Our faceless and personality deprived hero has been put through a lot in Ashen. It's not an easy game and we've been pierced by spears, fallen to our death, clubbed down, eaten, taken acid baths - simply put, we've been through hell. A good thing then that you seldom wander alone in this bleak and murderous world where everything seems out to get you. As luck would have it, there are people who haven't succumbed to the darkness; people who will aid you on your arduous journey.
You cannot write about Ashen without mentioning its obvious inspiration. It's enough to grip the controller, sample the introduction and you'll know that this game owes a lot to Dark Souls and its kin. A clone then, but a good one. Much like in From Software's titles there are enemies lurking behind every corner waiting to pounce on you, resulting in numerous deaths. If you've played Dark Souls or Bloodborne you'll quickly settle into the nature of the game, but newcomers are likely in for a shock as the difficulty is brutal. There's no easy way forward, so you simply have to bite down and deal with it.
The story is very commonplace. It's a classic tale of a fight between light and darkness. Good and evil. The God who supplies the world with light is dead which explains the rather bleak surroundings. The actual plot doesn't really take centre stage, instead, it's the atmosphere and the people you meet that provide meaning. While we can appreciate this setup, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Having spent hours in the game world getting to know new acquaintances we can't agree with this design choice. It's difficult to recognise anyone when no one has a face and when there is a distinct lack of character when it comes to enemies. In Dark Souls there was a story behind the enemies that told of the tragic events leading up to the game. In Ashen there's none of that and we're simply killing the enemies to save our own skin. The voice acting for the friendly characters is well done, however, there's still a disconnect given the lack of emoting.
Combat is where the game most often shines. Several of the enemies possess unique abilities and behave differently which demands that you to adapt your playstyle to the situation. We're aided by a wide selection of weapons. We tend to prefer a balanced loadout where we can attack quickly, but also retreat as the enemy starts wielding a giant club and the health bar is depleting. To begin with, we were taken in by a huge hammer with spikes, which prevented us from equipping a shield. It worked well enough for a while but as the game world opened up and new enemies appeared, we realised we needed to switch things up. It wouldn't have been impossible to persist, but given the amount of gear on offer, it's silly to limit oneself. There's something for everyone here, and for every situation.
It's not just the general structure of the game that reminds of Dark Souls; the controls feel nearly identical. With the right trigger you launch a slower, more powerful attack, while the right button issues a quicker, less deadly strike. If you hold down the left button you cover yourself using the shield, and pressing the left trigger at the right moment lets you parry and counter an enemy attack. You're also equipped with a Crimson Gourd (the Ashen version of an Estus Flask) to restore health. If you run out of Crimson Sap you'll die and lose the Scoria you've collected (the Ashen version of souls) and you need to collect them again as you respawn. There is a sense that things are so close to the games that inspired it that there is a lack of originality here. That said, when it comes to the quests things are very different.
As previously mentioned you'll come across several new characters along your journey and these have tasks for you to take care of. These missions are divided into main and side quests and offer decent variation. If you accept the side quests you also get a new companion to help you survive the challenging combat encounters. Thanks to the various missions you constantly feel encouraged to lift up every little rock in order not to miss out on something. There are plenty of secrets to find.