Late to the Game Reviews, Video Game Reviews

Late to the Game – Ashen: A Light in the Darkness

Ashen is an action-RPG / Soulsborne game from New Zealand developer A44, and published by Annapurna Interactive. It was released back in 2018 to what I would consider a moderate amount of critical acclaim.

I’ll be honest, I’m not really the biggest fan of the Soulsborne genre.

I wonder why?

Though I do play Soulsborne games occasionally, I’ve never played Demon’s Soul, or any of the Dark Souls games (I know, them’s fighting words).

The crushing difficulty of most Soulsborne games can be somewhat— read: insanely — exclusionary. I like a good challenge, but at the end of the day, fighting the same boss seventy-five times is just not something I find inherently entertaining.

Don’t get me wrong, Hollow Knight is one of my all time favorite games, but I love it because I love the art and the story, not because I had to fight Hornet 85,000 times.

Ashen was enough like Hollow Knight to pique my interest.

I know I’m late to the game by about… two years; give or take a few months… but I decided to buy Ashen after I recently stumbled upon the trailer. It had such an intriguing atmosphere about it that I felt compelled to give it a try. 

Now that I’ve finally managed to finish it — without breaking my controller — I can give you a rundown on the best, and worst, parts of this charmingly infuriating game. 

Let There Be Light

The story of Ashen is subtle and yet it permeates every aspect of the game. 

It starts with a creation myth. An Ashen (a bird) brought light into the world and perched upon Yggdrasil (the world tree) for a millennia. When its end drew near, it released its final breaths and its light began to fade. In this dying light the three great ages began.

Gives the term “bird breath” a whole new meaning!

You take control of your character just as a new Ashen is born and light has once more returned to the world. You are then charged with finding and protecting the new Ashen from the Elder Dark, beings who would destroy the fledgling beast and have darkness reign for eternity.

Not only do I love creation myths, but I also enjoy the fact that the whole game feels true to this mythology. The further you get from the place of the ashen’s birth, the less light there is, and the closer, the brighter and more alive things feel.

I also liked that your quest is to save this new light. I feel like other games would have had you groping through the dark to find the Ashen’s egg and start the new age, but Ashen chose to have your journey begin along with the new age. 

It’s a little thing, but it made me smile from time to time. 

An Ashen Darkley

My absolute favorite part of Ashen was it’s aesthetic. The characters look like moving Willow Tree figurines.

So, both terrifying and beautiful

The same can be said for the environment. The style is simplistic, but there is enough added detail that it never feels devoid of personality. It’s actually the exact opposite. Even the bleakest areas of the game are rife with atmosphere.

This is most true in the dark, twisting corridors of the game’s many caves and caverns, where the only light source is your trusty lantern.  While it can be incredibly unnerving to traverse these areas, I also found myself in awe of how the lighting and design worked so well together. It didn’t matter that I jumped out of my skin every time a shadow shrieked from the abyss and clawed my eyes out; I wanted to explore more.

In fact, one of my biggest complaints about Ashen is that it was too short. I wanted to see more of it’s world, and I was sad when it was over.

A Friend In Need

One of Ashen’s best/worst features is the AI companion who accompanies you on all your quests. This is especially nice given the game’s crushing difficulty. 

Basically, whenever you get a quest from an NPC, they will accompany you on said quest. This is fantastic in a lot of ways. It gives you some extra damage and a person to hold your enemies’ attention so you can mete out attacks with impunity. Your companion will even carry a lantern in dark areas, giving you the opportunity to use a two handed weapon or a shield if you want to.

Now, the AI companion is decidedly not the greatest in all situations. When you fall in battle, they have the option to try and revive you. It is an exquisite kind of hell to watch your AI buddy try and figure out what they should do. Sometimes, they try to revive you while a horde of enemies is right on top of them, and other times they refuse to save you even if they have all the time in the world. 

It’s like this.

Sometimes, they do get their shit together and manage to pick you back up, but this rarely seemed to happen, especially later in the game. 

The AI in my game also had a terrible habit that left me screaming obscenities into the void more often than I care to remember. On more than one occasion, they would simply jump to their deaths for seemingly no reason. I would make a simple jump to a nearby platform, and my companion would gear up to make the jump… and simply fall off the map, leaving me stranded at the bottom of a dungeon with no backup.

A Friend Indeed

There is another option for companionship, in case you’re not into the whole AI-buddy system. You can leave your game open, and another player will drop into your game in place of the AI. 

I, however, did not have the best experience with this system, to say the least. 

I only tried it twice. My first buddy was amazing. They signaled their intent and direction, they stayed nearby, and we fought everything together, making light work of some tough enemies, or enemy encounters.

