The ominous toll of the bell sounds out across the world: a veritable death knell for all of humanity. A tall, menacing, corpse-like creature suddenly appears out of thin air and draws a mystic sigil on the gate. The townsfolk clutch at their throats as pain shoots through them like a fiery noose around their necks. They turn on each other, family and friends tearing each other apart in a wild frenzy. The creature smiles: the time of the Reaping has begun. Not all are afflicted, however, as ex-captain of the Royal Guard Thorn Brenin makes a dramatic escape with his daughter at his side. This sets the tone for the rest of the epic known as Ash of Gods: Redemption, a turn-based tactical RPG by studio Aurum Dust.
Let’s start off by addressing the elephant in the room. Yes, Ash of Gods is heavily reminiscent of studio Stoic’s Banner Saga games. From the style of the gameplay; the art direction, the choice & consequence mechanics, and even similar character designs, it all brings to mind the critically-acclaimed Banner Saga series. When I first saw it, I could have sworn it was made by the same people. After a little bit of searching, it turns out that it wasn’t. Aurum Dust is run by completely different people. When Aurum Dust started off the Kickstarter for Ash of Gods, they were very clear about the fact that they were heavily inspired by Banner Saga. The co-owners of Stoic even encouraged them by backing and commenting on the Kickstarter page, leading Aurum Dust to include a special little easter egg in the game that I won’t spoil here. I’ve seen a few people complaining about the similarities online, but hey, they say imitation is the highest form of flattery and if both parties concerned have no issues with it, then neither do I.
Now Banner Saga aside, the art direction for Ash of Gods was inspired by vintage cartoons from people like Ralph Bakshi (the Lord of the Rings animation from the 70’s) and even more interestingly, SoyuzMultFilm movies from the 60’s era. It’s a great look, the smooth flow of the combat animations make it a real eye pleaser. While the in-game animations are wonderful, there are a few cutscenes to be seen at important moments and I feel like they can look a little bit crude in comparison. Considering the inspirations, though, it could be possible that they intended it to be this way. The game isn’t just nice to look at, but it sounds great as well, thanks to a group of awesome Polish musicians who worked on games like the Witcher and Shadow Warrior series. The soundtrack was created using a bunch of traditional string and percussion instruments mostly used in European folk music. My favorite tracks include some haunting vocals, which I assume is either Russian or Polish (I don’t speak either, sooo I’m not 100% sure) I always get a kick out of them whenever they pop up!
The story is all over the place. At first, I was enjoying it, but as the game plods on you start to notice the uneven quality of the dialog and the story manages to progress while not really going anywhere at all. I blame the pacing in part due to the fact that the narrative is split between three protagonists. First there is Hopper Rouley. He is a member of some sort of immortal race and has been alive for centuries. He and a group of twelve others sacrificed themselves to stop the previous Reaping but he was unable to complete the ceremony after being wounded, so he survived and has regretted it ever since. Next up is Thorn Brenin. He is your typical storied ex-soldier, retired and now living a humble life with his family. Once the Reaping begins he finds himself traveling from Mehnir (a big sacred stone known for its healing properties) to Menhir in hopes of curing his daughter. The Mehnirs are actually cursed and stop working during the time of the Reaping but that doesn’t stop him from traveling across the country to search them out. The third and final is my favorite. Lo Pheng is an Eikon from the Shadow Clan. He is basically a mystical warrior of legendary renown who hires himself out to the highest bidder. Once the reapers show up, however, all oaths are broken and he must return to his clan to fight the Reapers. He runs into a group of woman slaves who, for the most part, were sex servants in some form or another. They break free and decide to follow him, so Lo Pheng pretty much runs around the whole time with a harem. Classy stuff. While the story is a bit of a jumble and the dialog can be cringe-worthy in places, I genuinely enjoyed the concept of the story, alongside some really interesting characters.
A lot of familiar gameplay mechanics are at play here, if you’ll pardon the pun. After choosing the direction you want to travel in on the world map, days pass by and your strixes are consumed. You will need to keep a steady supply of them by finding or purchasing them throughout the game because once they run out; it’s The Big Sleep for your party. But don’t worry: there are plenty other ways to lose your party members. Decisions you make can have lasting consequences, they can even lead to the maiming and/or deaths of your closest companions. When a person falls in battle (or gets injured during a dialog choice) they gain an injury mark next to their portrait. Each mark lowers that character’s stats: four marks leads to permanent death. Luckily you can choose to rest at the camp menu but this costs you time and strixes. As if that weren’t enough to contend with, you also have to worry about morale and curse power. Morale is a straightforward concept. Low morale negatively affects your party while high morale provides bonuses (plus it makes you feel great about yourself). Curse power is unique to Hopper only. There is a number on the corner of the world map that denotes the current strength of the Reaping. Generally speaking, the higher the number the harder the game is. As Hopper travels around the world map, he will occasionally be given a choice to either succumb to the curse and stop the Reaping from becoming stronger, or refuse to give in to the curse, which increases the Reaping level but keeps the curse power meter from rising. The higher the curse power, the lower Hopper’s stats are. So you can either keep Hopper strong and healthy or you can let the world burn. Choices, choices.
The battles themselves are excellent. When you first start a new game you are offered two difficulty options: Classic Mode and Story Mode. I spent time playing both modes. Story Mode is incredibly accessible for people who aren’t very good at or are not used to tactical RPGs. Your characters are more powerful, you get more resources, and you even get an auto-battle function so you can just sit back and watch the fights unfold. It was so easy that I felt like I was cheating. Classic Mode is the way the game was meant to be played. The difficulty encourages you to strategize and make better tactical decisions or else risk failure. It also requires more resource management. Ash of Gods even features card game elements. During your adventure, you will come across magical plaques that can be equipped for use during battle. You can only use each card once per battle and their effects range from dealing direct damage to an enemy and providing a slew of boons to your party. You can’t simply use them whenever you want, though. Each card has a number attached to it which determines the numbered round that it can be used in. This is an essential asset in Classic Mode, but I found them completely unnecessary in Story Mode.
So, I have a bit of a conundrum here. Ash of Gods looks great, it has a solid soundtrack, and the battles are challenging and enjoyable. The story and dialog, however, are a mixed bag. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal if it were any other genre, but I’d say most gamers are usually looking for a great story when jumping into a roleplaying game. So I would have to say that if you’re the kind of person who is looking for satisfying strategic battles and a passable storyline, then snatch it up. If you’re in it solely for the story, it can be a hit or miss so tread carefully.
*Note: A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final SCore: 7.5/10
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