Ashen Preview - E3 2018
We get a second look and go hands-on with the upcoming adventure title
I’ve always enjoyed Microsoft’s set up at E3. While they might not be on the show floor anymore, they still make room for a bevy of indie games and smaller titles sitting right alongside the Halo's and Forza's. Usually during the show, I get to set aside time to cover something a little less promoted, something that grabs my eye during the indie sizzle reels that have become a staple of the Xbox press briefings. Last year it was this curiosity that led me to The Artful Escape, and at E3 2018 as I wandered through the numerous stations, my eyes finally settled on Ashen.
I had actually wanted to play Ashen last year, but had been beaten to the punch. So in the interest of being original, I’ll try to avoid repeating anything from last year’s preview. That should be easy since as opposed to last year, when we were only able to see a piece of Ashen, this time Aurora 44 were basically letting us play the first hour of the game.
My demo begins with character creation. There’s not a ton of depth to this, just some familiar cosmetic changes you can make. After I’ve made my character, the game starts with an intro movie, talking about the cycles of worlds. In all fairness, paying attention to things like these movies can be tricky when you’re on the E3 showfloor, or in the Microsoft Theater (which was the case with this demo). Still, the gist is largely that the world is beginning anew and you will have to help with its rebirth.
Ashen is a dark and gloomy game. Its art style lends itself to the name, grey and washed out. It’s an oppressive aesthetic, and registers a similar feeling to Dark Souls, but at least Dark Souls has splashes of color where Ashen feels like a watercolor painting that has been entirely done with the water you use to clean the brush - an empty grey that resembles the absence of life. There’s a hollow feeling to the start of Ashen - and that feels intentional. The game has tasked you with bringing light and life into the world. In fact, it’s one of the last instructions of the intro cutscene.
Last year's preview made a Dark Souls comparison and that’s still pretty accurate. You target enemies the same way you do in From Software’s action RPG, however this style of combat has become so prevalent (even Assassin’s Creed is doing a version of it these days), a little more depth is likely necessary. You target enemies with the R3 button, then there’s a focus on dodging attacks and monitoring your distance. You need to be patient, and wait for your time to strike. The big difference from other games with this style is that you have a companion. Most of the time it will be other players online, but in my demo it's AI. So I hang back, shuffle, and just when I’m ready to strike, my AI companion jumps in and does the dirty work for me. That’s not entirely true; I get a couple of good hits in, but while the combat is tricky, it isn’t punishing with the companion assistance.
The world of Ashen, at least at the start, is populated by strange terrain and rock formations. It’s not mountainous, but hilly. I wander through these rocks, ever-heading toward the marker that is guiding my way forward. But this terrain is really designed to hide enemies. I have to proceed slowly because rushing into combat is a sure-fire way to end up dead. I’m taking my time, just wandering around the world. I find a secret cavern with health items, and it feels like this is how the game is meant to be played. Ashen is a game that you sip, that you slowly wander through, running out every lead and investigating every part of the world.
I’m tasked with collecting two objects to start my little village. The first is a hammer guarded by a boss that is difficult to take down. My AI companion has forgotten our strategy about me distracting enemies while he rushes in to do the damage; he’s become of no help - I have to handle this fight on my own. It’s a little more difficult because the boss doesn’t have a health meter, so I’m unsure about how close I am to defeating them. I play it safe, constantly dodging and taking. Finally the boss goes down and I collect the hammer, bringing it back to its owner. After the hammer, I have to find the Spark. There’s more exploration required to find the Spark, but no boss for this one. Just some spear-throwing enemies that are tricky, but rather weak once I get close to them.
The collection of items and completing of quests is all in service of building your community. This is the real focus of Ashen. The companions you meet in the world come back to your community and become NPCs. The more you collect, the stronger your character and community becomes.
My time with Ashen is running short so I’m hurrying a bit now, which isn’t what you want to do in this game. I quickly run to my next objective, find the required item and hurry back. When back at my village I’m given a better weapon, but it still feels like the enemies are getting more difficult - and that AI companion really isn’t pulling his weight now. Health is becoming more scarce and before I can get too much further, I am killed.
Ashen was interesting. The game’s focus on community-building and interesting co-op combat makes it something that I’m keeping an eye on in 2018. I’m interested to see if Ashen manages to provide a deeper experience and avoids becoming repetitive, but that’s something we’ll only be able to tell when the game is out.
Ashen is expected to arrive in 2018 on PC and Xbox One.