Immediately after they logged off, I was saddled with someone who had no respect for cooperation. They immediately bolted through swathes of enemies, fighting exactly none of them. Before I even realized what was going on, I suddenly had a gang of creatures who were on their way back to their previous positions chasing me all at once. 

It did not end well.

I immediately locked the multiplayer feature and decided that the somewhat suicidal AI was better than randomly grouping with someone who had no intention of working together. 

It Takes a Village

There were a couple of things in Ashen that were a pleasant surprise simply based on what I had seen in the trailer. 

The first surprise is that the game is fully voiced. Given its minimalistic appearance and overall austerity, I was expecting a silent game — something along the lines of Journey or Abzu. Instead, everyone has a voice, even the random traders you meet in the depths of the world.

At first I didn’t know what to make of the voices. I felt a little like Ashen had betrayed my expectations. But about an hour in, I realized how crazy that was and found an appreciation for the voice acting. 

The second surprise was how the starting area changes over the course of the game. What starts as a vagrant camp that you clear of enemies so that you can save for the first time slowly turns into a village as you progress. I barely noticed at first, but eventually the ragtag assortment of tents becomes a thriving little community.

Seriously. It came out of nowhere.

I’m not sure why, but seeing the town’s progress every time I returned to upgrade my equipment quickly became one of the highlights of my playthrough. 

The End of The Tunnel 

Overall, Ashen is an engaging game that often made me want to smash my controller. It was hauntingly beautiful and bleak in the best possible ways. Could the companion AI use some work? Yes. But having them with me throughout the game gave me a small amount of comfort when I was lost in the bowels of darkness.

Though it could have been longer, it did well not to overstay its welcome.

I’m giving Ashen a glimmering 8.5/10 for both being exactly what it needed to be, and for being more than I expected. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to what I was doing before: shouting obscenities into the pit that my AI companion fell into. I know it won’t bring them back, but it makes me feel better. 

Video Game Reviews

Remnant: From The Ashes – A Forward Thinking Throwback

Remnant: From the Ashes is a third-person action RPG that was created by Gunfire Games and published by Perfect World Entertainment. It was released in August of 2019, and by all accounts it was a game I really should have played when it first came out. 

I’m not sure what exactly happened, or why I missed its release, but it is a crying shame that I did. The only reason I can actually give a review of this game is because it was one of the free games this month for Playstation Plus. I would, however, consider it worth the asking price of $39.99, or even the 49.99 for the complete edition which includes two full DLC’s that add some worthwhile content.

Unlike others that will remain… nameless…

I’m going to jump right into what makes this game great, but first I offer a quick comparison that will likely grab the attention of a lot of early 2000’s gamers: Remnant is basically the third-person-shooter equivalent of Diablo II. 

A Magical Apocalypse

The story of Remnant was largely inconsequential to my base enjoyment of the game. You can pick it up, play through the entire thing, and enjoy every minute of it without really seeing the story. However, if you do ignore the story, you are doing yourself a disservice. This is because Remnant actually has some pretty deep lore that is largely hidden in the computer terminals and occasional journals you can find strewn throughout the world.

Without getting into too much detail, there was basically an apocalypse in the late 1960’s which was linked to the discovery of — and experimentation on — several large crystals. An entity, or entities, known as “The Root” infiltrated our world, and thus, the extermination of all life began.

Though, according to some, this happens all the time

The game begins roughly eighty years after this catastrophic event. You are a survivor from a remote settlement of humans, tasked with traveling to a tower above an atoll and destroying the evil that lurks there. 

That’s the gist of the info that the game spoon feeds to you. However, if you choose to read all the information provided throughout the game, you get a much more in depth understanding of exactly what happened after the discovery of the crystals, as well as how insidious the Root truly are. 

While you don’t have to seek out this knowledge, I highly recommend that you do. It elevates an already great game to another level entirely. 

Always to the East

Now, I’d like to get to my assertion that Remnant is basically a third person shooter version of Diablo II. While this is extremely true, keep in mind that Remnant is its own game and shines on its own merits.

The similarities are glaring. You traverse several worlds that are all largely procedurally generated with each new playthrough. There is, of course, the co-op element, which makes both games more enjoyable. And lastly is the immense replayability of both games. 

Then come the differences.

The first, and foremost, of which is that Remnant is a third person shooter, and a solid one at that. The play action is smooth, responsive, and can be a chaotic sort of fun. 

The second difference is that Remnant carries some elements of the Soulsborne genre within it. You can only save at checkpoints and, if you die, you will go back to the checkpoint and all of your enemies will have respawned. This can make the game almost controller-shatteringly hard on occasion, but ultimately makes your successes that much more rewarding.

