Ashen is about exploring and cleansing a newly radiant world, but it’s often at its best in the dark. A few hours into this derivative but engrossing third-person RPG, there’s a quest that takes you deep below ground in search of a corrupted giantess queen. Entering her realm is an ordeal – the nearby hills are alive with other giants who are fond of leaping on your head, to say nothing of coyote-type predators that breath fire – but the catacombs themselves are something else.
The surface world’s packs of club-wielding vagrants give way, here, to more treacherous breeds of foe. There are skeletons who lunge from their own dust as you pass (in a masterful bit of risk-reward design, you can shatter them with one blow if you catch them mid-resurrection), and wraiths who evaporate on contact only to pounce from the blackness. There are wall-crawlers with peeled-open chests who lurk below ledges, popping up behind you with an easily-missed slither of flesh. All these violent delights plus yet more giants, silhouetted near corridor mouths or looming in the stark but short-ranged glare of your lantern – unhelpfully, given the perils of dodging with deadfalls to either side, you can’t hold the latter and a shield at the same time. It took me a couple hours to bumble through that wondrous nightmare to the cavern at the area’s base, where the abundance of space felt positively decadent. It’s probably the finest dungeon-type environment I’ve set foot in this year.
For all that, Ashen is also often at its best in the light. There’s another area later on that is much less fun but similarly oppressive, not least for its population of spear-chucking cultists. Survive it and you’ll be treated to a glorious vista of a fallen city, inspired (to my untrained eye) by Mughal architecture – bronze domes catching the daybreak above pastel pink cobbles and half-eroded houses.
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