Ashen Empires by Pixel Mine is a cute game with plenty to offer. I say cute simply because it runs in a tiny window, with tiny icons, and it's so adorable you just want to pinch its little pixels to death!... ahem. If you've played Ultima Online, you'll know what I am talking about. I was excited to see the option to run the game at a higher resolution, only to be disappointed when finding that the increased size was only for the black space surrounding the main game window. Luckily, I was able to move all the extra UI elements into this area. D'aaaw! Adorable!
I suppose that the game is meant to reflect an "older" time, or perhaps it was literally made during those older times, but I'm not sure I care. I've seen handfuls of games that are "Ultima Online-like" and frankly, they were not that impressive from the beginning. I have to say, though, that with a game like Ashen Empires, the surprises are well-hidden, and despite real-life migraines and technical issues (the older PC might be having death fits) that cut into my playtime, I stumbled across several of these surprises.
Click past the cut and I'll tell you all about it.
You start the game out on a newbie island, quite literally. The main issue with the game is that there is no quest-tracker, so you simply have to write everything down. Of course this is a step or two away from the old-school Ultima -- back in the day we didn't have quests in that game at all, other than requests to escort hapless citizens to some far away destination (and then murder them in the woods). Still, why any designer -- indie or not -- would think that having no quest-tracker in a game is a good idea makes no sense to me. Yes, I'm all for immersion and play that makes you work for your rewards, but why not have NPCs that give you detailed instructions on where to go and what to kill? Saying "Go see X, he's at X" and then continuing to stand there blankly is not realistic at all. That doesn't help with immersion.
Unfortunately I found out about the "you better write quests down" thing after stumbling across in on the forums. I snagged a Post-it pad and wrote down every quest I took. I sort of enjoyed it, actually, as it related to how I play under my Immersion Rules. Still, finding simple NPCs is not that simple. The newbie island isn't as large as it is confusing, and with no instructions at all (except on the website), I eventually gave up on finding my target.
Fighting is pretty basic, but I enjoy the style. You press Q to go into "combat mode" and then choose your target. Archery was fun, and it was once again super-cute to see tiny little arrows PWING! into their targets. Looting was standard, and I even took some time to learn how to make my own arrows so I didn't have to hunt down the NPC that typically sells them. In fact, everything worked pretty much how you would expect it to if you'd played Ultima Online or other older-style games. If not, you might be confused because the game provides hardly any in-game documentation on how to do things. Yes, there is an NPC to explain it, and yes the website provides information, but again the question is: How do you memorize everything? If you don't write much of it down (and you won't because you aren't warned to), then you will not remember whom you talked to in the first place and you'll forget all of it.
Maybe I'm just old. Perhaps I have just seen one too many games. As I mentioned before, I did not get nearly as much time in the game as I wanted, either. I had planned blocks of time to dedicate to it, and some just fell through, so I must note that in this record. Still, I just don't buy the reasoning behind the lack of certain, basic instruction in almost any game. I would only buy it if the game were so intuitive that there was no need for it. Ashen Empires is not that intuitive.
In the end I did have a good time, though. I started to make some headway, and learning how to make my own arrows saved my sanity. I discovered waves of goblins that murdered me a few times, I found out how to fish, and then I read about the killer-looking boats that I might one day get. Why not feature a boat ride early on in the game? Why do many developers avoid giving players even a mild taste of what's to come? Again, I might be just getting old, but explain to me again why I would want to do the boring bits first? Am I supposed to want to "work hard" to achieve these wonderful things that I could only read about up until that point?
Anyway, Ashen Empires is perfect for a laptop jaunt or for a group of friends who want to try something new. Jump in, figure things out, and kill some goblins. I plan on keeping it around simply because I want to get further for a possible future recap. While the game did its part to confuse and bore me, it needs to be given more time for a fair shake-down. In fact, my screenshots were so bland that I decided to just borrow some from the main website. At least you'll get a better look at what might be possible in the game.
Next week I am going to play it really safe and look at a game that is neither indie nor free-to-play. Forgive me, but I need a nice week of destroying stuff. Join me in PlanetSide -- my character's name is Beauhindman.
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Each week, Rise and Shiny asks you to download and try a different free-to-play, indie or unusual game, chosen by me, Beau Hindman. I welcome any suggestions for games -- drop me a note in the comments or email! You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Raptr!