by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
If Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road had a baby, and if that baby decided to be a video game instead of a novel, that baby would look a lot like Ashwalkers, a new narrative survival game by developer Nameless XIII. In the future, human civilization has largely collapsed, leaving isolated pods of survivors to live off the post-apocalyptic leftovers of our planet. One such bastion has found itself in particularly dire straits, and it’s in the hands of the playable four-person squad to walk through the ashy (and fiery, and snowy, and sandy, and...) lands outside of former safety to find The Dome of Domes, a fabled safe haven that may or may not even exist.
Above gameplay, above graphics and even above story, Ashwalkers is totally committed to making the player *feel*, even if that sometimes comes at the expense of what might have been more *fun*. It’s amazing how quickly I found myself “bought into” the world of the game, caring about the characters and feeling a palpable sense of yearning and emptiness that even much longer post-apocalyptic games can fail to elicit. Every facet of the game plays its part, most immediately including the washed out, well...ashy look. Grayscale visuals aren’t particularly rare in gaming, but the effect is used especially well here, shrouding what may have been more mundane things in a sense of mystery. The bits of color that are present, most notably bright-red blood, stand out and add contrast. Also interesting is the way that any living things besides the player party are filtered with wavy, inky blackness, even if it doesn’t quite feel as right during the game’s more hopeful moments.
The simplest survival
The actual gameplay loop in Ashwalkers isn’t quite what I expected. Instead of open areas, the game is made up of a series of mostly-linear paths dotted with encounters and resources. Though they all maintain the same general visual feel, environments ranging from deserts to
mountains to underground mines all carry with them various balances between the major threats - temperature, food, energy, and health. Managing survival isn’t particularly challenging, and while those looking for a more hardcore experience may be disappointed, I appreciated that the environmental hazards were dangerous enough to matter but not so overbearing as to kill the momentum of the experience. There aren’t different kinds of food to worry about. There’s no crafting. There aren’t complex maps to struggle with. Different injuries don’t require different kinds of medical treatment. It’s straightforward, and, for the most part, it works well.
While I enjoyed the small management choices and action/dialogue decisions in each area, the actual walking around was actually my least favorite part of the game, which is a bummer for an experience centered on walking from point A to point B. As I mentioned before, each area is largely linear, which isn’t a problem in and of itself, but the characters move slow and resources like energy and heat drain fast. While it makes sense from a gameplay perspective, it’s not terribly exciting or thematic to camp, walk for about 50 yards over the course of a minute, camp again, walk for another minute, camp again.... etc. Some areas are better than others with this ,but the worst offenders, like the frigid mountain, were an absolute drag.
It doesn’t help that, even when walking longer distances without a break, there isn’t anything particularly enjoyable to do until a dialogue box pops up with options every so often. The main task is gathering resources, but there isn’t much more to that than walking to the clearly marked glowing tree/box/carcass/whatever and picking up what’s there. It’s a great example of mood taking too much control. These desolate, slow walks through melancholy vistas sure look good, but, to me, they came at the expense of what probably should have been more engaging stretches of gameplay. It actually makes me think that Ashwalkers might have been better as a point-and-click or text-based game. Since there isn’t really any decision making or challenge during the traverse itself. The game may have flowed better and played more to its strengths by taking these features out, focusing more on what it does better.
We are our choices
What Ashwalkers does better are the encounters and decisions, which also follow the survival elements’ lead of keeping things simple. Each of the four party members specialize in a certain approach to problems, and each will be responsible for a choice at each crossroads and conversation. The warrior Sinh, for example, usually advocates for blunt confrontation, while Kali will usually push for teamwork and diplomacy. The way the player balances their responses to problems and opportunities affects the path of the narrative (and the eventual ending, of which there are many). Punctuating this, the death of a teammate permanently removes their response types as an option, which adds some weight when party members do bite the dust.
Ashwalkers has it’s issues with pacing during some of its more severely-weathered environments, but, even so, it stands as an immensely moody survival-lite game that tells its story of desperation, loneliness, and even hope surprisingly well.
Palpable atmosphere, beautiful visual design, engaging-but-simple story, a difficulty level that lets the mood shine.
Walking can be dull, sometimes seems like it would be better in a different genre.