You will, however, get sick of this screen

The biggest, and most evident, difference was that every weapon or piece of armor in the game can be used at any level. Basically, if you acquire a weapon, it can always be used throughout the entire game.

Each weapon, or piece of armor, has a level ranging from one to twenty. So, you can take your starting weapon to the last boss and light him up if you so choose, as long as you’ve upgraded that weapon accordingly. This also means that you receive fewer weapons throughout your playthrough than you would with something like Diablo II, but when you do receive a weapon, it is ultimately more rewarding than the thousands of weapons you pick up and sell in a game like Diablo.

Please Stand By

While I do praise the world design, which is really quite good, there are some glaring flaws with this game that can be hard to overlook, depending on what’s important to you. 

The character models of the people of Ward 13, your homebase, can be a little lacking. In fact, I felt like I was playing a PS3-era game when I first started out. I mean, the graphics aren’t stellar in general, but the puppet mouths of the vendors in the ward leave a lot to be desired.

Seen here: actual footage of the item vendor.

The cutscenes also have some issues with artifacting, and the animations could have used a lot more TLC. This lead to every single cutscene looking off in ways that I find hard to describe.

For me, the biggest issue was with hair. It was… floaty, and seemed to leave behind a fuzzy sort of after-image. While this did not impact the gameplay at all, and the cutscenes were few and far between, it was still something that broke my immersion and made me question what the heck I was looking at. 

I will say that one of the characters added for the Subject 2923 expansion had a solid design that looked commensurate with at least the PS4 era of gaming.

The most egregious issue with this game is the map. While it is servicable in many ways, there are some things about it that made me shake my head in confusion. For example, there is no way to view any other section of the map, other than the place where you are. So, you can’t ever see what areas connect to where you’re standing. 

Another issue involving the map is that the only way to tell what area you’re actually in is by resting at a checkpoint. This is also the only way to tell that you are in a dungeon. This means that if your objective is to travel to “The Wasteland,” you would only know that you’re in “The Wasteland” if you actually go there and rest at a checkpoint. This can leave you backtracking more often than you would like. 

Consequences of Death

I did mention earlier that Remnant is a bit Soulsbourne-ish. This means that there is an inherent level of difficulty that is not for all players. This can be curbed, or exacerbated, with a couple of friends, but ultimately, if you are playing alone, you might find yourself hitting a wall that cannot be surmounted.

See?! The Cliffs of Inanity!

The nice thing about Remnant, however, is that the only consequence of death is that you have to go back to the last checkpoint. You don’t lose money, experience, or items. In fact, you only gain those things in the process. Enemies will continue to drop money, and you will continue to get experience for killing them. This means you can get stronger by continuing to die.

The enemies also scale with you, so it can still be tough, but you can — sort of — dig yourself out of the hole. 

There is, however, another option you could consider if you find yourself up against something you can’t seem to defeat…

The Re-Roll

Probably the game’s standout feature, at least to me, was the ability to re-roll your campaign. What this means is that you can reset the game to a zero status. It wipes out all of your progress through the story, but allows you to keep your character as-is. Now, this might sound like taking the nuclear option, but hear me out. 

Remnant has multiple bosses, mini-bosses, and dungeons that do not manifest with every playthrough. I played through the opening world twice and got different dungeons each time, and at least two bosses in the second playthrough that I had not seen in the first playthrough. This makes a huge difference, because most of the weapons in the game come from specific bosses. So, re-rolling your game allows you to attempt to get new weapons with which to kill whatever was giving you trouble before…

Of course, it also means that you may not even encounter the thing that killed you a couple hundred times. 

Along with the re-roll, you also have the option to enter Adventure Mode. While completely re-rolling your game wipes out any progress you have made so far, Adventure Mode does not. It allows you to keep your place in the story, and go off and have an adventure.

Come on, grab your friends

Basically, it allows you to play through one of the game’s available worlds from start to finish. This means that if you were looking for a specific boss to acquire a specific weapon, you don’t have to play through the whole game if you don’t want to. Simply go into Adventure Mode and lay waste until you get what you’re looking for. 

Serenity Among Ashes

Overall, Remnant: From the Ashes is an amazing title that managed to walk a razor’s edge between a myriad of different games without being a clone of any of them. The combat is brutal and the bosses are completely unforgiving, but each piece of hard-won gear you acquire is that much more rewarding because of your struggle.

Even the story, which could be considered superfluous, is lovingly crafted, though largely relegated to journal entries and audio logs. Though there were some issues—looking at you, map—it is a game well worth playing. 

I’m giving Remnant: From the Ashes a inspiring 8.5/10 because it managed to ignite nostalgia in me while also moving the genre forward in some remarkable ways.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and reset the whole of the cosmos because there is a pistol that I want to get. So, if you start to feel some déjà vu, that’s probably why.