Every once in a while a piece of art comes along that exceeds every possible expectation held prior to experiencing it, and developer Aurora44's gorgeous, emotionally thrilling Ashen is an example of such art. The Souls series, especially the Dark Souls entries, are arguably games that achieved this distinction. With complex boss fights and a difficult-but-fair combat system, the Dark Souls games provided a real challenge to players and didn't hold hands. In a lot of ways, Ashen is inspired by Dark Souls, though it's thankfully never quite as frustratingly difficult as that series.
Ashen sets players in a world that hasn't known light for an untold amount of years and sees them go on a quest to defeat the Elder Dark and help bring about the resurrection of the Ashen, an ancient bird deity that, with its death, brought about the different ages of the world. Not only does this narrative seemingly draw from mythology (especially its creation origin) but the way in which the story unfolds is also very Dark Souls and Legend of Zelda-esque. Unlike those games, however, players won't have to hunt too hard for narrative cohesiveness; Ashen wears its story on its sleeve. It's in every crack and crevice of the game's weathered-looking world.
Before starting Ashen, players are tasked with creating a faceless character, masculine or feminine in stature, and given a small but meaningful amount of customization options. For an indie title, Ashen gives off a big game feel and its art style is a large reason for this. Simply put, Ashen is gorgeously detailed. It makes the harrowing dark and worn out world of Ashen look so good that sometimes it's hard to believe the game didn't have the backing of a larger studio behind it (the game was published by the relatively new Annapurna Interactive).
Also adding to this feel is Ashen's combat, which is where the game's Dark Souls inspiration really becomes obvious. Players are able to roll and dodge enemy attacks, but will need to make sure to keep a keen eye on stamina, which is drained from every little action taken. Run out of stamina and you'll need to wait for it to replenish before any further action can be taken. Dark Souls veterans will take to this style with ease, but newbies must play smart and not rely on hack and slash tactics. While it would be easy to criticize Ashen for aping another game's combat style, Ashen's version is so crisp and refined that it's difficult to fault Aurora44 for this move. Plus, the game adds enough of its own spin, especially with weapon selection, that it doesn't ever really come off as feeling ripped off.
Another aspect that really sets Ashen apart from the Dark Souls games is its implementation of cooperative play. While players can of course use online play to bring in friends and strangers alike to help them overcome bosses and common enemies, the game utilizes A.I. companions that are invaluable to traversing the world. It helps that the A.I. companions are actually smart, as well. Aurora44 built these companion characters to feel like other players and they'll actually be needed to access certain areas of the map or climb certain obstacles. They can revive players who are overwhelmed by enemies as well, which also gives Ashen a more forgiving feel than something like a Dark Souls entry.
All of these features alone would be enough to make Ashen a competently made game, but Aurora44 wasn't satisfied to settle for merely "competent." It's the game's narrative and world building that really shine through. The scope is monumental and at times, Ashen feels like an epic fantasy story that would have been perfect for a ten book novel series. The story is a little bizarre at times and perhaps relies a little too heavily on surrealism sometimes for its own good, but there's a ton of heart involved. Its potent themes of life, death and the never-ending battle of light and dark pack an emotional punch almost like no other game released this year and it's told beautifully through diverse characters and a gorgeous setting that actually feels lived in.
Ashen is not only a revelation for indie games, it's an example of the uniquely creative worlds and stories that game developers can craft when passion and love for the medium are used in equal measure. Aurora44 has easily crafted one of the best games of the year, one that's far better than anyone back in 2015 - when the game was revealed at E3 - could have predicted. Ashen is simply breathtaking, rising above its gaming influences to achieve something wholly original and something for other indie and AAA developers alike to look to for an example of gaming at its finest.
Ashen is available now on Xbox One and PC for $39.99. Screen Rant was provided an Xbox One copy for review.