Ashen Is a Surprisingly Bright and Open Take on the Soulslike

Ashen

I somehow missed Ashen when it was new, way back in 2018. I’m not sure how this one passed me by, really. The art style alone was enough to draw me in when I saw it on sale in the PlayStation Store.

Ashen is a Soulslike in genre, meaning it has many of the trappings of a Souls game. Collect essence (Souls in Dark Souls, Scoria in Ashen) by killing enemies. Bring that back to a campsite to spend it on upgrading your character’s traits and weapons. And so on.

However, Ashen diverges from the Dark Souls formula in three very distinct ways.

First is the atmosphere. As I hinted earlier, this game is gorgeous. But it’s not gorgeous in that gritty, medieval, dingy way that Dark Souls can be. It has a faded look with a lot of autumn reds and golden yellows, and everything sort of looks like it was made from clay. On top of that, the audio design is soft and soothing, with acoustic guitar riffs and ambient tones. Though the game’s themes aren’t exactly joyful or lighthearted, the world of Ashen feels welcoming rather than murky or depressing.

Ashen

Second, rather than adhering to the classic Dark Souls twisty, windy, unravelling-ball-of-yarn level design, Ashen is pretty open. While the game does sort of keep you in valleys, it also lets you move freely about from area to area and do quests and side activities as you see fit. While the main questline is linear, every character at your camp has their own story, and these can really be done in whatever order you’d like (you just have to meet the prerequisites for unlocking the side stories).

Third, and maybe most importantly, Ashen isn’t difficult in the Soulslike way. While clusters of enemies might overwhelm you at time due to their sheer numbers, I very rarely found myself struggling. Maybe it’s because I’m hot off the brutal Mortal Shell (which is also a Soulslike) and have grown used to the combat rhythm, but I beat the first boss on the very first attempt, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever done in a proper Souls game.

Also, you typically have an A.I. companion along with you, who can help you out of sticky situations, and you can even play this game in co-op (though I kind of dig the sort of lonely vibe it has when you’re soloing your way through this world).

Ashen

All of these things combine to make Ashen stand out in a landscape that’s starting to feel a little bit crowded. I mean, when even the latest Star Wars game apes a game’s formula, you know that formula has moved out of its niche and has hit the mainstream. The Soulslike is a genre now, and it’s a genre that seems pretty stuffed these days.

All that to say that I’m really, really enjoying my time with Ashen. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and I can’t wait to get back to working my way through its fascinating world. Yes, Ashen has completely won me over.

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