Review: Ash

SRRN’s Ash is an incredible game.

There are times when one intuitively knows that they are playing the creation of someone who truly loves their respective genre; Ash is one such game.

Gameplay/structure

The kindest thing that one could say about Ash’s gameplay is that it gets the job done. It doesn’t burden the player overmuch, but it is not the shiny nail on which Ash proudly hangs its hat. Character building is a vanilla affair, with character abilities being doled out at pre-determined levels (along with at specific story junctures).  As far as the interface elements are concerned, they are a cut above most every other RPG on offer in the iTunes store. The touch screen battle interface is a joy to use (the custom-built touch input has you cycling through turns at a brilliant pace!), and the touch input for field navivation (while initially disorienting) has fast become intuitive, and is indeed one of my favourite touch based RPG interfaces. That said, while the battle interface does acquit itself admirably well, it doesn’t really hit its stride until about the half-way point of the game, when your final two members join the party. Before that point the imbalance between player and enemy turns leads to the sense that it does not quite run as smoothly as it should.

No, I said niggles!

While my summery thus far has been largely positive, the game does come with a (Pipher sized) arseload of technical niggles. There are occaisional chests which won’t open, doors that don’t lead anywhere, and control glitches, though these have allegedly been solved by a later game update (I played the original release, and so cannot comment on the sucess of the fixes). The initial build of Ash also required a healthy amount of grinding early on, and by the time I reached the final dungeon my party had reached the the level cap and all additional EXP counted for nought. Happily both of these problems have allegedly been solved, with more plentiful items and EXP being patched into the earlier portion of the game, and an additional eight levels, brining the level cap up to forty. Additionally, the accuracy of character attacks is somewhat worse than in Skies of Arcadia, this is allieviated throughout most of the game by the sheer pace of the battle system, yet by the time one reaches the end dungeon, they will be forced to experiement with all of their various debuff skills if they wish their physical attacks to continue dealing damage. It really depends on what type of player one is as to whether this leads to boon or bust, I found the final dungeon to inject some much apprieciated strategy into the mix, though players intent on merely churning their way through the experience will hit a wall. Thus, the gameplay experience on offer here is reflective of a competant independent studio that does not possess the resources to extensively playtest and debug their software, yet have been remarkably responsive to all points of player criticism in re-balancing their game.

So then if Ash is not to stake its claim in terms of gameplay, how then does it go about distinguishing itself? The stand-out features of Ash really are the game’s characters, story, setting, humour and soundtrack. In fact I would probably be somewhat guilty of underestimating Ash’s charms by saying that its strengths lie in a similar vein to the Working Designs catalogue …

Characters/humour

Not quite what I'm talking about ...

The backbone of Ash really is its wonderfully well realised characters, particularly Nicholas and Damien, and the familial bond they share. Nichlolas is the world weary husband, father and sheild to the former King, who lost his family to the swords of the corrupt Magistrate’s Black Guard. Damien is Nicholas’ former lieutenant, an impulsive young man who likes his Ale, women and potatoes (Ginia’s ideal man?). Both have been on the run from the Empire for the last five years, and both are sarcastic to a fault. Rounding out the party is the mysterious and reticent Olesanmi, and Damien’s love interest Yuka. This last relationship is of particular amusment, as durring the better moments of Damien’s fumbling attempts to proposition Yuka there are what seem to me to be echoes of Zidane’s pursuit of The aloof Garnet.

What all of these dynamics amount to however, is some of the most acerbic and sarcastic banter you will find in an RPG, as the members of the party take to belittling Damien’s intellect with the same gleeful exuberence that the Lusipurr.com family has taken to mocking Oliver Motok.

In fact this level of humour pervades all levels of the game, softening what is at its heart a fairly serious tale. One element of the game design which cannot be at all faulted is the way that the level design and game mechanics work to incorporate the same kind of goofy humour for which Working Designs are loved (and loathed by morons). The game positively delights in breaking the fourth wall. Take the relatively pedestrian function of searching environmental objects such as barrels and wardrobes for potions and gold, feedback text could well have been written on autopilot, yet to to the SRRN scenariscists this was an occaision ripe for environmental humour.

Nope, that's not it, but it's just as cool.

