One of the best Dark Souls clones ever made comes to PS4 and Switch, but is Ashen too similar to the real thing or not enough?
Not only do we have to finalise our top 20 games of the year soon, for publishing over the Christmas break, but we’ll also be considering the best games of the entire decade. Usually, there’s a big difference between best and most influential, but not when it comes to Dark Souls. FromSoftware’s work over the last 10 years or so (culminating in a Game of the Year win for Sekiro at The Game Awards last week) has been extraordinary, not just for its quality but for the effect it’s had on other developers.
Dark Souls is now effectively a genre all on its own, with other games – everything from Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order to Dead Cells – taking significant inspiration even when they’re not direct copies. Many of the clones have failed to live up to the standards of the originals but while Nioh is still the overall best, last year’s Ashen runs it a very close second; so we’re glad to see that it’s no longer just a Microsoft exclusive.
Like many clones, Ashen sticks a little too close to its inspiration in terms of the structure and gameplay, as well as the atmosphere, but it does have some important differences, most obviously online co-op and a shorter running time. The latter may sound trivial, or even disappointing, but not having to spend 60+ hours of trial and error in order to complete the game is a huge relief for time poor gamers – especially those that might be new to the genre.
Ashen’s world design is generally more open plan than Dark Souls, with something close to traditional dungeons, and it also has a camp that you can populate with characters you meet in your journeys – which can then optionally be controlled by human players.
Including co-op is great for those learning the ropes, while also forcing a different pace on the game then when you’re slowly creeping around all on your own. Ashen is very clever about how co-op works too and, perhaps influenced by Journey, there’s no option for voice chat – so you have to think hard about how best to help each other.
Although the art style is impressive it’s a shame the game doesn’t try something different than just a slight variation on Dark Souls’ dark fantasy setting. It’s a great looking game, especially given this is from an indie developer, but a more unique look and tone would have emphasised the differences between this and its inspirations, instead of obscuring them to a casual observer. Even the story is very similar and that’s just unnecessary.
That won’t do anything to put off players new to the genre, and those that have played Dark Souls style games before will be wondering whether Elden Ring, and whatever else From do next, wouldn’t also benefit from looking at a clone for inspiration.
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Ashen PS4 review summary
In Short: One of the best Dark Souls clones so far and while some things are near identical the co-op features help distinguish it as something more than just a straight copy.
Pros: The co-op options are handled extremely well and the short running time will be a positive for many. It may be a clone, but it uses the Dark Souls formula extremely well. Excellent visuals.
Cons: Being inspired by Dark Souls is one thing but there was no need for the game to copy so many specific details, especially when it comes to the story and atmosphere. Quite expensive.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Release Date: 13th December 2019
Age Rating: 12
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