PAX Aus 2018: Ashen proves it deserves the hype

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If you’ve been within a 10 foot radius of me in the last year then I can guarantee you’ve heard about Ashen. The new adventure RPG from New Zealand based Aurora44 made a splash around the world when it was featured as part of Xbox’s Indie E3 showing. Ashen is the first entry from Aurora44 and it’s a bold first statement. If I was excited before, well that has increased tenfold after I got hands on at PAX Aus 2018 with a personal tour from the teams.

Ashen made an appearance at PAX Aus 2017, prior to which it got my attention with its unique art style, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect from it. After a single session though I was hooked, so much so that I played that demo 8 times that weekend. Last year’s demo was much more focused on the combat that existed somewhere between Dark Souls and Bloodborne in a single dungeon run with a co-op partner. It was quick but tantalising.

This time around I was given half an hour to create a character, experience the opening of the game and explore an early zone of the open world map freely. The character creation offers up a lot of the usual options, however the art style of the game has actively removed faces from their models, a striking and effective direction.

When asked about why this direction was chosen a member of the team commented that by removing the faces it allowed players to project onto the character more. With or without the faces though the voice acting and body language of the characters makes a huge difference in bringing character and life to yourself and the NPCs you meet.

After making my buff lady avatar, as I do so often, I was welcomed with a look into the lore that the world of Ashen is built upon. I won’t delve too deep into this as I feel discovering the world for yourself will be part of the enjoyment. Essentially you are living in the world born anew, bathed again in the light of the Ashen, a creature of light. Through an opening cutscene you will be introduced to the races that lived through the ages of light and darkness before you. Unfortunately some of these denizens would take the Ashen for themselves and doom the world to darkness again.

This is where your rag tag team of wanderers will come into the story, looking instead to help the Ashen flourish and for the age of light to continue. At its core the game is about building relationships with the other lost souls such as yourself to create a sanctuary for you to thrive within. NPCs litter the world who can become companions or can be brought back to your fledgling township that, in the section I played, had a few earnest tents, campfires and positive thoughts keeping it all together—but more on that later.

To begin with I was set loose to run free in the starting area of the game. Armed with an axe, a shield and a javelin I took to the Foothills with its winding paths through rocky outcrops and spotted trees, many of which hiding bandits.  Once or twice I even braved the dark caves, but without a torch I wasn’t willing to stick around long and battle blindly in a dark den that horrific spider-like monsters called home.

Combat is familiar for a lot of modern action RPGs. You’ll be dodging or guarding and then using light or heavy attacks in any openings you can find. Everything felt tight and polished, a minimal UI meant that you weren’t looking for the million things on your screen and instead were able to read your enemies who would often take advantage of their superior numbers. Thankfully though, you’re not alone.

“Taking a note from the book of the acclaimed Journey, co-op partners will slip in and out of your experience as you progress.”

Particular NPCs that you meet will join you in battle if you so like, often to help further their own side quest. These will begin as an AI companion who will aide you, however as you go on they will be replaced by another player in the region. Taking a note from the book of the acclaimed Journey, co-op partners will slip in and out of your experience as you progress.

You won’t select to play with someone specifically and you’ll only be able to communicate via a single button that alerts them to your whereabouts and that you may need assistance. If you haven’t played Journey, this aspect of the game was very well received and created some incredibly endearing interactions with other players. We will have to wait and see how this plays out in a game where you impact each other’s experience a little more, but I am hopeful for this new approach to co-op gaming.

The game has also done a lot to make this feel like a single player experience as the other player will appear in your game as the NPC who is currently your companion and in their experience you will appear as their chosen companion. This means that you won’t have the jarring look of someone who is much further into the game and you will always have the same backup regardless of it being AI or another human.

After letting me play around for a little while, my tour guide came over to check on me and see how I was going. I took my time to gush about how much I had already enjoyed the experience, getting literal goosebumps in the opening cinematic. They weighed up their options with me and decided that he would take me on a short tour of some of the later game, after I was reassured that it wouldn’t spoil my fun when the game released.

Again, I won’t touch on this too much as to not spoil others for what is to come, but somethings must be talked about. Firstly, the town I mentioned earlier, it grows! Showing me how the town progresses from what was once a rickety campsite to a town filled with buildings that spills over the cliff side to the river below, with plenty of NPCs making their way around the township. This obviously progresses as you bring more people to your township and it grows in strength.

Next up I was taken to some later game saves he had prepared. The first was about 30% through the game, which he casually mentioned was about 8-10 hours in if you take your time and do all of the activities. This will likely be the most important part of my tour as I am  introduces me to the Diasora.

This is a creature that you rescue that resembles a cross between a bird, a dinosaur and a seal and I love it and I will protect it at all costs. The Diasora once rescued will act as your fast travel option and will fly you between designated locations on its back. I can already see it becoming a mascot, so if you’re reading this Aurora44, a plushie would be greatly appreciated.

Turning away from the Diasora, which was hard to do, my tour guide showed me a sprawling landscape, all of which I’d be visiting. Skipping forward I met a new companion, a very beefy giantess, who I will also protect with all my power. Along with the new companions were new enemies, from hulking soldiers to massive armoured quadruped beasts. A quick trip to a derelict city and its lavish central keep saw the end of the tour, filling me with excitement to explore the world that Aurora44 have created.

I started my play of Ashen at PAX Aus 2018 a little worried. I had spent a year hyping this game up having only played a hand picked slice back in 2017, albeit about 8 times. What if I played this new demo and I lost interest? The same thing had happened with me and The Division two years earlier. A bad demo can ruin expectation for a game to the point that you may not give the game the chance it deserves. Thankfully this was not the case for my time with Ashen this year, it has only bolstered my excitement.

If you’re a fan of Soulsborne style games then this isn’t a game you can afford to sleep on. While the team themselves said you won’t experience the same difficulty that you would in those games, the inspiration is evident—however it has done what is necessary to set itself apart as not just a clone of the FromSoftware titles.

The joy I’ve experienced playing the Ashen demo has dwarfed all other experiences I’ve had at PAX two years in a row now, including from the big AAA titles. This has easily become the first game in a very long time that I’ve anticipated so much that the mention of its name creates a physical reaction. This is a game that I need in my life.

Ashen will be releasing before the end of the year for Xbox One and PC. You can stay up to date with all the latest news and check out more information over on the Ashen official website.