Imagine a world without a sun, yet one still bright, glowing thanks to the luminescence of a mysterious ash. Invision a world of secrets, one bursting with monsters to be vanquished, saturated with mysteries, a seemingly solitary place where you can, on occasion, cross paths with other wanderers. Welcome to the world of Ashen, a passive multiplayer game by the small New Zealand based studio, Aurora44. I was treated to a hands-off demo during E3, as Art Director Leighton Milne and animation director Simon Dasan settled in with a pair of controllers to give us two independent yet intertwined introductions to the world of Ashen.
Milne served as our primary narrator and guide, introducing us to the basics of the world as he and Dasan each created and spawned new characters. Ashen is, at its heart, an open world action RPG. Rather like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Ashen relies more on the use of weapons and the skill of the player to advance, rather than spells, special weapons, or specific upgrade paths. The world is beautiful, rich in style while somewhat lacking in texture. The area Milne lead us through was heavily wooded, filled with lush vegetation, wandering streams and dark caves.
Milne’s character did what most newly spawned RPG characters do, exploring the woods, testing his skills on a hapless woodland creature before fighting off vagabonds, then replenishing his stamina by taking a sip from a nearby stream. Then something incredible happened: Dasan’s character suddenly stepped through the underbrush and onto Milne’s screen. The two characters examined each other a moment, then set out on an adventure together, their games temporarily entwined thanks to their proximity on the game map and their internet signals brought them together seamlessly, without any kind of lobby, friend code or party invite.
Emboldened by the aid of another skilled fighter, the party of two set out to explore an underground cave, the in-game tutorial providing information about how to use a lantern in the dark underground, as well as the importance of light in the game’s lore. When outside, a volcano looms large over head, spewing luminescent ash which lights the world around you, but there is no such lightsource below ground. The story of Ashen revolves around theme of light versus dark, and while the areas directly below the volcano are brightly lit, the further you venture from your source of light, the darker and more dangerous the world becomes.
The world of Ashen is rich with life and wonders, both magical and mundane. In some places, bunnies litter the forest. In others, sky whales sing among the clouds. Humans of all forms exist, from characters who are controlled by other players, to NPC vagrants and other drifters, to Ash Echoes, outlines of a humans who once lived; memories of the past trapped as animated, sooty shadows for all time.
This massive open world has an overarching plot, though like the multiplayer feature within the game, this is passive, as the gameplay is more focused on your exploring the world and uncovering its secrets and history. In the world of Ashen, you will have a home town which you will grow by encountering other players out in the world, and teaming up with them to uncover secrets or take down bosses. Upon accomplishing one of these goals, that character will spawn within your town as an NPC, providing not only goods, services, and skills, but also a unique opinion of the world, its past, and the way its future is being shaped. No two players will have quite the same experience within Ashen, as the world of each player will be organic, their outlook deeply shaped by the characters they meet, which characters they choose to forge friendships with, and if they decide to believe or distrust the opinions of those characters. “We like to infuse the story into the world,” Milne explained. “The more the player can discover it themselves, the better we believe the game will be.”
Back within the cave, Milne and Dasan crested a cliff within the cave, looking down on a rocky outcropping within a vast pond, a woman seated upon the furthest rock, staring forlornly into the water. This is an area that the players could not yet reach, a tantalizing glimpse at what’s to come, the very kind of promise which the Aurora44 has deliberately infused in every inch of the game. After several more twists and turns, secret passageways and even more secret passageways hidden within secret passageways, the tiny party finally met the boss of the cave: the Elder Dark, a terrifying shadow monster which is immune to all damage until it has been exposed to light.
Working together, Milne and Dasan dodged swift, brutal attacks by the spirit, solidified it with their lanterns, unleashed the fury of their blades, and forced it to respawn out of the shadows it fled to until, at long last, the deadly apparition was vanquished. The dropped loot was shared among the two characters, each player receiving the same spoils as if they chosen to battle the boss single handedly. Ashen encourages you to play the way you like; there is no penalty for playing solo verses with a friend, but there is also no reward. Players have the freedom to decide if they truly want to explore the world alone, or if they want to share the secrets and challenges with others.
At long last, Milne and Dasan entered the far end of the chamber, following a narrow, rocky path to a woman weeping into the water. One character entered a cut-scene, the other entering a moment later, though both experiences were seamless, and the other player’s screen gave no clue as to what their companion was seeing, preventing spoilers. Upon completing a quest for the weeping woman, the game triggered an impressive and beautiful but brief cut scene, one which I will not elaborate on for fear of spoilers, but whose magnitude and majesty made me gasp while still leaving me with more questions about this world than the scene answered.
The world of Ashen appears to be vast, filled with secrets, struggles and made all the larger thanks to its multiplayer ability. It will feature limited character customization at the outset, with armor sets and weaponry allowing for further customization. The game is still currently under development, but will be coming to both Xbox and Steam, with a release date of 2018. Learn more about Ashen by visiting the official website or by visiting their Steam page.