Developer: Nameless XIII
Publisher: Dear Villagers, 24 Entertainment
Genre(s): Adventure, Indie, Survival
Age Rating: Mature
Release Date: 15/4/2021
A code was provided for review purposes
Ashwalkers feels like several games in one, incorporating various unique gameplay elements pulled from the survival and choose-your-own-adventure genres. But where this may seem like cause for concern, it expertly brings them together to create a special experience unlike anything else. My time with Ashwalkers was brief, but enough to leave a lasting impression that has me yearning to go back and play it all again.
Ashes to Ashes
Ashwalkers is set in a post-apocalyptic world destroyed by a large scale natural disaster, where humans were forced to retreat into giant domes to survive extinction. The story focuses on a squad of four scouts, tasked with finding the legendary “Dome of Domes” so that the populace of their dome can relocate before their home is destroyed. The journey the squad embark on is long and arduous, as they must battle the elements with limited resources and use their strength and wits to survive the dangers of an unforgiving wasteland.
The game is very much a story-driven experience, with an emphasis on world-building and player choice. While it lacks any form of voice acting, the story is told through text and sketches, making your quest of a thousand paces feel like a tale pulled straight out of a storybook. The narrative is fairly linear, with a clear goal set in stone which means that in every playthrough you’ll go through the same events in the same areas, despite the legroom for variation. Even though the linear narrative focusses solely on what happens on your journey as it happens, players intrigued by the game’s bleak post-apocalyptic setting will be able to find notes and clues on their travels that reveal more about the world, its people, and the events leading up to the game’s story.
As someone who appreciates good storytelling, I found the games strong narrative focus to be one of its biggest strengths. It creatively spins a fascinating tale through its compelling writing and subtle world-building, making for an enchanting narrative adventure that will have you invested from start to finish.
Despite the linearity of the game’s level design, Ashwalkers is very much oriented around player-choice and decision making. Every one of your squad members has their own unique skillsets and personalities that play a big role in shaping the outcome of their journey. While you’ll be spending most of your time marching across the barren wasteland, you’ll frequently engage in various story events that have their own unique outcomes that may also impact the larger narrative.
In one instance, I came across a young nomad being surrounded by vicious vultures, and in choosing to save the young fellow, I later gained favour with his local tribe. This allowed me to carry on the next step of my journey without any danger thanks to the help I received from the thankful nomads. I was extremely impressed by how much my choices and actions influenced the story and the fact it was tailored around those choices made the experience feel that much more personal.
The level of narrative flexibility means that Ashwalkers can become anything you make it despite its limitations. My first playthrough saw me focus my squad’s efforts on building relationships and favouring diplomatic solutions over violence. This resulted in a playthrough that was full of hope and inspiration, even when at the brink of failure. Conversely, playing the game as hyperviolent sadists made the game feel like an intense action movie, featuring a mansion brawl that ended in a bloodbath, and a daring escape that saw the noble sacrifice of my captain.
Even when you finish a playthrough you are far from completion, as the game features not one, but 34 different endings for you to complete. This just goes to show how extensive the game’s storytelling is, and how significant your choices are. Something as small as a squad member dying in a fight or starving to death has as much impact on the decisions made during key events; that itself is something quite remarkable.
Ashwalkers is at its core is an extraordinary choose your own adventure game that’s as much a personal journey as it is a literal one. I became completely immersed in the tale I was telling, not just because of the choices I made, but because of how much those choices meant something in crafting a powerful narrative adventure. The result is an exceptional story-driven experience that will suck you into every hardship, interaction, and milestone, as you share in the joy of every small conversation and the heartbreak of the most significant loss.
