Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has stuck with me for years. I was always hoping to find a video game to recapture that same feeling of bleak hopelessness. Ashwalkers really gives off that vibe, and has some pretty promising credentials. Developed by Nameless XIII, which is the new studio of Dontnod co-founder Hervé Bonin. Since Dontnod is known for the Life is Strange series, I was hoping some of that good writing and the interesting (and difficult) character choices would make it over to Ashwalkers. While Ashwalkers has some great writing and hard choices, the experience has left me wanting in a number of ways.
Ashwalkers is survival adventure game set in an earth that suffered a geological disaster. Most of the earth is now an inhospitable wasteland, and those creatures and humans that have survived on the surface have eked out tough, miserable lives for themselves. Your squad, however, are scouts from a shelter containing 200,000 people called The Citadel. The Citadel’s atmosphere processer is failing, so you’re tasked with finding a new home, which you hope to find in the “Dome of Domes.” You have to brave the ash covered wastelands, making hard choices on your way to finding a new home for your people—or death.
Making choices is what Ashwalkers is about. You walk the wastes, making choices about what supplies to use, and how to handle the various encounters along its branching paths. You play as a squad of four. It consists of Petra, Sinh, Kali, and Nadir. Each has their own specialization that may come in handy during certain encounters. Death is possible, and is permanent for each playthrough. To avoid it, you have to make smart decisions to juggle your party’s health, both mentally and physically. Each one requires warmth, sleep, food and hope—with the latter effecting the character’s state of mind. Most of these stats can be managed while camping, which is one of Ashwalkers’ three main ways of interacting with its world. The other two are walking, and resolving events.
Most of what you do in Ashwalkers is walking from event to event, and camping in-between. Events are interesting, well-written, and can range from anything from tense encounters with savage humans to encountering relics from the past. There is always an amount of danger involved when engaging in these events, and they may require you to sacrifice supplies or engage in combat. It’s possible to resolve encounters diplomatically, but if you want to start fights, you can go ahead. Of course, none of this is depicted graphically—instead it’s resolved through texts. Even the NPCs you encounter are represented by shadows instead of fleshed-out character models. It’s all very compelling, but it’s hampered by one major drawback: its walking mechanic.
Moving from event to event is represented by your squad members literally walking to events and resource gathering nodes. As you walk, your squad’s hunger increases, energy drains, etc. If you encounter a resource to gather, you must select a squad member and expend energy to gather it. All of this is implemented well enough, but the fact that you have to slow walk to each location is a bit of a bummer. The game’s store page shows gifs of the characters running, but I haven’t discovered a way to make that happen. Their walk is supposed to be a stylized representation of their travelling long distances, but it’s a painfully slow, visually uninteresting mess. I would care less if Ashwalkers was good to look at, but it’s a little ugly. It comes so close to nailing a black and white, sort of noir Borderlands aesthetic, but this rarely manifests in a game that’s interesting to look at.
Some of the allure of Ashwalkers is in its different choices, and how they affect the story. While Ashwalkers does have a branching story, it meets at a few main story points. These main story points don’t change. I would have appreciated a little more variety and randomness—something that would have benefitted subsequent playthroughs. Instead, it feels like I’m playing the same game over and over, just changing one or two small things to see a slightly different outcome. There may be 34 different endings, but it would be a tedious trek to see them all. It’s just a matter of slow walking through the motions—literally.
Perhaps my biggest complaint about Ashwalkers is its difficulty level. I don’t require a game to be extremely difficult, but Ashwalkers rarely tripped me up. There were times when I felt like I was in dire straits, but it took me making deliberately bad decisions to get my squad into trouble. At first I thought I was extraordinarily lucky, but after a half dozen runs or so, I haven’t had one I’ve failed without throwing a monkey wrench in myself. I would have liked to have more customization in regards to difficulty level, but that doesn’t seem to be an option. That’s too bad, because it would have helped entice me into a few more playthroughs, especially because it has some pretty good writing and compelling lore.
There is a substantial amount of lore to be uncovered in Ashwalkers. While it’s encountered in the game, it’s catalogued in a handy encyclopedia that keeps every tidbit in a easy to reference format. I always appreciate when games do this, but for Ashwalkers, it feels almost like an essential look at its story. The more you play the game, the more the story is revealed, like peeling away layers of an onion.
Ashwalkers is a mostly static experience, but it has a branching story and interesting dialogue that almost begs you to check down other paths. Unfortunately, the game gets in its own way with a painfully slow movement speed. And I expected a game about surviving in a brutal wasteland to be extremely challenging, it’s only moderately challenging. I’m not a glutton for punishment, but this is the first game of this type I’ve played and thought, “well, that was easy” after succeeding in my first run. As far as bleak survival experiences go, Ashwalkers looks the part, but it rarely feels desperate.
Ashwalkers is available today on Steam.
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