Remember when random encounters, grinding for money and to level up characters was a thing in RPGs? ASH sure does.
ASH starts with some rather vague storytelling. The game drops players into the Empire of Aghaus with control over two characters, Nicholas and Damien. It's hinted that Nicholas is a former member of Aghaus' military and Damien is his traveling companion who's indebted to Nicholas. Both appear to be running from the past, hiding out as helpful mercenaries to make ends meet, roaming from town to town taking odd jobs and on the lam.
From there, a story quickly builds to show that Aghaus is without its King and is in the midst of strange occurrences, with mysterious disappearances of town folk and the sudden appearance of evil creatures ravaging the villages. The Royal Guard has also been acting suspiciously, most noticeably with bizarre activities and not upholding their vows to protect the Kingdom's people.
If this all sounds familiar, that's due to the fact that it is. ASH is an RPG that weaves a story that pulls from so many games that came before it. The Kingdom has mostly forgotten that magic was a real thing. A history of ancient evil has long been buried and remains vaguely chronicled, too. ASH is made up of these multiple ideas to deliver, however, a bare-bones experience. In fairness, it does have a couple of relatively interesting aspects to it, but it generally tries to bring nostalgia but fails at making a unique statement. ASH also has a huge mark against it, too - the game has a lot of glitches, and one of them renders it virtually unplayable.
While many modern RPGs, like Bravely Default for example, are moving away from outdated systems, such as random encounters and grinding levels to get ahead, ASH embraces those RPG roots. This turn-based RPG pays tribute to the genre of yore with sprites, and a world and combat which recalls the days of titles such as Dragon Quest IV. ASH, however, is not nearly as charming or rich as those games. In fact, the overworld map and towns feel sparse by comparison. NPCs all generally look the same, with their portrait art reminiscent of older American Saturday morning fantasy cartoons, or older Fire Emblem games. Their designs range from bland to not bad, to decent and to unsettling; the colours are simple, and their eyes are creepy and large at times. The main heroes are set apart with overall sharper and more defined designs, and they stand out just enough in a world of knights, pirates and magic users.
This aesthetic extends to the enemies and monsters of ASH that keep in line with that stylized old school look. They're realistic with a touch of fantasy, as much as animated beasts and foes can be. Wolves, snakes, dragons, zombie-like creatures, and the Royal Guards are interesting enough. The fantastical ones are more colourful, and differentiate from those which are normal but vicious in expressions. The art isn't horrible (this is true particularly for the battle settings), nor is it gorgeous or memorable, it's simply ok.
This is what ASH is primarily all about it in nearly everything it does. It merely suffices. It's a simplified experience that's present in its art-style, soundtrack and its gameplay as well. The music is mediocre. It's not an awful, painful thing to listen to but many tracks abruptly end and loop to become an annoyance at times. The turn-based combat is a matter of hitting enemies using special skills dedicated to each character. Characters gain abilities as they level up, and some work in tandem with others. For instance, Nicholas can unlock a move that weakens an enemy's defense, while Damien can follow up with an attack that works to maximize its effectiveness. Eventually a healer joins the party, and finally a spell user. What's somewhat frustrating about ASH is that combat isn't so easy.
Random encounters are frequent enough that it becomes tiresome. Your party can flee on their turn, but many times players may find themselves losing a character before that happens. Luckily a completely wiped out party respawns at the last village your characters visited. Unfortunately, with an HP of 1, it means visiting inns or using healing items is an overused necessity; this is particularly frustrating as consumables and inn visits are not so cheap. What ends up happening is that a lot of fighting has to happen in order to make money and to level up the party. It's a vicious cycle.
If there's one thing ASH is likable for, however, it's that its main characters, specifically Damien, are funny. The game itself uses textual observations for characters' discoveries to show that it has a sense of humour. Inspecting items unveils fourth-wall breaking quips; Damien's conversations with fellow party members do this as well. The tone of the overall game is not meant to be funny but these light comedic moments are refreshing in what would be an otherwise very rigid game.
This aspect of ASH makes it easier to digest. Its story, even though run-of-the-mill, is interesting just enough for players to want to know what happened in Nicholas' and Damien's past. Their relationship, and the dialogue carries the game from outright dull to something a little more compelling. Unfortunately, right when things were finally going somewhere to figure out much of Nicholas' backstory, we encountered a glitch so severe that it's hard to get around.
The struggle to keep the party well-equipped is expensive, with leveling up and getting money a troubling necessity. There comes a point in ASH where it's just not possible to move forward because the game freezes - roaming in the overworld to trigger an encounter caused our 3DS to consistentily reboot. It's so unfortunate because it comes before a sizeable infiltration mission, which would propel the game to dive further into its backstory regarding the Royal Guard. It also marked a point where information was revealed on the great evil affecting the land.
ASH is an RPG that gives a minimal experience into the genre. Its character interactions with each other and its world are slightly entertaining. The story, as tried and true a formula as it presents, is intriguing in its own way thanks in part to its characters. That said, unfortunately, its gameplay and overall presentation, including its narrative, are not unique enough to warrant spending time with. The game breaking glitch that happens some hours into the experience ensures that too.