Ashen is not a terribly original game. But that doesn't make it a terrible game - in fact, far from it. As far as copycats and coattail riders go, it's possibly the best game to use the Dark Souls formula that isn't made by FromSoftware. Or at the very least, it's the most overt about the audience it's courting.
I'm really not kidding when I say Ashen wears the Souls influence on its sleeve. Estus Flask? Ashen calls it a Crimson Gourd, but it works the same. Bonfires? They're ritual stones now. Souls used as currency, lost upon death but able to be recovered next life? Here it's "scoria." Stamina-based combat with light and heavy attacks, plus an emphasis on dodge rolls? Literally the same control scheme. A story where you must reignite the world's heart to bring light to a dying world? The Souls games were never so opaque with their plot, but yeah.
The look, feel, and function of Ashen is so clearly lifted from the DNA of Dark Souls and Bloodborne it borders on appropriation, sometimes to the point of distraction. The screen that appears when you slay a boss. A section where you have to cross a bridge under fire attack by a giant not-a-dragon. One of the final boss' attacks is virtually identical to that of a Bloodborne boss.
But games lift ideas from each other all the time, and being inspired by a competitor (even if those inspirations are really obvious) isn't a crime. So yeah, let's not mince words: Ashen is a Dark Souls clone - but it's a really good Dark Souls clone, and it does have some of its own ideas to inject which deserve praise.
Exploring a more open world
For starters, there's the layout of the world itself. Where Dark Souls maps are often winding and maze-like, doubling back on each other as you open new pathways and shortcuts, Ashen's is far more open, and you can check where you are at any time.
We're not talking a grand scale that could keep up with today's AAA blockbusters, but the vistas are scenic and the horizons can definitely dazzle. I certainly gazed with awe as an enormous sky-whale flew overhead, or a dilapidated cave opened up to reveal a gleaming, golden city, even if traversing the landscape only took a relatively small amount of time.
There's a solid variety of scenery as well, from peaceful woods to strange, jutting ruins, from murky swamps to a realm of eternal darkness. And Ashen's minimalist style certainly works in its favor here. I'd never seen a world quite like Ashen's, and I consistently felt drawn in, wanting to know and see more. Did I have to go wandering off into the shadows, where I knew I was likely to die? Did I have to climb up into the sky-whale's nest? No, but I definitely wanted to, and Ashen deserves kudos for inspiring that kind of organic exploration.
Read what we thought of Ashen at E3 2017
There's also home base, Vagrant's Rest. Shortly after starting my adventure, I set up camp in the woods, starting with some basic tents and huts. As I progressed and recruited more people to my cause, the town grew and changed, drawing in more residents, bringing in new trade, and offering more upgrades. That sassy Scottish-accented girl I found? She helped me boost my main healing item's effectiveness. The bearded man searching for his sister? He crafted me a better lantern.
Each major NPC also has a list of chores that need doing, and completing them offers up some interesting stories - ranging from "I must break my family's curse, passed down through the generations" to "Hunt these rare beasts so I can see what makes 'em tick" - but also serves to make the player stronger as well. In exchange for finding this or killing that, I was rewarded with increased health, stamina, gear, and new recipes for my crafting tables. The next time I teleported back to town, I would see these newfound friends living in sturdier homes, surrounded by more luxurious decor, and offering more resources. It became addictive and supremely satisfying to further progress each side-story when I could see the changes I'd made in these villagers' virtual lives.
And the companions paid it forward, too. NPCs tagged along for my adventure, helping me fight off the bandits, undead, and monsters I encountered along the way. They could even revive me once if I fell in battle, and I could do the same for them. They feel absolutely vital to the experience - in fact, Ashen's most challenging, dungeon-like areas are sequestered away from the main world, accessible only with a buddy (controlled either by AI or an online player) tagging along.
Dungeons are a chore
These same dungeons are Ashen's biggest stumble. It's fun to undertake the challenge of progressing through them, and each is filled with hidden pathways, extra-dangerous foes, and excellent visual design. But they're also a bit of a slog, with challenging boss fights waiting at the end, and there's no way to spend the scoria gained from completing them without having to do them all over again, which can be a real pain in the ass. Let me give you an example:
Roughly halfway through the game, I descended into dark ruins, lit only by the odd crystal and glowing fungus. I began memorizing the route, checking room by room for enemies. I studied attack patterns, learning exactly how to hit without being hit. But one particular spot kept giving me trouble, as my companion would always disappear. Sometimes they would run up some stairs and disappear, other times I would whirl my camera around and they'd suddenly be gone, or worst, they'd inexplicably fall to their deaths. I eventually figured out that if I sprinted down a particular hallway, the NPC would teleport or otherwise catch up to me, and cleared the dungeon after many attempts.
Though there was a ritual stone which allowed for fast travel near the entrance of this hellhole, the stone at the end, shortly before the boss fight, did not. So I had thousands of scoria collected, scoria I would have liked to use to purchase upgrades to my weapons, or health consumables, or what-have-you, but the game was pressuring me not to. Because if I did leave to prepare for the boss fight, I would have to do the entire dungeon, complete with my patented make-sure-the-NPC-doesn't-disappear-for-no-reason trick, all over again.
Even knowing the fastest way through and at my most combat effective, these delves took well over 20 minutes. Twenty minutes of what is essentially backtracking through the same environment, the same enemies, the same traps, just so I could get to the big fight. It's physically and mentally exhausting. Instead of feeling a sense of achievement at beating a dungeon, I would feel a wave of dread, as I knew the gauntlet I'd just run was merely the game wearing me down before setting me against an even deadlier foe; a massive difficulty spike defined by tedium.
My total playtime topped out around 15 hours. I suspect at least a third of that was spent fighting my way into a dungeon, dying, getting a little farther, dying, getting a little farther than that, dying (repeat as many times as necessary), eventually reaching the end, going back to base to buy healing and defense items, and doing the whole dungeon again. Learning and thinking through these challenges can be fun, but Ashen lets the experience drag too much.
Still, I can't deny that when I did beat a dungeon and its boss, there was a grand sense of triumph and relief. Ditto for when I slew the final boss, which gave me grief for the better part of an entire evening.
Ashen is a faithful homage (for better or worse) to the games that inspired it, and it executes on those existing principles soundly. Ashen's own contributions to the formula waver between exhilarating highs and frustrating lows, but the former greatly outweigh the latter, and even if it's not the most original journey you've ever been on, it's one well worth taking. There's a lot to love about Ashen, even if you've loved it before.
Reviewed on PC.