Editor's Note: 11/30/10
Ash is now on version 1.25, and several of the issues documented in the review have been addressed by the developer. The early-game difficulty has been scaled back a little, especially in the first dungeon. Also, instead of navigating by pointing, the player has the option to use a D-pad and an action (A) button to interact with the environment. While the first fix is excellent, the second is actually a bit of a downer for me, as I enjoyed the functionality of having a touch-screen optimized overworld. C'est la vie.
There are still a few bugs and kinks to be worked out, though. Given the developer's willingness to take constructive feedback from the players and make adjustments to the game very quickly, it certainly bodes well not just for this release, but for those in the future.
Make no mistake, there's currently a trend in role-playing games to go retro. Whether it's publishers re-releasing old school games on new systems, or the games like ClaDun and 3D Dot Heroes that try to give us old-school gameplay experiences as well as a wink and nod to the games of the past, the truth is that everything old is new again. And out of this retro aesthetic has come one of the best examples of how to take a great idea from old-school gaming and build something enjoyable: Ash.
Where Ash tries to set itself apart from other games of its ilk is through story, and largely, this is where the game is most successful. From the first scene in the game it is completely evident as to what the tone of this game is going to be. Ash is a serious and dramatic take on the traditional JRPG.
I'd like to talk more about the first scene, as it really did an excellent job of setting the stage and made a great first impression. Given the limitations of an indie-developed game with little to no graphical budget, it succeeded admirably. And the piano music, while simple, sets the tone perfectly. Instead of providing the player with boxes of exposition text or dialogue, the player is given an unattributed quote, and then is allowed to see events unfold to the disarmingly well-done music. No formal introductions to the characters or descriptions, the player is just left to see a terrible scene of betrayal unfold.
Jolted to five years later, two of the men from the earlier scene, Nicholas and Damien, return from a simple mercenary job. From their initial bickering over taking another job from the same client to the way their story unfolds over the course of the game, the relationship between these two men (and the events that molded them into their current selves) is the true driving force of the game. Moreso than gameplay or graphics or feel-good retro nostalgia, the story of these two men and their world is always at focus. And with the strong plot, characters, and a fairly well-developed setting it is definitely a cut above most video game stories, JRPG or otherwise.
Gameplay is exactly as you might expect if you were weaned on games such as Final Fantasy IV and VI. As Nick, Damien, and others, you wander about a large overhead world map, stopping in at dungeons and towns and encountering random monsters. When entering said random encounters, the player is thrown into a straight-ahead battle sequence a la Dragon Quest. The turn-based combat is familiar to fans of most any JRPG, with basic attacks, items, and special skills unique to each of the characters. One small difference seems to be that combat relies quite a bit on random number generation. Where in some games your characters' stats determine exactly how much damage they do to a certain type of enemy, in Ash damage given and received fluctuates highly from attack to attack. It makes for some very unpredictable combat at times, which can be a drag or a bonus, depending on your view.
As I explored the relationship between the party characters and the fates that befall them, I grew to very much enjoy the simple sprite-sized protagonists. The story is less about the traditional "save-the-world-you-chosen-one!" arc, and more about the personal crises of vengeance, family ties, and loss. As strong as the story and characters are, by the end of the game you may feel that there is a lack of closure. While obviously SRRN leaves a cliffhanger for the all-but-assured follow-up, it would've been nice to see the immediate story brought to a more satisfying close, or at least been marketed as "Ash: Part One."
There is one important gameplay issue that, in my opinion, had all the makings of a critical flaw until I managed to get past it: to succeed in Ash you must grind, at least a little. Not only must you grind in areas where you can heal yourself, but it also pays to be very careful where you step on the world map. At a relatively early part of the game, I wandered about looking for my next location on the world map, and wandered into an area where I hit a tower. Thinking it was my next location, I saved before entering. Eventually, I had to wander back the way I came, but with no place to heal and my under-leveled characters being worn down on HP, I continually died trying to get back to a town, until eventually getting lucky and breaking through. If it had lasted any longer, I felt as if I would have been stuck starting a new game, which wouldn't have been fun.
While the difficulty eases up near the end of the game, if you don't take time to grind your levels up as the game goes on, you will die several times over, especially early on. Boss battles remain difficult throughout the game, but as you get closer to the end, well-placed leveling will ensure smooth sailing.
One of the most important gameplay aspects to keep in mind, here, is that it was designed for the iOS. Because of that, the interface is much more natural than that of many games ported over from other systems. If you want to walk in a direction, point in that direction. If you want to equip a piece of armor, drag it onto the character's armor slot. If you want to attack a monster, tap on it. If you get a phone call, the game saves your place until you come back. In most cases, this simple design aesthetic makes Ash responsive and easy to play. An almost unavoidable issue, however, is that the touch-to-move interface is still limited when you play on the iPhone or iPod Touch. Your hand will get in the way of your view of the screen. It is unavoidable, but it can be a far sight better than using an unresponsive virtual D-pad as in some other iOS games.
It is important to talk about graphics in this game, especially because it is a retro-styled traditional RPG. Just because a game is modeled after old-school NES/SNES JRPGs doesn't give you carte blanche to chuck pixels around lazily. Fortunately, Ash takes its graphics seriously. While the game certainly could have benefited from truly original graphics (as it appears licensed graphics were used), the developers were smart enough to use good-quality character portraits, sprites that are distinctive and colorful, and good variety throughout. In addition, the menus, fonts, and icons all are distinctive and add to the feel of the game, with one obvious exception.
While it's a minor gripe, and something that really should not be harped on too much, there is a point late in the game where one of the characters learns a new skill, and the icon for the new skill is a modern celebrity's face, meant as a joke. Now, while I understand that this game goes for small bits of humor in order to break from and enhance the tension of the overarching story, to me this seems wildly out of character and screams "bush league." There's really just no excuse for it. Why spend all the effort to craft a detailed, involved world only to pull someone out of it for a one-note joke?
While there is the occasional misstep with the graphics and programming, there are none when it comes to the sound in this game. To put it simply, the score is just about perfect for a game like this. The game's composer deserves a resounding pat on the back; music cues are tremendous, and obviously a great deal of work went into the composition. While there isn't a tremendous breadth of musical tracks, the town theme, battle theme, and sound effects all do their job well and are buoyed by some very strong musical pieces in other parts of the game.
There are other little things that make the game enjoyable, for example the ability to rewind your current character conversation in case you accidentally tap forward too quickly, or the interesting way that Nick and Damien use special abilities without there being "magic" in the setting when the game opens. These little touches certainly add to the flavor of the game, and serve to set it apart from others like it. At the same time, there were other little things that tended to detract. One issue was that the game was still a bit buggy, at least in my review copy; characters did not necessarily use the full amount of SP to use skills; there was a chest that inexplicably couldn't be opened; and on one occasion, if the party enters one house, they will leave from another. All of these are growing pains associated with the first major release from a small developer, but one wonders why some of these more glaring bugs could not have been caught prior to release.
While there's no shortage of RPG ports and conversions, and no shortage of RPGMaker and RPGMaker-esque indie RPGs, I think that Ash brings something worthwhile and unique to the party. Ash stands near or at the head of the class in iOS RPGs at this point, and if you're a fan of games such as Final Fantasy IV and have an iOS device, you're probably not going to want to miss this game.