Originally released back in December of 2018, Ashen takes the extremely well-worn "Souls" formula and transfers it to an enchanting, beautifully stylised world where you assume the role of a nameless, faceless hero charged with restoring the heart of the Ashen, a great bird God whom, when resurrected, will spell the end of an age of darkness as it spreads its light across the land. This is a game that in no way attempts to hide the fact it borrows heavily from almost every aspect of FromSoftware's classic series – with the exact same stamina-based combat, bonfire-style save points, healing and retrieval of souls (here know as Scoria) upon death – and anyone with even a passing knowledge of how these games play will feel right at home here from the get-go.
However, where many Souls clones tend to laboriously concentrate on making their gameplay as devilishly difficult as possible Ashen – very wisely – settles for a more relaxed, bright and open approach, coming off as a uniquely laid-back offering in the genre that keeps those soothing rhythms and loops of gameplay we all know and love and adds a few neat little wrinkles of its own across its relatively short 25-30 hour playtime.
Where many Souls-likes tend to plunge the player into a lonely and brutal struggle through darkness, battling hard to parse overly-cryptic lore and obtuse systems of play as much as difficult enemies, Ashen strikes out in an entirely different direction tonally – here community is right at the centre of the story, team-work and togetherness the order of the day if its hero is to succeed. That sense of community can be seen right from the off as one of your player character's first actions is to found the settlement of Vagrant's Rest where, as the story unfolds, more and more NPC characters – refugees and warriors alike – will gather for shelter against the evil that lurks around every corner, bringing with them their own talents that help your hero on their quest to resurrect the Ashen.
Amongst the various NPCs who show up to this little oasis at the heart of Ashen's world is the blacksmith Bataran, who'll upgrade and hammer the damage out of the various axes, hatchets, clubs and cudgels you find as you journey through the world. There's Amara with her ability to create Talismans and relics which imbue you with various perks and boons to aid you in your fight and Vorsa, the mysterious hunter who fashions spears for you to strike your enemies from range – there are no bows or crossbows here.
As you take on missions and further the main plot of Ashen you'll constantly return to find Vagrant's Rest growing and evolving, from a tiny little settlement at the outset to a thriving place filled with the sounds of busy construction as it grows around you. You'll get to know the characters that inhabit this space, filling in their back-stories as you fulfil their quest lines – it feels like a much more human world than we're used to from this particular genre.
This central sense of community is solidified when you strike out into the world on the various missions and side-quests handed to you from the inhabitants of Vagrant's Rest as you'll always find yourself with a partner out in the field, a different NPC accompanying you depending on who you've accepted an errand from and it's here that one of Ashen's most unique design wrinkles comes into play as these NPC companions will randomly be replaced with other real-world players on the fly.
The game never alerts you to the switch and you'll only ever really know by those funny little human quirks that give away a real player from an AI stand-in. It's a fun system that works well for the most part, and it's also totally optional and can be switched off at any time should you prefer to play alone. However, we found ourselves enjoying the company and co-op play, apart from the odd occasion when we'd be paired up with someone more interested in charging ahead than relaxing and exploring the enchanting world that's been created here.
Indeed, developers A44 really have created a beautiful setting full of stunning vistas and a handful of truly excellent dungeons to blast through. Where Dark Souls sticks, for the most part, to twisting corridor-like levels with clever little shortcuts linking back and forth, Ashen is a much more open-world affair and, while there's no real clever interlinking of areas, there are plenty of puzzles within the landscape with some item or other always calling out from a difficult-to-reach place as you make your way across the gorgeous minimalist cel-shaded scenery. And it's always best to make the effort to reach these tricky items as they're almost always some sweet new axe, shield or new set of clothes to provide you with greater attack power or defence. That sense of pressing through new and exciting areas – inching forward and discovering new places and secrets that Dark Souls does so well – is present and correct here. It may not be on quite the same level technically but the magic is most certainly there, in both the addictive exploration and crunchy, methodical combat.
As we mentioned, the combat here is pretty much identical to FromSoftware's games – with the exception of back-stabbing and parrying having been removed from your repertoire of moves – and everything from how your character rolls, dodges and delivers light and heavy blows with their chosen weapon feels extremely similar, making the rhythm of combat instantly recognisable. Things can certainly be a bit scrappier from time to time; enemies tend to gang up on you in rather large groups occasionally, but this is mitigated by the fact you're almost always with your partner who can take a lot of the heat off you in battle when things get out of control. There isn't perhaps the same level of finesse in the placement of enemies here for sure but overall this is a hugely solid imitation of Souls combat.
The deep RPG aspects of your typical Souls-like have also been toned down here; levelling up happens automatically as you complete missions and it's only really in the upgrading of your weapons and the crafting and equipping of talismans and relics that you need to make any real choices. Again, this adds to that more relaxed vibe, giving you the central gameplay loops you desire without a lot of the hassle and pain, and it's all the better for it. From the unique character and world stylings to the relatively short running time, Ashen is a more easy-going game than you may expect that funnels you through its story and a handful of excellent boss encounters and dungeons without wasting your time or punishing you unduly. Make no mistake, though, this is still a tough game; not concentrating during battle will still see you come a cropper time and again, but it does away with so much of the gnashing of teeth we're used to with these types of games.
In terms of this Switch port, graphically we struggled to see any difference between this and the original PC release of the game. It runs at 720p/1080p in handheld and docked modes respectively and the only issue we noticed during our playthrough was some minor stuttering and fluctuating from that 30fps target – which seemed more pronounced in docked mode – when entering new areas. It's by no means a deal-breaker, and we didn't notice any frame-rate drops during large enemy encounters or boss battles. Initial loading times can also be a bit of a pain but this is something that's an issue in all other versions of the game. Overall this is a very impressive turnout on Switch for a hugely enjoyable Souls clone – one the better entries in the genre – and it's perhaps a testament to the clever minimalist art-style that this one runs so well on Nintendo's hardware.
Ashen doesn't try to hide the fact that it's a Souls clone through and through. However, where many before it unwisely try to out-do FromSoftware in terms of difficulty or obtuse systems and lore, A44 has taken its game in a more refreshing, community-focused direction. This is a slightly more relaxed take on a Souls-like; it gets you into its action and gameplay rhythms quickly, isn't interested in punishing you particularly unduly and doesn't outstay its welcome. Its story and setting are enchanting and the sense of togetherness and companionship that it creates as its plot unfolds sets it apart in a genre much better known for relentless loneliness and isolation.