In the opening scenes of the game a god-sized magic bird explodes and brings sunshine back to the world. Congratulations, you’ve won! Sort of. The holy light still needs to be protected and you, a rando with a stick, are the one to do it.
Defending the light involves lots of locking on, dodging through sweeping enemy blows, and executing light and strong attacks until the red health bars are all gone. It’s Dark Souls, everybody. Instead of bonfires you have magic rocks. Instead of an Estus health flask you have a ‘Crimson Gourd’ that restores every time you rest at a bonf—magic rock. When you die you drop your money, but it can be recovered if you return to your old corpse without dying again.
I can’t knock it. The formula works, and Ashen’s washed-out world is lovely. The opening areas transition from an overgrown land of ruins to a dark grey desert. The zones are mostly more expansive than Dark Souls, and they are full of impressive sights—the colossal skull of a god-bird, a nameless floating monster, and Journey-style spires of distant light.
My favourite moment of my first few hours of the game actually happened underground. I explored a dungeon with a lantern, splatting disgusting acid spiders with help from my AI companion. If you’re online these companions can be played by other players, though I haven’t seen any in this pre-release state.
The lantern effects are quite beautiful, and turn out to be very useful when we fight the game’s first boss: a shadowy creature that can eat light. It launches itself out of the shadows around the edge of the arena, smashing pillars in the process. When it retreats into an alcove we use our lanterns to burn it out. Each time we do the alcove stays lit, denying the creature a place to retreat. The monster becomes more desperate until we finally club it dead.
It’s an atmospheric and exciting fight, and gets away from the Souls rhythm. Basic enemies in the opening area are lean on telegraphed three-hit combos and ranged javelin throws. A degree of Souls muscle memory goes a long way here—even the pad controls are near-identical. The first boss encounter gave me something more to look forward to beyond pretty views in new areas.
There’s room for some interesting character-building too. You can imprint your character with four buffs. The basic bronze ones are dull; two percent health here, a bit of stamina there. Fortunately I have seen a couple of weirder ones, like an effect that improves your attacks when you hold a lantern in your off-hand, and another that summons orbs that make you stronger, and another that increases your health resistance for being close to your companion. You seem to earn minor stat bonuses for levelling up, but your power seems to be overwhelmingly dependent on your gear.
The weapons and character designs are lovely as well (apart from the acid spiders, which look a bit like like novelty pipe cleaner toys). Of course you first have to get used to the fact your character has no eyes, nose, or mouth, but once that seems normal the outfits are sweet. I have a particularly cool desert ninja number on at the moment. Ashen looks beautiful.
There are more features I've yet to see play out in these early stages. There are co-op moments where you team up to open a big door or climb up a tall ledge. They seem basic at the moment, but there could be scope for more interesting puzzling further in. The first resurrection stone you touch becomes a village that seems to slowly grow as you meet NPCs and send them back. I like the idea of your character actually trying to push back against the ruin and start a new life—a life beyond dodge rolls and light-light-heavy attack combos.
Ashen was surprise-launched at the Game Awards, so it's out now. Surprise!