Taking a Break
When it comes to Ashwalkers’ gameplay, there’s a neat simplicity to its base mechanics. Outside of the fact it’s very much a walking simulator, there is a relatively intricate survival management system that is a core part of the overall experience. While on your post-apocalyptic jaunt, you’ll be able to gather certain resources as they appear on your path. These include kindling, food, and medicine. You will need to be careful as you only have a certain amount of space to carry these items, so managing what resources you need over others is crucial. Like walking, picking up resources will also drain the energy levels of the squad member who picked it up. As such you’ll often have to rotate who is leading the group and subsequently, who’s doing the gathering. However, there will come a point where your survivors will need to rest, eat, and warm themselves up.
Inevitably, when your squad need a break, you can easily set up camp which opens up a variety of options. Firstly, you’ll need to add kindling to light the campfire, heating up your survivors and providing them with additional benefits. Once camp has been made you may also distribute resources as is required. So if someone is hungry, you give them some food, and if someone is injured, you give them some much needed first aid. Aside from dishing out resources, your squad may also carry out several tasks while camped. At some point, your squad will need to replenish their energy levels, so allocating members to rest will ensure they are ready to get back on their feet. At the same time, you may allocate someone to guard the camp, someone to explore for resources, and if you have two people doing nothing, you can have them chat.
Talking helps boost the morale level of each squad member partaking in the conversation and is important when it comes to decision making. Should a squad member lose all hope, the likelihood of success when it comes to their story options will decrease substantially, so keeping everyone in high spirits will definitely make your journey a little bit easier. Staying camped too long however will prove detrimental, as your fire dwindles and your squad becomes at greater risk of danger. So when it comes to camping, it pays to think ahead and analyse who needs what the most, and sometimes deciding who gets rest, and who must go without it.
The further into your journey you get, the tougher it will be to manage the survival of your squad. New areas will feature certain modifiers that further reduce the warmth of squad members, and sometimes even their energy levels. This results in the player having to more frequently set up camp, and thus make more concessions regarding resource allocation and the health of individual survivors. Therefore, gameplay strikes a good balance between challenge and ease, slowly increasing the intensity of its survival system the closer you get to completing your quest. Small intricate gameplay features and an easy to understand management system culminate into an engaging gameplay experience that not only provides a solid problem-solving challenge, but also has ramifications for the story should things go awry.
Sights for Sore Eyes, Sounds for Sore Ears
Ashwalkers would not be complete without its incredible art and sound design. The second I arrived at the game’s main menu, I could tell it had a ton of artistic merit. Graphically, the game isn’t all that demanding, favouring simplicity over next-gen appeal. Instead, it makes style its top priority in the visuals department. It blends 3D cell-shaded graphics with a grayscale filter to give its characters and the world a hand-drawn aesthetic; further promoting the idea that the game is a storybook come to life. I would be remiss not to appreciate the melancholic tranquillity of the game’s sombre take on a ruined Earth, heightened not only by its level of polish, detail, and artistic flair, but also its alluring soundtrack.
The music of Ashwalkers is beautifully composed, with harmonious instrumentals accompanying your every step. It elevates the feeling of desperation exuded by the game’s inauspicious world and setting, while also making the journey feel soothing and pleasant. Yet it is far more than a compilation of walking tracks, as it never fails to accurately convey the emotion and tone of a scene. In the most intense moments, the soundtrack picks up the pace and heightens the feeling of dread and danger; and in the bleakest of times, amplifies the overwhelming sorrow of losing a comrade to the elements.
Both aspects come together to make the game something truly beautiful, with a charmingly dreary art style and blissful soundtrack that contribute heavily to building the world of Ashwalkers and the emotions it’s trying to illicit.
Ashwalkers is unique in many ways, but above all else, it comes across as far more than a game. There is an immense level of care and detail poured into every aspect of this small title, with some of the most impressive visual and audio design I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. But where it shines is the remarkable world it has created and the wonderful experience it offers players, making for a triumphantly tragic tale that is well worth your time.
Rapid Reviews Rating
4.5 out of 5
You can purchase Ashwalkers now on Steam right here
You can find and read our reviews on OpenCritic.