Survival games are one of the purest expressions of gameplay you can get on the market today. This growing genre is all about the challenge through mechanics and resource management, about inching forward to survive for as long as possible. When you try to combine these pure mechanics with another genre, the results of it are certainly unpredictable; and in a way that is what playing Ashwalkers: A Survival Journey felt like when booting it up for the first time.
Ashwalkers is an indie game billed as a ‘Survival Journey’ by developer Nameless XIII, a group of devs previously from DontNod. Right in the title, we see most of the trappings of what Ashwalkers hopes to accomplish; it is a survival narrative, one focused on the set pieces and choices made by the player to service the journey presented for them to travel on.
And it is kind of a long, boring journey that struggles to really stand out in any meaningful way.
Walking, Waiting, Waning
The story of Ashwalkers is a fairly standard post-apocalyptic fare, where you have a quartet of survivors of a place called Lazarus sent out into the unknown and untamed lands years after a cataclysmic event, in order to save their civilization by finding “The Dome of Domes” in the wilderness. The team must not only survive the harsh environment, but make several choices that will affect their overall journey, and their very lives, on this quest.
The premise is pretty boilerplate as far as post-apocalyptic fiction goes, but the focus on a tight narrative does offer some unique challenges that are not found in other survival games. For example, how do you deal with other human groups or animals hunting in the wild? Do you sneak past them, try to negotiate, or fight to the death? Narratively this opens up some solid choices and consequences that can help or harm your team while providing some variety of activities for the player.
Where it falls apart is the fairly scripted nature of most of the encounters. Each encounter becomes an overhead pop-up that often boils down to some choices to select on, then automatically you are given the consequences. Sometimes it leads to a string of dialogue that requires you to click through four or five times before you can gain control again.
The monotony of these scenes is often broken up by choices that require resources, which are in the form of fire, food, and medicine. It is really not hard to gather all three, however, as maintaining your base stats of hunger, heat, and energy by stopping every so often to camp mitigates a lot of the problems you may face.
In truth, Ashwalkers is all about walking really. Most of the game has you clicking ahead with your party of four, occasionally coming across resources to extract or a piece of information that offers an encyclopedia page to read. Outside of getting involved in the semi-random encounters and making different choices, there is not much else to do mechanically.
Well, that is not really true. One of the other things you can do is occasionally set up camp, and use your gathered resources to keep your party fed, warm, and heal up any wounds you accumulate. In theory, resource management works as you have limited stock you can carry, along with numerous dangers that you may face while camping. There is always a percentage change you may be attacked, for example, that increases the longer you camp.
In theory, Ashwalkers provides a lot of resources and chances for them without much consequence. For one, harvesting resources takes up energy, but not enough to fill up your backpacks to the brim with sticks and food to make a long-term encampment that replenishes your energy. You can assign team members to guard your camp, which slightly lowers your chances of being attacked, but the frustration comes in the form of the chance being pretty low, to begin with, meaning you can heal up your whole party or perform another action without too much risk.
Great survival games are all about the pacing. Titles like The Long Dark or even Valheim are at their best when you are fighting for every resource, and often risking hurting yourself now, so you can make it another day later. Ashwalkers doesn’t challenge the player in this way; it is simply not living up to the risks that a player would need to take in a survival situation. The only time I ever felt threatened in-game was when the camp function was taken away from me, as my party slowly had their energy and health drained while in a thunderstorm in a desert. Otherwise, no one in my party was ever at a major risk of dying unless I royally screwed up or ignored their stats.
A Monochromatic Journey
It is a shame since the design of Ashwalkers is pretty good. The game goes for an artistic flair by making everything a monochromatic grey-tone, with the only real deviation being the occasional pinkish-red to represent blood spatters or injuries. The character designs are a cross between Mad Max and Desert Punk, and each character, despite not really having much dialogue, is given a distinct personality based on their visual design.
The atmosphere is appropriately dreary for sure but lacks a lot of real detail to differentiate the zones you do discover at times. The wasteland is purposefully interchangeable by design; with each of the six locations unlocked and provided as starting points for custom games after you beat it the first time. They are unique areas, but often the smaller details are what is memorable, such as frost building up on the edges of your screen as you walk through a snowy mountain. Sometimes landmarks in-game add more uniqueness, but they too are fairly forgettable.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t some artistic merit to Ashwalkers design. One element I enjoyed was the black silhouettes of the various humans, creatures, and more you meet for the narrative sections. Like ash-covered wraiths, just wisps in the wind flickering while you make a choice gives an almost unsettling presence for them as you decide what to do collectively as a party. Sound design helps this too, with tense, atmospheric music often accompanying choices you make, while the overworld goes more minimalist with the sound effects and musical cues.
Ashwalkers is not a good survival game and as a narrative it sort of falls flat with how long and dragged out it becomes. Most of its gameplay is either too simple or easy to deal with, most of its narrative is interchangeable and forgettable, and despite the artistry on display with the visuals, it comes across as drab and unexciting at times.
I applaud Nameless XIII for experimenting with the formula, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is still a failed experiment that will not really appeal to anyone but maybe hardcore adventure game players looking for a short distraction.
TechRaptor reviewed Ashwalkers: A Survival Journey on the PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.
- Great Visual Presentation...
- An Attempt to do Something New...
- ...Forgettable Environments
- ...that Simply Doesn't Pay Off
- Way too Easy as a Survival Game
- Story Moments that are Long or Boorish
- Lots of Walking With Little In Between