'Ashen' is a lot like 'Dark Souls' with extremely clever multiplayer

Ashen may look and feel like Dark Souls, but this indie game for Xbox One has several unique multiplayer features that might set it apart.

After two years of silent work on Ashen, developer Aurora44 re-emerged this week on Microsoft’s Xbox One X stage during E3 2017. Ashen still looks like Dark Souls, but as an indie game it’s smaller in scope than its main inspiration. So what sets it apart? That would be the multiplayer.

Meeting strangers, making them friends

Leighton Milne, Ashen‘s art director, said the main influence besides Dark Souls was none other than thatgamecompany’s Journey, an artsy game that seamlessly pitches players into one another’s worlds without loading screens, visible matchmaking, or any of the other standard multiplayer trappings. Ashen does the same, setting it apart from the likes of Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Nioh, all of which require players to actively summon partners for co-op play.

Environmental storytelling and secrets hidden within the world are two of Ashen’s core design tenets.

In Ashen you’ll encounter other players naturally as you explore the world. Presumably, that means you have to play online at least some of the time, as Milne and the other developers showed off a dungeon that required two players present to enter.

Inside the dungeon, the two partners explored multiple floors filled with challenging monsters while taking turns holding a lantern in one hand. The dungeon’s interior was too dark to see without the light, but holding a lantern in one hand restricts the types of weapons you can use, so the two players generally stuck close to one another and took turns having the lantern equipped.

The resulting back-and-forth was tense and exciting to watch. Besides its stylized graphics, the game looks a heck of a lot like Dark Souls, including in the flow of combat, and in the level design. Milne said environmental storytelling and secrets hidden within the world are two of Ashen’s core design tenets, and that was evident from watching the developers play.

On the dungeon’s lowest floor, reached by dropping through a hole into near-darkness, the two players battled a boss that pounced and sprang around the room while using darkness as its cover. It seemed like a challenging fight straight out of a Dark Souls game, which isn’t a bad thing, if that’s your jam.

Dungeons, the ultimate bonding experience

The demo ended shortly thereafter, but Milne explained what will happen next in the full game. When players encounter one another, each sees the other as a character within the game who they haven’t met yet. They then go on an adventure with that character — in the case of this demo, “the treasure hunter” — beating a boss or conquering a dungeon. That character then moves into their hub area, where players can follow their unique stories and quest lines.

The hope is that players will form bonds and associations with characters thanks to the unique encounters they’ll have with them.

Encounters with non-playable characters in the Souls games often play out in a similar way, with players meeting characters at various points throughout the game world. But in those games the characters who wind up congregating in Majula or the Firelink Shrine aren’t inhabited first by players. Milne said the hope is that players will form bonds and associations with those characters thanks to the unique encounters they’ll have with them, then carry those forward once they meet them again later on.

Ashen‘s multiplayer offers a unique feature set that will hopefully help differentiate it from the other, bigger games in this genre. Dark Souls is a formidable opponent to take on, and “SoulsLikes” are becoming more and more common. Not that Souls fans mind: The hardcore players who love to explore these dark fantasy worlds seemingly can’t get enough of them.

And Ashen won’t overstay its welcome. Realistically, the developers are shooting for an experience that will last most players around 20 hours. Those who really gel with Ashen will be welcome to stick around to keep exploring, discover every character, and hunt for loot. But even for the average player who’s simply intrigued by indie Dark Souls with a clever twist, Ashen could light a flame.