Ash II: Shadows

"It's not the best game in the world, but for the price, you aren't shooting yourself in the foot by picking it up, especially if you like retro RPGs."

Ash II: Shadows is the latest iOS offering from developer SRRN Games and serves as an episodic sequel to the previous title in the series. Following in the footsteps of a great many other mobile titles, Ash II is a throwback to the 16-bit RPGs of the SNES golden era, complete with traditional turn-based combat, super-deformed sprites, and an old-school world map to roam. The game does nothing particularly wrong – but by that token, it also doesn't do anything particularly well.

After the intro (which I found puzzling, having not played the first title), the game drops you right into the action, giving you control of returning hero Damien, as well as his companions Marcus and Yuka. The three heroes are on a mission to investigate the whereabouts of Nicolas, another hero from the original game, who may have fallen victim to the ravages of an evil force called the corruption. The banter between the characters is light-hearted and occasionally funny, but almost immediately after starting, one of the game's more distinctive quirks becomes apparent. The dialogue shifts wildly in tone, with characters talking in classic medieval-style dialect one minute and then telling each other "God, I hate your face," moments later. It isn't a game breaker, but it makes it significantly harder to take the game seriously when the protagonists bicker in internet-age lingo and shift gears entirely when "important" scenes happen.

The plot is workable and seems like it could get interesting in future chapters, and definitely picks up in the final hour. Unfortunately, between the purely reactionary characters that have seemingly inexplicable emotional outbursts which are forgotten by the next cutscene, the strange tonal shifts in the dialogue, and the abrupt ending of the first chapter, you won't find much satisfaction here. The game assumes familiarity with characters and events from the first Ash, and this left me scratching my head on numerous occasions. You can fill in the blanks for the most part, but I definitely wouldn't recommend starting the series here.

The game flow is identical to any number of other traditionally-styled RPGs. You'll roam around a village, get a mission to go plumb the depths of the nearby forest/ruins/evil tower, plumb said forest/ruins/evil tower, fight a boss, and move on to the next village. The progression is entirely linear, and the world is essentially laid out in such a way that little or no backtracking is ever necessary. This help keeps the pacing brisk, but also makes the proceedings feel rather sparse – there isn't a whole lot to examine in the environments, and optional caves on the world map are all laid out nearly identically and are nothing more than monster closets with a few treasure chests.

When it comes to combat, if you've played a turn-based RPG in the past twenty years, you can easily hop right back into the well-worn saddle here. Characters each have access to a normal attack, a wait command, and special attacks. There's a framework in place here that allows for strategic play. For example, Damien's skill that exposes an enemy's weak point and Marcus' follow-up that attacks that weak point and deals typically fatal damage, as well as good number of defensive and tactical skills. The problem here is that combat is ridiculously easy, and can usually be completed just by mashing on the enemies and never using a single skill. Even after skipping almost an entire dungeon's worth of combat and missing out on the experience points, I was still able to crush my foes without even looking at the screen. This could be chalked up to the fact that this is only the first chapter of the adventure, but I was able to defeat the final boss of the episode in one round with the above-mentioned Damien/Marcus combo.

The game offers two control options: a virtual D-pad and a 'touch to move/interact' mode. I spent about half my time using the virtual control pad and the other half using the touch controls, and found both to be adequate, given that the game doesn't require much precision outside of combat. Unfortunately, menus and combat are where the controls become a bit more frustrating. The equipment and data screens in particular were irritating: the buttons to save or load are tiny and spaced too close together, and I frequently ran into situations where I was almost loading when I meant to save. The equipment screen eventually fills up with tons of weapons, armor, and accessories in a list that utilizes a tiny font, making it very difficult to select the correct item. During combat, my skill selections were frequently canceled when trying to target enemies due to touchscreen sensitivity issues, and more often than not this just lead me to mash on the monsters to attack.

Graphically, Ash II looks like any number of other SNES-styled RPGs, skewing more towards Final Fantasy IV's tendency towards bright colors and simple designs. Character portraits are crisp and detailed, with a quasi-anime look to them. Monster sprites appear hand-drawn, but aren't particularly memorable or interesting – and despite the game's iTunes page declaring that you can battle hundreds of creatures, I don't believe I came across more than thirty total types, including palette swaps. On the other hand, this could be a claim SRRN is making about the complete game, and not just the first chapter.

The music is wildly divergent in quality. Early tracks in the game are technically sound but completely unmemorable. The best thing that can be said about the battle theme, which you'll hear quite often, is that it is inoffensive. However, the final few areas and cutscenes move more towards somber, affecting piano and melancholy field tracks that hit much harder and really go a long way towards making the end of the game a bit more unique. The combat theme accompanying the last real boss fight is excellent, and I hope to hear it utilized more frequently in future chapters.

When buying the game, you have the option of picking up the cheaper "silver" edition, which runs $2.99 USD and nets you the first chapter, chapter two free when it releases, and half off of future chapters. The gold version will set you back $4.99 USD and includes chapter one, as well as all future chapters for free. The developer has stated that new chapters will be released at a steady clip, each a few weeks apart from one another. However, players should be aware that even though chapter one was released in January, chapter two was released only a few days ago, so be aware that there could be some delays in receiving future updates.

There's nothing special about Ash II. It has no glaring flaws – just a few foibles that are somewhat annoying – but by that same token, there is nothing really special about it, either. The assumption that you've played the first game in the series to completion is definitely a barrier to entry, but with both games being featured at reasonable prices on the iTunes Store and Google Play Store, that shouldn't be too much of a deterrent. It's not the best game in the world, but for the price, you aren't shooting yourself in the foot by picking it up, especially if you like classic RPGs.

© 2012 Konami, SRRN Games. All rights reserved.