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Ashen review for Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One


Platform: Nintendo Switch
Also on: PS4, PC, Xbox One
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Developer: A44
Medium: Digital
Players: 1-2
Online: Yes
ESRB: T

Confession time: I don’t like Soulsborne games. I know that puts me in a minority — particularly around these parts — but they’re just not my thing. I don’t play games to be constantly challenged, and, obviously, that’s pretty much the whole point of those games.

I’d like to say that Ashen changed my mind about the genre, but…well, that would be a lie. In fact, if anything, I found even less to like here than in, say, Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls. Where those games made you feel like you were constantly engaged in epic battles with big, scary monsters, here you’re generally fighting faceless, nondescript enemies. They vary a little here and there, but none of them are all that memorable.

The game’s design also, arguably, works against it. Ashen takes place in an open-world that seems rather sizeable. While it’s kind of neat to have to explore a world with not much idea of what lurks around the corner, at the same time it felt like the structure of Soulsborne games — where you push through an area, figure out where to pick and fight your battles, and move on — works better in more limited spaces. The save points are also pretty infrequent here, so the end result is that you wander around for awhile, then get killed and lose all your stuff, and you have to wander around even more just to get back to where you started.

On top of this, there’s a co-op aspect to Ashen that seems geared towards online play — which, I’ll confess, is something I don’t have on the Switch. Without that, you’re stuck with an AI companion who seldom does much to help you, which really takes away from one of the game’s big drawing points, which is supposed to be — and I quote — “a massive open world, akin to the passive multiplayer of Journey.” Maybe it all works better if you have Nintendo Switch Online, but if you don’t, then I suspect that, like me, you’ll feel like you’re missing something important.

I also felt like I was missing something important when it came to the combat. On the one hand, I’ll point you back to what I said up top: I’m not big on the challenge of Soulsborne games, in large part because the combat is something I just don’t have the patience for. Seeing as Ashen draws very heavily from that tradition, it should go without saying I’m lousy at it. But, at the same time, Ashen’s combat just feels really shaky. You have to be constantly mindful of your stamina metre, and you’re mostly swinging wildly at enemies, hoping your weapons are headed in their general direction. There’s no feeling of control or precision, which makes the high challenge level seem a little unfair (but, again, that could just be me).

Ashen isn’t entirely without its charms, mind you. As much as I complain about the interchangeable enemies, the design here is really quite gorgeous. There’s a cold, sparse feeling running through the game, and it’s reinforced constantly by how smooth and featureless everything looks. I’m doing a lousy job of describing the game’s aesthetic, I know, which is a shame, because it’s the one part of it that I actually quite liked.

Will you like it? Obviously, that depends on how much you like Soulsborne games. Even if you do, however, I’d tread carefully before committing to Ashen. It’s got some charms, but also some pretty big drawbacks, and I’m not sure the former is enough to make up for the latter.

Annapurna Interactive provided us with an Ashen Switch code for review purposes.

Grade: B