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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.