Ashen is a game about cooperation. I said as much about a year ago, when the game first came out. It’s a bite-sized, surprisingly soothing Souls-like with shades of Journey. That is to say, while combat is risky and requires managing a stamina gauge, you can get a little bit of help from your friends. Or strangers! Companions organically appear in your world at random. At its best, that means human players join your game to help you out of tremendously tough spots — or ping secret areas, or just explore. For the time being, however, Ashen is not at its best.
I learned that when I beat the game recently, nearly a year after its initial launch. Before that, I reluctantly bounced off Ashen very near its end. Anyone who’s played the game can probably guess where: the Palace of Lathyrus. The last real dungeon is an incredible slog. It’s a twisting, dimly lit labyrinth with infinitely respawning enemies. Ghosts leap out of the shadows, pin you down, and stab you over and over again. There are no checkpoints. There are no shortcuts. It’s just there.
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It’s also somewhat at odds with the rest of Ashen. The game is fairly relaxed for its sub-genre. Bosses are somewhat easy and having a human or A.I. companion makes a ton of difference. The whole thing is only 15-20 hours long, too. Although I probably spent at least a fourth of that time in goddamn Lathyrus.
I don’t think it’s entirely the game’s fault. The palace feels designed to be a gauntlet. It’s the sort of stretch you and a buddy should work through, tirelessly, to reach a common goal. That way when you do get to the end there’s a sense of relief and satisfaction to reward all your hard work. That’s the kind of spirit Ashen engenders!
And I did get that feeling — about a year ago. Sadly, goodwill didn’t get me all the way through, and I stepped away from the game “for a little bit.” You know what I mean. I said I would get back to it “before the end of the year.” Before the end of the year became “over the summer.” Over the summer turned into “before the end of next year.”
Well, I finally did get back to Ashen and its Palace of Lathyrus. I beat it, too! It just wasn’t easy. Nor did it instill that same sense of camaraderie I felt many times before. That’s because, at least on Xbox One, nobody is really playing Ashen right now… Or those that are are playing with their friends. Perhaps all kinds of people are playing, actually, but just haven’t reached the end of the game. Beating the boss of Lathyrus popped an achievement — plus a note that only 3.05 percent of Ashen players on Xbox have gotten that far. Whatever the situation, it doesn’t help me.
Ashen Is Best With Multiplayer
This is a bummer for the obvious reasons; Ashen just isn’t as fun to play without random wanderers appearing to run around in circles to say “hello.” The A.I. helpers that can replace them, meanwhile, are only helpful to a point… Besides the Palace of Lathyrus, some of the late-game encounters just aren’t designed for your reckless in-game companions.
I’m talking about Jokell. The mustached brawler is one of the first NPC buddies you “collect” on your trek through Ashen. He’s friendly enough, but has a horrible tendency to yeet himself off cliffs. Which is a problem, since bottomless pits are the nemesis of all companions in Ashen. They leave your friends unable to be revived. If Jokell decides to dodge roll off a 90 degree ledge, he’s gone, and you have to do without help until your next checkpoint.
So of course you fight the final boss on top of a sheer cliff. Jokell doesn’t last long there.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that I stayed up till 2 a.m. trying to beat said boss. It sucked. They are an immorally huge asshole: with stun lock combos, charge attacks that crack off 90 percent of your health, and nearly invisible tells. Most of the advice I read online says to get a second player and cheese the enemy with ranged attacks. A quick glance at the the mostly inactive Ashen Discord server — and the slightly more lively server for developer A44 — is likewise mostly people looking for benevolent helpers to sync up with manually.
The Finality of a Final Boss
That sort of kills the spirit — the magic — of fighting through trials and tribulations with strangers out of thin air. Not to mention it makes the last quarter of the game interminably annoying. If anything, my ending experience threatened to undercut the rest of the game.
I usually try not to let the journey color my opinion of the destination too much (most game endings are bad). But the mechanics really clash with the message in Ashen right now. It’s a game about cooperation and community. Your headquarters, Vagrant’s Rest, grows and develops as NPCs work together to beat back the darkness of this fantasy world. Meanwhile, you and your buddies take the fight to those who refuse to crawl out of the shadow, or let anyone else do so either. Yet watching Jokell die for the dozenth time almost started to make me resent him. He wasn’t pulling his weight, like me, the all-powerful and badass “player.” But the underlying conceit of Ashen, as it’s meant to be played, is that you can’t do everything alone.
The way that Ashen was meant to be played, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t feel possible anymore. At least it doesn’t right now. The game is coming to PlayStation 4, Switch, and Steam (it was an Epic Games Store exclusive at launch) very soon. I suspect extra eyes on the new platforms will also prompt players to realize they already have it on Xbox Game Pass. And I hope as many people as possible get to play the game at its best.
I won’t be there with them. I did manage to beat the final boss of Ashen, eventually, on my own. Although it felt like a slightly hollow victory. I had nobody to share it with, and nobody was there to share it with me.