Co-operative experience are often those we choose to engage with. We log on, invite a friend and push on with an adventure together. There’s an intrinsic connection, a handshake of affirmation that solidifies this bond. But some games like to toy with. Instead of actively inviting someone into our world, players are drawn together randomly. Go a step further and you’ll find games that restrict interaction even more, relegating player to player interactions to minor sounds or nothing at all. It’s in this pond of fish that you’ll find Ashen.
Ashen might have just been one of the many games Microsoft showed off on stage at E3 this year, but its closed doors demo was easily one of the most fascinating to watch. Its world and its inhabitants stand faceless, acting as a neat metaphor for their personalities that need to be shaped by you, the player. At its core, Ashen plays like a traditional action RPG. You’ll engage in some third-person combat with the flow and grace of Dark Souls, loot weapons and gear (which, strangely, have no sort of numerical statistics tied to them) and explore a rather gorgeous, desolate world.
The magic, it seems, is found in the game’s dynamic multiplayer component. While you’re playing Ashen, you can open up your game to the rest of the world and have other players get sucked in. It’s proximity based, so other players exploring the same area as you might suddenly find themselves running into a fairly obviously player-controlled NPC. Mirrored on their screen is the same – there’s no concrete way of knowing you’re playing with another human other than their movements. There’s no name, no UI, no friendly server connection notice. Just an organic link between their world and yours.
In a way, it reminds me a lot of what thatgamecompany did with Journey. It would also randomly pair you up with strangers, who could then aided or abandon you during their own journey. Ashen is the same, and its open-world invites these sorts of interactions. Will you stick with a new companion or let them carry on their path alone. Might you happen upon a dungeon and choose to explore it together (Ashen links dungeons to co-operative play, and spawns an AI companion in the absence of a human one). Plundering the cold, dark depths of what this world has to offer seems to be a job for more than one person, and brings with it some exciting gameplay dynamics too.
Dungeons are what most of the demo focused on, along with an in-depth look at how Ashen dances with combat. There’s a clear Souls influence here, with attacks needing to be paired with patience and timing in equal measure. The weight behind it is the same too, as are some of the larger foes that act as gatekeepers to each dungeon’s secrets. The trick here is the absence of any real role-playing mechanic at all. Instead of making you pick the weapon with the most damage, Ashen instead wants its players to enjoy the swing of their sword or hack of their axe over arbitrary numbers and figures.
What this means is that the game invites you to pick a weapon and stick with it. To an extent. Enemies will obviously be more susceptible to different weapons in terms of range and speed. A fast-moving enemy will certainly outpace a slow swinging axe, while one that likes to do damage up close might be better advanced on with a spear of some kind. There were many weaponry options on offer during the demo, but the idea that players could get comfortable with a handful of weapons instead of worry about the next chest ruining their fun is rather enticing.
And these are just smaller elements to a larger puzzle that Ashen is building. Broader town management options and NPC quests were hinted at, with Ashen’s developers, Aurora44, enticing us with details surrounding the real endgame to all this lonely exploration. But its claws had already burrowed deep into my skin. Ashen’s melancholy presentation and interesting multiplayer were enough to grab my interest above the flashy explosions of Crackdown 3 or the high-octane racing of Forza Motorsport 7. It’s an example of how smaller games are taking most of the risks no and an enticing title that I simply can’t wait to see more of.
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Last Updated: June 21, 2017