It’s already being compared to Dark Souls, Breath of the Wild and Journey, and after five years in the making, Ashen is almost ready for release. Lee Henaghan takes an exclusive look at one of the most ambitious games ever made in New Zealand.
The rise of the open world action RPG has coincided almost exactly with the explosion of pop culture and profits that have defined the modern era of video games.
Since Grand Theft Auto 3 revolutionised the industry in 2001, franchises such as Assassin’s Creed, The Witcher and Far Cry — while wildly different in tone and structure — have become synonymous with the idea of “triple-A” games.
It’s no accident that the three biggest releases of the year (Red Dead Redemption 2, Spider-Man and God of War) have been based around open world sandboxes and with the popularity of first-person shooters dwindling, the free-roaming action RPG is arguably the industry’s most reliable money-spinner.
These kind of games — particularly those with online multiplayer elements — are difficult to make and notoriously expensive. They’re usually the domain of multi million-dollar megastudios with blockbuster budgets and hundreds of staff based all over the world. Certainly not the sort of thing you’d expect from a team of 40 (mostly millennials) in Lower Hutt working on their first game.
That’s exactly what makes Ashen so intriguing. In many ways, it’s the classic Kiwi underdog tale of high hopes, lofty ambitions and punching well above your weight. Most indie developers start out small, cutting their teeth on quirky or simplistic projects before working their way up to the big leagues.
That’s certainly not the case for the studio formerly known as Aurora44. As CEO and director of the newly-christened A44 Derek Bradley puts it, they’re “swinging for the fences” on their debut. It’s a risky strategy but when you think big, people tend to take notice.
Early in its five-year development cycle, Ashen caught the eye of one of the world’s biggest technology companies. Any game picked up by Microsoft as an Xbox and Windows exclusive is guaranteed to turn heads and raise eyebrows. Throw in the unanimously positive reactions to teasers and previews at successive E3 events and it’s fair to say expectations for Ashen have been rising steadily over the past few years.
With the game set for release before the end of the year, I visited A44’s studio to take a look at an “almost finished” version of Ashen and meet the team behind one of the most ambitious games ever made in New Zealand.
Considering the recent controversy around “crunch” — the period where developers often work 100-hour weeks and sacrifice sleep, sanity and family in a desperate bid to get a game out of the gate — the atmosphere in the studio is surprisingly relaxed. There’s a quiet calm as animators, coders and QA testers huddle over banks of monitors putting the finishing touches to a game that has been the focus of many of their lives since 2013.
When I finally had a chance to play through the first couple of hours of the game, I was immediately struck by its distinctive art style. To describe it as minimalist would be an understatement but there’s an idiosyncratic beauty to this world of desolate landscapes and its faceless inhabitants.
Interacting with characters with no discernable facial features can take a while to get used to, but as Bradley explains, there was a clear artistic motivation behind the decision.
“When we started the creative process we focused heavily on the environments. We built the whole game from the environments inwards. The traditional process is to start with your hero and work outwards but we wanted the environment to be the hero,” he said.
“In a lot of environmental concept art, the artists often won’t even paint the faces, it’s not really important to them. We took that on with the philosophy that when you look at an image, the human brain naturally focuses in on the face and pulls into that pinpoint on their eyes. The hope was that by not using faces it allows the players to look outwards and appreciate the world around them.”
As a New Zealander, the rolling hills, valleys and mountainous backdrops of Ashen’s world look and feel incredibly familiar. While not directly inspired by any specific part of Aotearoa, Bradley says Ashen is undeniably a product of its environment.
“The unique Kiwi atmosphere that we have in the world is almost infused into the team. It’s not something we can extract. It’s the bedrock and the platform that everything else is built on,” he said.
“We haven’t gone out of our way to craft a ‘Kiwi experience’ because our team is filled with Kiwis. And the folks who have come from overseas know what it’s like to live and work here.
“The valley our studio is in is surrounded by these massive green hills and snow-covered mountains in the distance – people talk about this mysterious fantasy landscape in Ashen and when they come to visit they realise, ‘oh, this is what it is!”.
As with other games in the genre, Ashen is based around the idea of saving the world, but there are no damsels in distress to rescue. From the outset, it’s clear that the game is about forging relationships, establishing your own town as a hub and exploring a world that has, until recently, been shrouded in darkness.
While there are NPCs and townspeople to meet, the game’s passive multiplayer system encourages you to interact with other players in the world who may or may not decide to join you on your journey. There are no lobbies and no traditional matchmaking system, instead Ashen takes a more organic approach to online co-op.
“Day one for Ashen was all about forging relationships and very quickly we saw passive multiplayer as the best way for people to connect with each other,” Bradley said.
“You can encounter other players and they might walk past you, they might join you or they might run away and you’ll never see them again. You can play solo if you prefer and there are AI companions who can step in to help out but the game is balanced towards two players working together”.
Not every character you meet will be friendly, however. Ashen’s world is filled with angry, aggressive enemies disturbed by the light which has illuminated their previously shadowy home.
Combat is heavily focused on stamina, which I soon discovered was just as, if not more important than health. Every swing of your club, axe or baton (Ashen is possibly the first action RPG not to feature swords) consumes a chunk of energy, resulting in a risk and reward system where you’re constantly forced to weigh up whether to use a light attack or heavy finishing blow.
While it’s not quite as tight and intuitive as the Souls games, FromSoftware’s series has obviously been an inspiration and is often cited alongside the likes of Journey when trying to describe the Ashen experience. High praise indeed, but Bradley doesn’t seem fazed by the comparison.
“If you haven’t played Ashen, it’s totally natural to relate it to other games. It’s something you can’t really encapsulate in a trailer or from a 10 minute playtest,” he said.
“We’re quite flattered when people compare it to Breath of the Wild, Journey or Dark Souls – it has some elements from them but they’re only ingredients [that have been] combined with a lot of our own stuff. When you put it all together it’s honestly a very different taste.”
While most games will be judged purely on sales figures, Ashen has the advantage of being included on Xbox’s Netflix-style Game Pass service, which will allow millions of subscribers to download the game for free on launch day. It’s a foot in the door that Bradley hopes will help spread the word.
“Game Pass is an amazing opportunity for us. Being a multiplayer game, we want a healthy ecosystem of players from day one and Game Pass ensures we have a community who can experience it how it’s meant to be played – with other people. As developers, our greatest aspiration is for people to play the game, and this allows that to happen,” he said.
As for what the future holds for A44 post-Ashen, Bradley remains tight-lipped but optimistic for the wider New Zealand games industry.
“For A44 we plan to continue swinging for the fences. What that might bring only time will tell.
“For the NZ games industry in general, there’s a huge groundswell of talent coming from educational institutions and the film industry moving into games and carving out a niche for themselves. That skill base exists and it’s maturing,” he said.
“We’re continuing dialogue with the government looking at ways they can incentivise more investment to take that next step in growing from a grassroots industry into something the world will really take notice of”.
Ashen will be out later this month on PC and XBox One.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.