What does it take to save the world? In most games, the answer is destroying some great evil, but in Ashen, it’s about protecting something good. Ashen is a Souls-like game to its core, sharing the familiar stamina-based combat, currency absorbed from fallen enemies, and death and resurrection cycle. While its gameplay hews closely to the Dark Souls formula, its tone sets it apart, as it’s steeped heavily in a feeling almost completely alien to its inspiration: hope.
At the start of the game, a being called the Ashen has returned light to a world once covered in darkness, and it’s up to you to safeguard it. For some reason. Ashen starts with a fairly dense lore dump, with lots of ideas thrown at you but few connections between them and the actual world of the game. What’s clear is that you’re chosen to lead a settlement called Vagrant’s Rest, the first village to be established in this new Age of Light. After clearing out the bandits who’ve taken up roost there, you set about filling its walls with more amiable wanderers you find out in the wider world. Over time, Vagrant’s Rest will become Ashen’s beating heart, but it’s a dangerous road to get to that point.
In combat, the comparison to Dark Souls is extremely close, right down to its health-refilling Estus Flask stand-in, the Crimson Gourd. You’ll have to balance light and heavy attacks with well-timed blocks and dodge rolls, all without letting yourself run out of stamina. Combat can be fast and deadly, or drag out into a punishing battle of attrition depending on how you balance aggression, defense, and positioning. You’ll fight a good variety of enemies, from giant rock-covered hermit crabs to shadowy phantoms, though the majority of enemies you’ll face are plain old humanoids. In a nice surprise, the game’s enemies don’t always just gang up on you, though. Leave a giant and a group of humans to their own devices, and they’re as likely to start carving each other up as attack you. The game’s few bosses are all challenging and mechanically interesting (with the possible exception of its first boss, which made me feel like I was missing its hook), and they’ll all put your skills to the test. Even the one that I beat on my first try gave me a great sense of learning from my mistakes, as she reduced me down to just a sliver of health and no healing items before I managed to crack her attack pattern and claim victory.
One of my few criticisms with Ashen is that its combat can can be a bit hard to read at times. Attack ranges (especially for one giant enemy’s leaping attack) can be difficult to predict, and I wanted a bit more feedback when I was taking damage. When lots of particle effects and motion trails from your swings are onscreen, it’s tough to tell when hits are connecting. There were a handful of times that I found myself quickly killed from full health without quite understanding why. My other quibble is the lack of variety. While there are tons of weapons to find in Ashen, they mostly share the same small pool of attack animations, and only a few have truly unique movesets. There’s also no magic or skill system in the game, so you’re mostly just whacking things with your melee weapon the whole time, though throwable spears do mix it up a bit. Combat never got boring for me, but there were times that I wished I could just approach things a little differently. There is some variety by way of Relics and Talismans, equippable items that tweak your character in subtle ways (such as giving damage resistance when you’re close to your partner or increasing your chance to stun enemies) or granting significant boons (such as hovering orbs that deal bonus damage each time you strike an enemy or a slowly growing shield that will absorb more damage from a single attack the longer you go without being hit). The quibbles I have are small, and otherwise, Ashen’s combat feels consistently great.
The biggest difference in combat is obvious from the game’s start: in Ashen, you never have to fight alone. Ashen is structured around doing quests for various NPCs, and when you’re out running these errands, those NPCs are thoughtful enough to give you a hand. This changes the flow of combat in some clear ways, like having someone else to grab hostile attention when you need to heal and just providing some needed firepower. Combat remains plenty tough even with the AI’s help, but you can turn companions off if you really want to go it alone. Doing so would take away a lot of what makes Ashen unique, though. Even though every NPC companion is functionally identical, I couldn’t help but start to feel closer to some than to others. That’s partly because of Elia’s amazing bicorn hat and the appeal of being accompanied by the giant Silaren towering above your enemies, but it’s also because of the stories that start to emerge. When Vorsa smashes a skeleton that knocked you unconscious into dust, then helps you back to your feet mid-battle, it’s hard not to feel some gratitude there. And when Jokell walks off yet another cliff for no good reason — well, the point is, these characters start to feel like a lot more than your typical NPCs.
There are moments when the illusion breaks down. The AI has some pathing problems, which leads to your companions sometimes just standing still and watching you get walloped from a few feet away, or — really, Jokell, you drowned again? Other times, they’ll be a little more proactive than necessary, running off on their own to attack enemies that hadn’t noticed you yet and returning like a cat proudly dragging its still-living and very angry prey into the house. They also seem to have strange priorities in combat, insisting on reviving you while you’re in the middle of a swarm of spear-wielding skeletons, or switching targets seemingly at random. The most annoying AI quirk was when they would suddenly just disappear, apparently having something better to do than help with the task they’ve sent you on. I died a handful of times because I charged headlong into a fight that should have been a piece of cake with my always faithful ally at my side — only to have them phase out of existence and leave me surrounded by fire-breathing hyenas. Still, these issues aren’t nearly enough to sour the experience of going toe-to-toe against your enemies with your pal at your side.
