Ashwalkers: A Survival Journey Review

Posted on Apr 14, 2021.

Ashwalkers follows title-case, “The Squad”, as they journey across a post-apocalyptic world in search of The Dome of Domes: a safe shelter from the ash-filled atmosphere of the outside world. You split your time between exploring the not-so-great outdoors, juggling light resource management while camping, and deciding what kind of person you want to be. The latter is something the game prioritises, as it tracks the impact of your decisions at the end of each chapter. Were you trusting or mistrustful? Cautious, or daring? Whose guidance did you follow?

The context for some decisions are hard to come by. Ashwalkers is reluctant to tell you about its world, or the characters you’re controlling. Bits of lore you pick up are filed away in a codex, which you can only access outside of play, and the characters only speak with each other when you explicitly tell them to while camping–a maneuver that assumes you don’t need them for another task.

Even then, the snippets of conversation they do share are sparse. Sinh might have been a cobbler in another life. Nadir had been training for their role since birth. Much of the tensions in the world are long left unexplained and thus confusing. We only know the Squad as travellers in the outside world, but other people we meet outside are depicted as apparently other—as “savage”. It’s a struggle to get a sense of character from anybody, or to understand their place in this world.

TRUDGING THROUGH THE JOURNEY

Each member serves more as a tool, in as much the same way as you can use food, medicine and fuel to solve encounters. Each has an approach to problem-solving they favour, between strategy, diplomacy, aggression, and stealth. Should you lose a squad member, you no longer have access to their capabilities. I realised this in the worst—and best—way possible, having prioritised an approach best described as extreme pacificism: keeping to myself and politely de-escalating any encounters that may inadvertently occur. When I lost my stealthy, conflict-averse squadmate late in the game, it suddenly felt like the Squad lost its impulse control for the negotiations that followed—along with a pack full of medicine and fuel. This came at a deeply inconvenient moment, but it was the kind of fun-frustration that delights me in a strategy game. I may not have taken to any individual, but I realised how much the team depends on each other for balance and support. #Squadgoals

Much as it frustrated me, it was these elements I enjoyed best. When the game offers you a choice, it’s at its most engaging. Early on in the game, they’re rarely costly—resources are plentiful here so it isn’t hard to set a trap to scare off wildlife, or trade for safe passage. Instead they shape your approach for the rest of the game. It’s as much an opportunity to think strategically as it is to roleplay, and Ashwalkers is respectful enough not to simply punish you for caring, a bugbear of mine in post-apocalyptic media. At the same time, it’s interested in the ethical questions of its setting, and uses interesting tools such as these to explore that, carefully walking the line of being critical of cruelty and naivety both. The story avoids the overtly punishing cynicism of the genre, without pulling its punches. Yet it’s a shame these moments are smothered by the rest of the game.

MINUTE DIFFERENCES

Ashwalkers is clearly built for repeated replays, advertising 34 different endings (in reality, a small number of ‘main’ endings, with branching ending sequences). This is reflected in-game, with each ending having different names and icons that get stamped off on a final splash screen as you unlock them, like a loyalty punch card. With its short runtime of around two hours and mutually exclusive branching choices, it’s clear even during play that the game wants you to have as many different experiences as possible.

Yet this emphasis on endings comes at a cost. I played the game through twice, before exploring some of the additional endings using the custom game mode, which functionally works as a chapter select setting. As this doesn’t refer to chapters in your save, but the route itself, it’s awkward that the game acknowledges that parts are inherently skippable. Outside of the major choices, the reactivity that makes a replayable game stand out is very subtle. Having my diplomatic Squad be safely guided past the volcanic lake while my mistrustful one travelled perilously alone felt right–but I only noticed one because of the other.

ASH GREY AND BLEAK

What is there is flavourful, but the content in any one playthrough is thin on the ground. Most of the time, you are simply clicking to walk towards your next objective or resource to farm. While that might help immerse yourself in the atmosphere, the stylistic choice to pitch everything in shades of grey (with red UI elements) leaves many environments dull and difficult to read. Some scenes stand out; the glowing white lava cave accompanied by a rain shower of sparks is distinctly memorable for somewhere you merely spend moments in. Most of the time, however, everything blends together in the same middling shades of grey, foreground and background alike. The Squad only speak to comment on resources that run empty, so you spend a lot of time simply waiting for the next thing to happen. As resources and encounters alike run fewer and farther between in the end chapters, it becomes somewhat of a slog.

In a world drenched in ash after a volcanic cataclysm, the Squad’s long and treacherous journey may have dashed most of their hopes for survival, let alone of achieving their goal of finding a new home. Ashwalkers led me to identify with the arduousness of its quest–a sadly drab journey overly invested in its destination, with more interesting moments spread out like notable landmarks. This sparsity left me wanting for more to grapple with here and now, rather than the promise of unlocking it later. The latter, it seems, feels like a gambit that doesn’t pay off.