Have you ever met someone not just objectively beautiful, but exactly your preferred type of beauty? Someone who looked exactly like those gorgeous Bakshi characters you devoured at the same time you hit puberty, so the physical ideals got mixed in with your basic makeup? Then, all excited and eager, you talk to that person and they’re just fucking long winded and boring. Worse, they think they’re extremely clever and insightful, so they keep cutting you off and going on long tangents. But, they’re so hot that you keep listening and nodding along, wondering when they’ll run out of words but they never do.
Ash of Gods is being stuck in an elevator with that person for a minimum of 15 hours. Long enough that even the beauty is spoiled by the inevitable close quarters defecation. Also they make you do really weird turn based combat.
You control three separate parties on a massive map. They each have their own goals that you slowly move towards, dealing with CYOA random encounters and nodes along the way. Conflict is resolved through turn-based combat that makes some very strange design choices. The game stays with each party for fairly long stretches before switching perspectives. All three are very distinct from each other in personality and tactics. The RPG layer is light with only combat related skills to upgrade and no traditional stats (like strength, dexterity etc.).
Each node involves a lengthy conversations, often with multiple people. And oh my lord, they are so fucking long and nonsensical. Just dialogue choice after dialogue choice that has no actual bearing on the game, in response to JRPG level writing that veers wildly between bodily functions to inexplicable hostility to the random ramblings of binge drinking philosophy freshmen. It’s not even flavor text. Most conversations have three dialogue choices, which each split into further trees, but you’re not choosing which one you’ll say, you’re just choosing which order you’ll say them in because you have to say every one. Except every long once in a while it throws in a choice that does matter. Yay game, you tricked me into reading one long page of text but made me click 18 times to do so.
So Banner Saga-like is a genre now?
It must be because the combat is a near carbon copy. Characters have health and energy. All but basic attacks cost one of your pools to use. Turns alternate between single characters on each side regardless of how many opponents are on the field. So even if you have one dude and your opponent fields ten, you will still get to act after each of his characters move. Bringing anyone other than your best into combat is a huge penalty. You’re far better off acting over and over again with three powerful characters than wasting turns with your ineffective cleric or mage. Special attacks cost a lot of health/energy and in return do a lot of damage. After combat only participants gain XP. Off the top of my head, here are 10 unpleasant consequences these design choices force:
- The most interesting members of your diverse party get relegated to the bench, there sucking worse and worse with each passing fight as their more powerful companions level up
- You dole out the most fun attacks because they hurt you to use
- Absolutely nothing makes narrative sense as characters die by shooting their own bow or suddenly speed up because their companions die
- There’s a huge variety of tactical considerations but they’re so abstract it feels like a puzzle and nothing like “real” combat
- The AI isn’t even close to being able to cope with the complexity
- Beating bosses is trivial since you can ignore their seven henchmen, each of whom has to move before the boss gets to go again.
- Party management is easy since you never need to field a full squad
- The game gets easier as you go along since your superstars are hogging all the XP
- The slightly interesting CCG layer is mostly ignored since the cards are rarely as effective as a character’s turn
- Some abilities are so overpowered they render each fight an auto-win once you get them
Despite all of this the combat is engaging. It’s not my style, but if you don’t mind the puzzly vibe then there are many close battles that come down to the last few actions. I wish there were more enemy types, the small roster got stale long before the end. I guess maybe the puzzly element actually saves this one aspect of the game from also falling into tedium. You do have to put thought into most fights, although with the generous death conditions the only punishment for failure is having to do it again. So it’s decent, and there’s a ton of it, but it could have been so much more. The ingredients are all there, they’re just mixed so oddly that you’re left confused and unsure if you like what you just tasted.
Why the snark?
Because the game made me mad. It’s extremely disrespectful of the player’s time. Even well written RPG’s like Baldur’s Gate usually give you a dialogue option that amounts to “I don’t want to hear any exposition, just move it along”. They don’t force you to read their text if you don’t want to. Ashes has particularly bad text and uses game mechanics to force you to read vast amounts of it. When reaching a village, it hides the option that lets you continue the journey until you exhaust six other conversations. Clicking on what should be conversation ending dialogue choices just clumsily transitions to another five pages of text as the person you’re speaking to blurts out line after line while you try to extricate yourself.
It also has terrible balance. Of your three parties, two have characters so overpowered that they render everyone else boring and useless. The remaining party is the most mundane and therefore the most tactically interesting. But even that party suffered from imbalance and I finished the last half exclusively using two fighters and two archers and ignoring the interesting party members because of the weird turn order issue.
What about the grandiose claims?
The game’s steam page talks a lot about novel rogue-like storytelling elements. I probably should have explored what they’re talking about exactly but in my full playthrough I didn’t run into any sort of branching or reaction I thought was noteworthy. I only lost two characters so maybe I didn’t experience enough loss to see the mechanic in action. But both of those loses were pure bullshit, arbitrary and outside my influence, so I didn’t feel like playing around with further death on purpose. Maybe there’s something exciting happening under the hood that I didn’t notice. You’ll have to read a lot more awful text a lot more carefully than I did to know.
There are also separate survival elements for each party. One has to use “strixes” to ward off an illness. It’s sort of neat but ends up working just like food in any other game and is quite easy to maintain after the first little bit. The other has to choose between speeding along the world ending event and succumbing to a weakening curse. But that character is so overpowered anyway that I never really noticed his weakness, even at the end of the game when he was 68% cursed.
Should you buy it?
As general advice, no. Way, way too much rubbish to get to semi-tasty but puzzly (and downright copycatting) combat. The gorgeous drawings and perfect soundtrack just aren’t enough to sustain, especially with the lack of enemy types. My interest would have lasted longer if I got to see come cool new animations throughout but it all becomes repetitive long before the end. But I guess if you like the schlocky writing and don’t mind puzzly combat then there’s massive amounts of content here. I blew through the fastest possible route, ignoring many possible side-jaunts. And it took 10 hours before I had the first CYOA repeat which shows just how much writing has been done.
Regardless of how I feel about the game, the intro is definitely worth a viewing.
Available from Steam