If you’re not keen on cozying up to a computer on your journey, you also have the option of multiplayer. At any time (unless you’ve chosen to disable this feature), another player who’s roughly at the same spot in the game’s campaign can hop in to replace your AI comrade. You also have the option of setting a password if you want to connect with a friend. They’ll retain the appearance of the NPC, and the same goes for your character in their game. There’s no real signal that this has happened, except that your companion has suddenly started acting with a lot more self-determination, so it’s entirely possible for your partner to switch from AI to human player without you noticing. Generally, playing with another person gives you a much more capable partner, but one who’s prone to more decidedly human errors in judgment and may not feel like cooperating. There’s no way to communicate, aside from a generic “over here” gesture that calls them to your position, which can lead to some frustration, such as when you need to retrieve your Souls — that is, Scoria — from your corpse and your partner wants to do something in the other direction.
The lack of communication can be irritating, but, given the general state of interaction online, it may also save the game from turning…unfriendly, to say the least. In the short time since the game’s release, it’s also allowed for a kind of emergent language to develop. Your first sign that you’ve run into another player is often a sort of bow, performed by holding the button used to set your lantern down, but releasing it when your character is halfway bent over, which has become a common greeting. Some players have also taken to setting their lanterns down in the spot where they want to pull an enemy to fight. The most widespread gesture has become the natural, unabashedly joyful victory dance of jumping up and down in place after a tough boss battle or upon reaching a checkpoint in a dangerous area.
Light and dark play a big part in Ashen, making your lantern as valuable as your weapon. In some spots, such as the handful of caverns scattered around the world and its couple of major dungeons, your lantern is absolutely essential. Trying to feel your way around the dark will result in falling to your death or getting mauled by unseen foes almost immediately. Since you can’t carry a lantern and a shield at the same time, you’ll often be forced to set aside protection just to see, or set your lantern on the ground and try to fight only within the small area of illumination it creates. Especially in an area called the Seat of the Matriarch, a pitch-black, difficult, terrifying dungeon early in the game, this leads to some incredibly dynamic and tense moments as you try to navigate narrow platforms crawling with tough enemies. As exciting as the light and dark mechanic is, I do wish Ashen did more with it. Using a lantern to light up dark areas is a pretty obvious (if effective) mechanic, and it seems there’s ample room to play more with the tension that interplay creates, either by incorporating light into puzzles or using them to affect combat more directly.
Like Dark Souls, Ashen is also obsessed with light and dark as metaphors. Unlike the complex, conflicted ideas that Dark Souls has about whether light may actually be blinding people to the truth, Ashen takes a more credulous approach. Light and dark in Ashen aren’t necessarily symbols for good and evil as much as they are symbols for community and isolation. In the dark, it makes sense to scavenge what you can and look out for your own survival, but in the light, it’s possible to find other people, to find safety together, and, crucially, to look each other in the eye. It lets people build structures that help one another out rather than just trying to avoid the dangers lurking in the dark alone.
Ashen uses the settlement you found, Vagrant’s Rest, to illustrate this. Throughout the game, you’ll attract more people to your town, and once there, they work together to build it up. Major NPCs will build stations that allow you to upgrade your characters while unnamed townsfolk will sell you items or simply come to settle down. When you return to town after doing quests in the wilderness, you’ll often find it changed. From a few ruined walls at the game’s start, it will grow into a full-fledged town with a dock, a blacksmith’s shop, and a meeting hall with a roaring fire in its hearth. Watching Vagrant’s Rest grow is fulfilling, and by the end of the game, I was at least as invested in seeing its inhabitants prosper as I was in finding the Ashen. I spent a good amount of time walking around Vagrant’s Rest each time I returned between quests just to see how the town was developing, check up on my crew, and listen to the great music that plays when you’re in the settlement, which changes based on which NPC’s building you’re in.
Vagrant’s Rest is a masterpiece of tone, and the rest of the game isn’t far behind. There are some areas, particularly the blasted wastelands you visit early in the game, that feel empty and artificial, but that only serves to heighten the effect when you leave them for some truly marvelous landscapes later on. Each area feels completely different, from the ramshackle fishing piers and wide-open plains of the early game to the claustrophobic valley gauntlet and glittering palace you’ll see later. Just as it develops full personalities for each of these areas, the game also gives each one its own tempo and structure. Some areas are sprawling and let you basically wander through any which way, while others funnel you through linear paths or madly winding platforms that double back on each other. Ashen lacks the archaeological detail of Dark Souls’ level design, but you can still feel the weight of history in each of its beautiful landscapes. Ashen doesn’t just ask you to save the world; it gives you a world well worth saving.
Ashen uses the Souls-like formula to tell a very different, optimistic story about community. Whether you’re playing alone, with an AI companion, or with another person, combat with the game’s varied enemies and bosses is challenging and satisfying. Ashen’s world feels real and lived-in, and getting to carve out your own settlement and watch it prosper is truly satisfying.