Ashes: A First-Person Dungeon Exploration Experience: A Short Review

     Ashes is an intriguing game to be sure.  It touts itself to be a combination of a narrative focused first-person walking simulator with a dash of Skyrim.  Meant to be a single-sitting gameplay experience giving you a light dose of explorative adventure into the life of a man suffering some odd form of amnesia that wakes up in a strange dungeon.

    The gameplay of Ashes is simple enough, including melee combat, a few puzzle sections, and a handful of platforming sections.  The combat is barebones.  You literally just fight a handful of skeletons with melee weapons through swinging and even a block.  It's sufficient for the game, really.  Ashes really doesn't need any more depth to the combat.  Hacking and slashing is good enough for this type of game.  Though, I actually would've appreciated much more of it.  Not all at once, but peppered throughout.  To see the bodies of others laying around, or even maybe a few skeletons shambling around in cells.  Or better yet, why not have a few just aimlessly wandering around confused and not actively threatening the player even when confronted?  And why aren't any of them found fighting amongst themselves?
     There is weapon degradation as well, which I found to be extremely annoying because from the weapon goes fine for quite a while, then suddenly looks to be near breaking and breaks in just a few swings.  The swiftness it happens always seems like it is fine for 9 swings, one swing to damage the weapon, followed by one to break it.  That progression is too quick, and honestly, why even have it in the game at all?  The weapons seem to have 2 damages, weak and strong, and they are separated by roughly one hit worth of damage to kill an enemy and the system really could be done without completely.

     On a side note there's some floating orbs that light the areas up and can be broken, but there's really no purpose to them.  Why have them even be destructible if it isn't for a reason?  It seems like a strange decision.  Bouncing off that, the game has a collectible in the form of glowing green skulls.  The fact they are there isn't a problem, it offers a nice distraction while exploring the dungeons.  What nags at me is they seem like an item that should offer a reason for being there.  Maybe have them drop some lore of the world, or spark a new exclusive memory unlock.  Have a reason to be collecting them outside of Steam achievements.  There's a necromancer out there in this world, so why not have them tie to maybe bits of narrative from him?  Or perhaps have them be other peoples' memories (include their own voiced narration)?

     As for the level design and art...  you know, I actually really, really like it.  I'd actually tie it much more closely to being a combination of a narrative walking simulator and Ico, as opposed to Skyrim as the devs say.  Ashes has a very nice feel and it's areas differ just enough to make things interesting.  There's dark shadowy areas with green glowing ooze, to empty sewage tubes, as well as bright sunlit courtyards, creating a nice range of things to look at.  With that said, there's room for expansion here.  Considering how vast the castle is, personally I would've really liked to have a lot more exploration options.  There's a bunch of doors that don't open- so why not make them open into larger places to roam around in.  That would help get rid of the deliberate linearity the game has you follow along, providing players with more time to enjoy the world.

    My biggest qualm with Ashes is that it feels like it's truly just the beginning of a larger game.  There's some unfair storytelling elements that make the ending both good, but also predictable, and a little unfair. [ SPOILER: Not one other skeleton is wearing clothes, and they all have a distinct sound when running around- so why does the player have clothes and not make that noise?  That kind of thing is deliberately lying to the player to make a payoff in the end.  The twist could be handled better, the story could have a bigger payoff by having some of the skeletons wearing bits of clothes and some distinctions.  Maybe have some wear gauntlets, some wearing all clothes, some just pants, and so on. That isn't to say I didn't like it.  I guessed it quite early on, and liked the narrative memories coming back as you progress through the castle.  It might've been more effective to space them out instead of having large chunks all at once.  Slow it down and allow us to digest it as we go.  If the developers take my recommendation to add more places to explore they could add small touches to expand the story as well.  Perhaps have a series of passageways that lead to a kitchen or dining hall and maybe something like memories returning of dinners with the family come to the surface.
     Now I must also mention the voice acting of the player-character's narration.  He does pretty well, but could use just a bit more emotive force and range.  Granted, what we get is good, so that isn't a complaint, more of a request, I want just more.  I want more story.  I want more exploration.  I want more combat, puzzles, and exploration out of Ashes!

     Ashes appears to be an exercise for the developer to show off what they can do while still leaving us wanting more- as I wrote earlier, this game feels like the beginning of something much larger.  I'd be more than pleased if the devs, Windlimit Games, went and actually added some of the extra things I've suggested.  But I digress, even as it is right now, it's still a decent fantasy dungeon exploration game with a unique narrative.  I'd happily recommend this game because it's all of the things I want in games lately- it's brief, engaging, and fun- and it actually leaves me wanting much more.  Overall, Ashes is a great one-sitting experience and I'm eager to see what the devs make next.  Go check it out.

     Ashes is $3.99 on [ Steam ]

*Review Copy Provided, Thank you

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