Fight. Die. Drop your experience points. Run back and pick them up. It’s all the elements that superficially add up to a Souls-like — a game heavily influenced by From Software’s Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls series. Even your light and heavy attacks map to the right shoulder buttons in Ashen, the debut game from A44 Studios, which reductively sums up as “indie Dark Souls.”
But it’s not a bad summation. Ashen has more in common with From’s “franchise” than just death mechanics. It’s in the little things, like a gourd of healing sap that recharges every time you rest at checkpoints, or the plunging attack you can do from high places. Take it back a step even further and hardcore fans will even see parallels in the bizarre fantasy that backgrounds both games.
The titular Ashen of Ashen is a sort of cosmic bird that rested on a world tree. Its presence brought light and life, but when it died its final breaths created three ages of civilization. These strobing epochs of light and dark mirror the ages of the Dark Souls games to a T. Although that’s somewhat “deep lore” in From games, where the story is obscured under item descriptions and mostly mute NPCs.
Togetherness in Darkness
Ashen is not so obtuse. It lays out the nature of its binary world with clear opening narration. Its many speaking NPCs don’t just laugh ominously and disappear. They’re genuine characters. One has a curse on his family that he’d like you to lift. Another is a hunter and a healer who wants to save your mentor: the giant blacksmith that narrates the intro. Most of them stick around to provide advice, facilities at your home base, and aid in combat. And those are two more areas where Ashen heavily diverges from its source material.
Souls games nearly always have a player headquarters — a Nexus, a Firelink Shrine — but they’re basically static. The transient NPCs you meet along the way pop in and out, implying they use it for a short respite just like the player, before disappearing on solo adventures unknown. But the structure of the location never changes much. In Ashen, the home base of Vagrant’s Rest evolves over time. The bit players you encounter continue to build it around you.
The player’s job in this anarchic commune is ostensibly to find the new Ashen. The space bird has been reborn and must be protected to maintain the age of light. The NPCs follow you on that quest, popping in and out like co-op partners from Journey, to help you push through brutal enemy gantlets. Besides Journey, it’s quite a lot like the summoning system from Souls games. You can even bump into and play with human players. It’s just automatic.
How to Mend a World
Dark Souls die hards might balk at your mission in Ashen, though. From’s series is ultimately about ending the age of light — for unchecked creation to sometimes give way to more ephemeral understanding of the progress we made.
But Ashen doesn’t miss that beat, either. The game is simply set after a long age of dark. It literally opens with the player character witnessing their first sunrise. That’s a different perspective than we usually get in Dark Souls. And it’s tempered by characters acknowledging too much light is also dangerous. There’s a “light sickness” infecting the shorter lived species of Ashen that needs to be dealt with, too.
You wouldn’t know that if not for all the clear-cut dialogue and obvious side quests. Ashen keeps a log of every major character and the tasks they have you perform. You get experience points and upgrades for doing them, and hey, that’s nice. But what’s really refreshing is the clarity. You always know where you are. You can usually remember what you’re doing. The cast, since its members stick around and have more to do and say, add a spectrum of observations about the world.
Hardcore Among Hardcores
Sure. Ashen is a Souls-like. It’s probably more Souls-like than just about any contender in the sub-genre to date. The developers obviously understood more than just From’s gameplay chops. They’re hardcore Dark Souls nerds that wanted to play with what the source material has to say, as much as what you do in it.
And what Ashen has to say seems pretty interesting. An egalitarian society literally building itself in front of our eyes from the ashes of a dead fantasy world? Yes please.
None of that would be as interesting without Ashen’s off-brand transparency, though. It’s more “accessible” than its inspirations by a country mile — both mechanically and narratively. And that wouldn’t work without the developers’ keen understanding of the blocks they’re building with.
Best Way Forward
Other games have certainly drawn inspiration from those pieces. They expanded the Souls-like into its own sub-genre, rather than just scattered “clones” of the original, in the first place.
The Surge was perfectly content to be “sci-fi Dark Souls” without much setting it apart. Nioh went hard in the gameplay direction, crafting a stance-based combat system heavily based on From Software’s groundwork. Hollow Knight replicated the obscure storytelling and overlaid it in a wonderful Metroidvania world.
Ashen might just be the first Souls-like to borrow from and build upon the complete package, though. Ironically, it took a studio with a hardcore fan’s understanding of Souls games to make the series’ finer points more accessible. You can sum up the game as “indie Dark Souls.” You’d be absolutely right. But Ashen is probably the better way to introduce new players to its own influences.