness taking over the world is more than just a narrative setup. There’s something survival-horror-like about the way Ashen utilizes light and dark. Your lantern serves as your only guide through the thick darkness. Requiring a lantern in these scenarios creates some sharp and atmospheric dynamic lighting. As you navigate these dungeons, it adds a layer of tension to each corner you turn.
You’re limited to using a single one-handed weapon when wielding a lantern, which makes the dungeons even more challenging. They’re already grueling (and long), but not being able to reliably switch to a shield makes things extra tense. It’s moments like these that make the co-op feel like a necessity that makes you truly value whoever you get partnered with. Of course, these dungeons conclude with a dramatic boss encounter (what would a Soulslike be without boss fights?). These fights are tough, but there are only a few throughout the game.
The evolving town continues the trend of cool and memorable locations. Your home base, where allies you meet along the way will take up residence, changes and grows over time. Eventually, it expands from a shabby old ruin to a thriving little town. It’s really neat to see the area grow each time you return. It starts as an abandoned bandit camp but builds into an inviting hangout. It might not sound particularly special, but it resonates with Ashen’s themes of hope and bringing light to the world in a way that feels like a successful and cohesive whole.
Ashen's quality minimalistic art style helped inspire fellow Souls-like Absolver. The watercolor-like landscapes and shiny particle effects make it stand out as unique. Ashen does good by its art style, producing a colorful and varied world with some gorgeous landscapes. A key component of the art style is that the characters mostly don’t have faces, giving everyone a unique look. It also makes some enemies look pretty creepy, especially when they’re poking out of the darkness in some dank dungeon. Likewise, the audio design is very solid. Quality voice-acting brings the characters to life effectively. Meanwhile, the soft and minimal soundtrack, which particularly swells up in the town, is an atmospheric mood-setter.
Ultimately, Ashen is a novel and quality take on a familiar formula. It brings together well-worn concepts, but it executes brilliantly on the fresh ideas it does bring to the table. Although it may appear just another generic rip-off, Ashen quickly asserts itself as a much more memorable experience that deserves to stand out. The co-op elements add a lot, and they make Ashen serve as an effective entry point to the esoteric and somewhat inaccessible quirks of the Soulslike genre.
TechRaptor reviewed Ashen on the Epic Games Store with a copy provided by the publisher. It's also available on Xbox One via Xbox Game Pass
Editors Note: This review was originally published with incorrect facts regarding the visual inspirations of Ashen. These have been removed and we apologize for our error.
- Satisfying Soulslike Gameplay
- Co-op Is Effective And Well-Executed
- Evolving Town Is A Really Neat Location
- Challenging And Memorable Dungeons
- AI Companions Can Be Erratic And Unresponsive