"Dark Souls" and "Journey" occupy two distinct ends of the gaming spectrum.
On one side, "Dark Souls" is epitome of a hard-core title. With its harsh difficulty and steep learning curve, it demands patience and perseverance. Meanwhile, "Journey" is a more accessible and casual experience that impresses players with its grand visuals and innovative multiplayer experience.
Annapurna Interactive's latest release, "Ashen," does the unusual by combining elements of both games into a cohesive whole. Players take on the role of a warrior who has to defend the Ashen, a raven-like being that brings light after an age of darkness. As the Ashen revives, it's up to players to protect it from the Elder Dark who crave the light.
Players essentially have to bring the world out of the dark ages. That starts with establishing a village at Vagrant's Rest. As players meet more characters such as Amara, Silaren and Vorsa, they move into the hamlet and offer players upgrades and items that help them throughout the quest. They include power-ups to the Crimson Gourd, which acts in a similar role to the Estus Flask in "Dark Souls."
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Players will need this healing item because "Ashen" is difficult with its stamina-based combat system that requires players to be cautious and patient. The game punishes those who rush into unfamiliar terrain because foes hit hard, and they can quickly overwhelm players.
The combat also forces players to switch up styles. Depending on the dungeon environment, they'll either have to carry a lantern and dodge strikes or raise a shield to defend against thrown spears. Players can only carry one of these items at a time. That's in addition to one-or two-handed weapons.
The other element that makes "Ashen" different from its peers is an ingenuous passive multiplayer system. During the adventure, players have a companion that helps them out. When playing offline, the partner – usually someone from the village – is controlled by artificial intelligence. When connected to the internet, players will discover that the ally fighting alongside them is controlled by a person.
It's a multiplayer system comparable to "Journey," when players meet random partners. With "Ashen," the gameplay is more complex and demanding as players have more freedom to play cooperatively or go on their own. A good partner can be crucial to success, they can revive a player when they lose all their health or prove invaluable in combat, often dealing the extra damage to take down a foe.
Unfortunately, the random partners can be hit or miss because human partners don't always help out and they may not be proficient at combat. It's sometimes better to have a dependable AI partner to tackle the tougher dungeons, but when players stumble across the right player, the experience is magical.
"Ashen" fixes a problem with "Dark Souls" – namely it can be depressing and solitary experience. With a partner, it opens up more tactics and deepens an already great combat system. The player can wield a one-handed weapon while the ally swings a bigger two-handed blade. One can carry a shield for defense while the other can carry a lantern. There's even an opportunity to learn a new way to play the game.
While the world of "Ashen" is intriguing, the quest design has issues. Players run into characters in the village and are asked to retrieve items. It's novel at the beginning but grows repetitive. Meanwhile, some of the items or goals can be difficult to find amid the nooks and corners of the ruins. Some goals are unreachable but "Ashen" doesn't tell players that, forcing them to run around aimlessly.
Despite those issues, it's hard not to get drawn into "Ashen." It plays more like "Dark Souls" but it uses the elements of "Journey" to ease the difficulty and teach players other lessons that are just as valuable in gaming.
3 1/2 stars out of 4
Platform: Xbox One, PC