A survival game where you don't need to chop down trees? I'm already interested. In fact, resource gathering in general is streamlined down to a few simple clicks every now and then in Ashwalkers, a narrative-driven adventure where your fate is determined by the choices you make on your journey, not how many trees you chop down.
And in this world, there aren't really many trees left to chop anyway. A volcanic apocalypse has left the planet cold and dark. The air is filled with ash, food is scarce, and the pockets of humanity left are surviving the post-apocalypse in scattered settlements.
The adventure begins with your crew of four scouts leaving a crumbling citadel in search of beacons that will point the way to a rumored "Dome of Domes," a safe and secure outpost somewhere in the wasteland. As you undertake a perilous journey through the unknown, you'll need to manage your squad's hunger, warmth, energy, and morale, and make some tough story-based choices along the way.
Ashwalkers is presented almost entirely without color, save for blood on your character's bodies when they're injured. A simple mouse click will lead them through the various areas you discover, like deserts, freezing cold mountains, ruined towns, pitch-black mines, and misty marshes. Clicking on various nodes in each zone lets you collect firewood, food, and first-aid, and some nodes provide you with a little tidbit of information about the world you're wandering through.
Encounters, combat, and decision-making are all done through minimal but well-written text panes. If you don't want to risk a fight, you can sometimes negotiate, flee, or try a bit of stealth. Your four squad members all have their own opinions and will suggest different ways to handle each situation you encounter, letting you lead them with diplomacy or force, with kindness or cruelty.
I appreciate that nearly all decisions allow for peaceful resolutions (or at least attempts at them) instead of always relying on violence. I've been given the option of trying to scare off enemies, or reason with them, or sometimes the chance to just to run away or hide. Coming across a spooky abandoned building, I decided to simply not risk investigating it. Some freakish ghouls appeared in the gloom of a darkened mine, and we just ran like hell.
But even peaceful solutions can take a toll. Trying to scare off wolves or mutated creatures in the wild often requires fire, which puts a dent in your meager collection of wood, which you also need to warm your squad while camping. Trapping or luring creatures out of your path means giving up precious food items. One settlement of survivors demanded we pay for entry to their town with medicine, an extremely precious resource. These types of choices, while peaceful, can still be tough to make when you're barely scraping by as it is.
And while collecting resources is easy, managing them is less so. When setting up camp, you can drag resources like food or medicine from your backpack onto each character, but plenty of times you simply won't have enough to go around. At a campsite you can also assign each character an action you'd like them to perform over the next few hours. They can rest, though it's a good idea for someone to stand guard—if everyone is snoozing, some stranger can sneak into your camp and steal your food. You can also choose to have squad members talk to each other, which may boost their morale a bit (unless they have an argument). And you can send them out looking for more supplies, which sometimes results in finding extra food or firewood, but can also leave them traumatized by something they saw, or more tired and injured than they already were. Camping feels like a time to heal and regroup but it doesn't always work out that way.
Some choices have ripple effects. At one point my squad, already out of food and near starvation, came across a trapped scavenger and tried to rescue both him and the food rations he had on him. It all went terribly wrong, and I had to choose between saving him, saving his rations, or fleeing with nothing. I went with saving just him, despite the fact that my crew was starving. Later in the game, this decision paid off as we came across the same man we'd saved, who treated us as friends.
Another time, though, we lured a monster away from a stranger it was attacking, which meant sacrificing some of our food supply. The person we saved didn't even stick around to give us a reward and we never saw him again. On a replay, I'd definitely leave that dude to perish.
Replayability is a large part of the Ashwalkers pitch. It takes about two hours to make it to the end of a journey, and you're meant to do it again and again. According to the developers, there are 34 different endings, depending on the choices you make. It's not a roguelike, though there's some randomness, such as your chances of finding resources while exploring and whether or not certain events happen while you're in camp.
I don't imagine I'll ever investigate all of those endings, but I would like to go through Ashwalkers at least once or twice more. I got a glimpse of some intriguing branching paths I didn't take, and a few even included the option to completely drop the search for the Dome of Domes and instead lead my settlers to an entirely different location, which I'm very curious about. There are also entire areas, characters, and creatures I didn't discover, and lots of gaps in the scraps of lore I collected.
And in my single playthrough there were several choices I came to regret. Even though everyone survived to the end, it was a pretty damn bleak ending and I wound up feeling like I failed not just my characters but the rest of the survivors I encountered along the way. I'd like to try again, if only to see if there's a happier ending somewhere buried in all that ash.