As a homegrown project from a Lower Hutt based studio making its first-ever game, Lee Henaghan desperately wanted Ashen to be awesome – and he wasn’t disappointed.
Gaming journalists have always copped criticism from the angriest corners of the internet; some of it deserved, most of it not so much.
The chief complaint among the furious feedback crowd seems to be that anyone who writes about gaming for a living is in some way “biased”.
Unusually for online hate mobs, they’re actually 100% correct on this one. Not that there’s any kind of organised global conspiracy to besmirch the good name of your favourite franchise, studio or platform, but that we really are all biased. Guilty as charged; bang to rights.
Of course, we all do our best to provide an objective assessment of each game on its individual merits. But equally, we all have our own personal preferences and pet peeves. It’s almost impossible to check them at the door.
Dialing down the passion on titles we love and finding the bright spots in the absolute stinkers never gets any easier, especially when you’re covering a game that carries the hopes of a nation like Ashen.
Full disclosure: I really wanted this game to be awesome. Ever since I first saw it in action at E3 in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, I’ve followed its development every step of the way. Any Kiwi game is going to be big news for the local industry, but this is arguably the most ambitious title ever made on these shores. An Xbox exclusive with massive sleeper hit potential? It needed to be good.
After meeting the team behind the game at a recent studio tour of A44 (who were humble, hopeful and endearingly passionate in varying measures), I found it even more difficult to provide an objective appraisal. What if I hated it? What if I loved it but for all the wrong reasons?
After spending the best part of 20 hours playing through Ashen’s sprawling open world and claustrophobic dungeons, the least you can say is that it succeeds in what it set out to do. It’s an engaging, well-designed and impressive game, full of wonder and tiny details that combine to create an experience that’s much more than the sum of its parts.
It’s undoubtedly an astonishing achievement for a relatively small (albeit huge by New Zealand standards) indie studio, but it’s also not without its flaws. This is a game that frequently over-extends its reach and only rarely falls short of its lofty goals.
The game begins as you step out of a cave and into the light of a world that’s been shrouded in darkness for centuries, only recently illuminated by the arrival of the titular Ashen – a phoenix-like creature that’s brought light into the shadows before suddenly disappearing, pursued by three evil spirits. You’re tasked with finding the Ashen and establishing a community to serve as a home and hub in this brave new world.
Ashen’s style of art – in particular, its cast of faceless characters – is strikingly distinctive. Any early doubts about NPCs and enemies lacking personality or emotion when stripped of facial features soon faded though thanks to some excellent animation and sound design which brings the world and its inhabitants to life.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the voice acting and dialogue which veers wildly between wooden and hammy, often – hilariously – in the same scene.
While there’s a story of sorts which serves to tie everything together, Ashen is a game about atmosphere and environment. Tight, winding mountain paths give way to sweeping vistas revealing a glittering city in the valley below. These kind of “wow” moments are par for the course in so-called AAA titles, but the fact that an indie team was able to create such open world wonder on a fraction of the budget is impressive.
There are a certain amount of smoke and mirrors employed to make the world seem larger than it is. Sometimes you’ll be restricted to relatively narrow corridors despite the majestic backdrops, but there’s still a huge amount of exploration to be done, especially with the entire world open unlocked right from the start of the game.
While you’re tasked with expanding your community, building a town, and recruiting more people to your cause, not everyone you meet will be friendly and conflict lurks around every corner.
Combat is stamina-based, with every blow depleting an energy bar depending on weapon weight and effort expended. Battles unfold along risk and reward lines as you wear enemies down with light attacks before taking a gamble on a heavy finisher.
Dodging and blocking are incredibly important, particularly as you encounter stronger opponents or large mobs. Biding your time, waiting for an opening, and taking advantage of your foes’ mistakes and missteps are vital for victory.
If this all sounds a bit like Dark Souls, well, that’s because they’re similar. While calling it a complete rip-off is probably a step too far, it’s fair to say Ashen’s entire combat system is heavily inspired by FromSoftware’s notoriously difficult series of action RPGs.
There are a few other features that have clearly been lifted straight from the Dark Souls games, from the save points to the gear/loot system. But then again, the entire history of video games is built on a foundation of inspiration bordering on plagiarism. If it wasn’t for Mario, there wouldn’t be a Sonic. If not for Halo, we’d never have Call of Duty. And what is Fortnite if not a shameless exploitation of PUBG’s popularity?
It almost goes without saying that if you’re a fan of Dark Souls, you’ll probably enjoy Ashen. And the games are so different in tone and atmosphere that it never feels like you’re playing an outright clone.
Ashen is designed to be played co-operatively but there are no lobbies or matchmaking. Instead, it employs a passive multiplayer system where you’ll encounter other players wandering in the wild who you may or may not decide to tag along with. In effect, you’re playing the role of a friendly NPC in their game, and vice versa.
If you prefer to go it alone, the game provides an AI buddy to join you on your journey, although be prepared for frequent frustrations as they find new and interesting ways to get stuck, fail to follow your lead, or disappear altogether along the way.
Certain sections, particularly some of the trickier dungeons, are almost impossible to get through without the support of an AI ally, turning the game into an open world escort mission where you’re forced to shepherd your companion every step of the way, ensuring they don’t wander off before you reach the part where you need their assistance.
Hopefully, this will be less of an issue in the future (A44 recently released a patch which is said to improve AI behaviour) but it was by far the biggest downside during my playthrough.
Frustrating companions and carbon copy combat aside, there’s no denying that Ashen represents a landmark moment for the New Zealand games industry. There’s simply no other Kiwi-made game that comes close to it in terms of size and scale, and it more than holds its own against similar titles made by much bigger studios on bigger budgets.
As a debut project from an inexperienced indie team, it’s a stunning achievement and suggests big things and a bright future ahead for A44. With no shortage of ambition, a talented team of developers, and the possibility of further backing and support from Xbox, it will be interesting to see what’s next off the production line at the Lower Hutt studio.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.