If there’s one thing to say about the last decade in game, it’s that Dark Souls had a substantial impact on how we approach combat-focused, open world design. Thanks to the careful crafting of FromSoftware’s many titles, ‘soulslike’ is now a word in everybody’s vocabulary, and other developers have taken that label and put their own spin on it. This has had a snowball effect, with games such as Code Vein and Lords of the Fallen having a literal interpretation of their influences, while Hollow Knight and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order taking that concept and twisting it to create something a little more weird and interesting.
Last year I played A44’s Ashen, another one of these so-called soulslikes, which I found to be very interesting in the way it adapts this formula to suit its own needs. But before we dissect how Ashen builds on that, we first need to determine what exactly goes into making a soulslike what it is, as it’s a definition not even the most scholarly of game critics can fully agree on.
Many would say it’s the combat of Souls games that define the genre, involving stamina management and the learning of enemy attack patterns, as well as the infamously hard bosses. For others, it’s the maze-like world design, with areas looping back round and hidden secrets located around every corner. For me the very essence of Souls came in its storytelling, told through ominous riddles and vague item descriptions, but most notably the fact it was set in a wretched, dying land; a thematic fit for the game’s overwhelming boss fights and punishing difficulty.
With the same approach to combat and level design, Ashen plays like a lot like a Dark Souls game. But where it deviates somewhat dramatically is its depiction of a world brought together by the power of a community. The whole point of Ashen is you’re not out to kill a big baddie and save the kingdom (well, not completely), but instead building a town with your friends. You’re a nomad seeking a home, and as you progress through the story you meet new characters, help them and invite them into your settlement. Slowly over time, you watch the town you’ve settled in grow from a small outpost to a thriving commune.
This theme extends to other elements of the game. Co-operative play is almost mandatory—whether you’re joined by a human player or the AI—and this character will always accompany you as you explore, fight bosses and complete quests. It’s all done seamlessly, with no loading or ‘waiting for player’ screens, they just appear for you. You can’t even communicate with them beyond very basic emotes, driving forward the idea that your bond is strengthened through your actions rather than your words.
Ashen does a cool thing where the other player’s appearance takes the form of whichever character’s quest you have active, showing you just how important the stakes are for them as well as yourself. Sure, much of Ashen’s side content feels like glorified fetch quests, but the fact the NPCs dynamically come with you on these missions sets it apart from many other RPGs. The best part is you level up from completing them. You can farm kills all day long, but it won’t increase your health and stamina stats, but helping your pals out will result in a tougher player character. It’s all about being stronger together.
By giving you hope through these character interactions, Ashen reinvents the soulslike by empowering you with the sense of companionship. While still very challenging, it proves that soulslikes don’t need to constantly make the player feel tiny and insignificant. The forward momentum of this game is driven by the bond you share with your fellow companions, which is something even Dark Souls’ co-op struggles to achieve.
It always takes a push like this to evolve genre. Doom Clones were a thing for a long time until the successes of Half-Life and System Shock led to the more appropriate definition of ‘first-person shooter’. Hopefully more games will take the soulslike formula in new directions just like Ashen has done, in a way that lets the genre become something of its own rather than being beholden to its ancestor. Hell, even ‘roguelike’ has since been disassociated from Rogue. Only time will tell.