One such such scenario saw the party boarding a pirate ship in order to extricate their own, which required the player to engage each and every pirate they came across in battle. Damien (a virtual surrogate for the player) grows increasingly perturbed when every third pirate that they attack turns into a cloud of parrots, while the remainder of the party seemingly think that it is the most natural thing in the world for this to happen. This scenario culminates in Damien’s delightful increaduality at having to face off against a pirate cum flying monkey. It is not just scripted scenarios which are privvy to such humour however, as environments are positively littered with easily missable puns. On one occaision I found myself searching barrels for items;the first barrel notified me that ‘the barrel smells like rum’, the second barrel notified me that ‘the barrel smells like rum’, while the third barrel informed me that ‘you begin to sense a pattern here’. One final deft touch which caused me endless amusement was SRRN’s description of spells. The lion’s share of spells are described in terms of iconically cheasy pop songs such as ‘ice ice babby‘, yet one spell in particular caused me particular mirth. The spell in question was aptly named ‘Agony‘, and was represented in the battle menu by the stern visage of Richard Simmons, I say ‘was‘ because sadly this piece of comedy came under the criticism of dour, high-minded reviewers cum philistines, and was subsequently removed. Pearls before swine.

Setting/Story

That's the one!

The world of Ash is set against the backdrop of a decaying Empire, with Aghus’ line of Kings long dead, and the seat of power usurped by the corrupt Magistrate. The Magistrate is unable to maintain the security of the Empire’s seas and mountain passes, and thus the Empire’s vital trade routes have fallen to pirates and theives. Meanwhile a corruption is spreading across Aghus, monsters have begun roaming the countryside, and the Magistrate’s own Black Guard have taken to razing defenceless villages in the name of order. Amid this backdrop magic, a power long forgotten to living memory, has begun returning to the world.

Ash really is a story of two halves. The first half centres around the travels of Nicholas and Damien, as they struggle in vain to maintain their anonymity,attempting to stay one step ahead of the Empire’s reach, finding themselves time and again made into reluctant heroes. The second half of the tale sees Nicholas and Damien made the unwilling spearhead of a rebel army, as they attempt to disrupt the Empire’s lines of supply, and occupy former Empire strongholds where they are lauded and reviled by the citizenry in equal measure. It is at this point that the story really takes off, new mysteries are introduced, new characters are established,until an eleventh hour plot twist turns the plot on its head, and we are left with a tantalising cliffhanger.

If it sounds as though I have described the scenario overmuch, rest assurred that this is the very least of it. To gamers such as myself who play their RPGs with an emphasis on storytelling and the exploration of the games setting, Ash’s attention to detail really does stand it head and shoulders above any other RPG found on the appstore. Moreover, the story is not just good by iOS standards, or portable standards even, it is a nuanced tale of substance which is able to seamlessly alternate between humour, conflict and tragedy, which would be impressive on any platform.

Thus; I think it safe to say that this is no Jane Austin/Eternal Sonata/Benito Cereno lump of insipid bullshit, Ginia.

***

"I am not an animal! I am a human being!"

I do apologise if it sounds like I’m gushing, but I got more from this $5 iOS game than I got from this year’s premier portable JRPG Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, which one might assume I paid some money for.

***

Graphics

Much of Ash’s graphical assets were licensed from Enterbrain’s RPGMaker software, yet please don’t take this to mean that the game looks generic, far from it. The tile-sets may not be original but they are used to deftly create uniformly distinct locations. I am not familiar enough with RPgMaker in order to discern which (if any) environmental objects are unique to Ash, yet I will say that there is a good diversity in the objects littered throughout environments. Finally, I feel reletively comfortable in claiming that both Ash’s competantly detailed sprite characters along with their superb anime character art are original to the game, and serve their purpose admirably. In fact the only complaint that I have toward the game’s graphics is the fact that during scene fade-outs certain layers of game-tiles become transparent.

Music

While music is almost always subjective and very difficult to describe in substance, I don’t think that it is overreaching to describe Nathan Winderr’s OST as being like a scant collection of Nobuo Uematsu B-sides written durring his SNES era, which is a huge compliment to anyone who is not Nobuo Uematsu, it is really very good. The OST is on the shorter side of the spectrum at just under twenty tracks, yet seemingly there is always the right track for any given scene (the OST is available for free download on SRRN’s site).

Conclusion

It is entirely possible that I have over-embellished my praise of Ash in an objective sense, yet that is only due to my surprise at the quality of the content in this supremely unique package. In a relative sense this destroys anything else available on the appstore, including Square Enix’s offerings, and is likely to do so for a long time to come. In short, if you are a gamer who enjoys old-school JRPGs and well written stories and happens to own an iOS device, then you would be an absolute fool not to purchase this gem of a game.

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