During its introduction at last year’s Xbox E3 press conference, developers Aurora44 explained that “Ashen,” their new action RPG, would feature a novel form of multiplayer: players would be completely anonymous in the realms of others, with no voice communication and no way to learn their identity. And once a partner died, they would vanish forever from the host’s world. It’s not a completely unique hook, exactly — it’s very similar to the co-op feature in 2012’s Journey — but it was just different enough to generate some conversation about “Ashen.”
At this year’s E3, however, “Ashen’s” most interesting feature isn’t actually present, which makes it hard to know just how much heavy lifting that multiplayer can do to set the game apart from a sea of games who owe a debt to From Software’s “Soulsborne” genre — consisting of “Demon’s Souls”, the “Dark Souls” games, and the PS4 exclusive “Bloodborne.” Because “Ashen” is, clearly, derived from the lineage, with its stamina based combat system, which in turn is driven by heavy and light attacks on the Xbox One controller’s shoulder buttons.
Still, multiplayer isn’t the only thing that “Ashen” does differently. This goes beyond the obvious, with “Ashen’s” stark, minimalist visual style, with faceless characters that look quite like wooden puppets (and which may be customized by the player when the game starts) wandering through a mysterious, foggily lit world. The demo at this year’s E3 seemed designed to introduce the most basic elements of “Ashen’s” gameplay, which revealed some mechanical elements that set it apart from its contemporaries.
While “Ashen’s” controls should be familiar to anyone with Soulsborne experience, it feels different in practice. The clunky, animation-favoring attacks and dodges of “Dark Souls” and its progeny, a style that makes almost any attack a full commitment. “Ashen,” on the other hand, feels looser in that way — attacks don’t feel like you’re signing a 30 year mortgage, and dodging feels like a fast, fluid way to flank opponents. Everything feels responsive, which is a funny thing to say in 2018, but it’s true, and it’s a compliment. This responsiveness is setting “Ashen” up to be a game that may be difficult, but hopefully won’t feel punitive.
Smoother controls and less animation priority led to enemies that felt markedly less dangerous than I expected. I was told that the challenge will ramp up considerably, especially if players choose to play solo, which I’m fine with, as long as there’s a clean ramp-up toward the more challenging areas.
This year’s demo also presented a world outside of the caves and dungeons that will still likely do the most to define “Ashen.” After meeting NPCs and completing their missions, I was given the ability to found a town, where those NPCs then set up show, allowing for new upgrades and more new tasks. It alleviated my concern that Ashen would feel as barren as the game’s limited palette might suggest.