Review: Ash of Gods: Redemption
Review copy provided by developer
I love new twists on well-worn concepts, and turn-based RPGs are certainly one place where innovation is rewarded. Every giant of the genre has had elements that set it apart from the pack in one way or another, and Ash of Gods certainly adds a few in an effort to stand tall as well. The familiar grid-based combat is given new interactions between resources, the RPG wrapper gains time and resource management, and even the story takes bold new approaches in weaving a complex tale. It’s a shame that every one of these elements bears some flaw that could give players pause, but the ambitious whole remains one that deserves your time and attention.
The Reaping has come to the land of Terminum, a periodic genocide heralded by the appearance of nigh-immortals who can kill with their mere presence. It could hardly come at a worse time, with tensions between the fractured kingdoms at a new high. As villages begin to fall and madness begins to spread, the lives of those touched by the reaping converge on a tale of blood and tragedy. The story winds between many perspectives, from the long-lived scholar Hopper Rouley to the hardened survivor Thorn Brenin and his cursed daughter to the solemn killer Lo Pheng and on to dozens more. Each perspective sheds new light on the unique world they inhabit, and the terrible force aiming to destroy it.
Opening your story with the threat of impending annihilation is a bold move, and Ash of Gods absolutely rolls with it. This is pitch-black fantasy, where the simplest choice can mean death for a long-standing companion. The mechanics of the Reaping itself are pretty grim themselves, spreading black tumors on the necks of the doomed, turning healing stones into life-draining traps, and cursing entire towns with madness through ever-ringing bells. Every leg of your travels will be soaked in blood, and every choice can easily cripple you if you trust the wrong beggar or offend the wrong witch.
Outside of battles you control your different parties by directing their paths on the world map. The story always leads them to a particular destination but the routes there can differ, and put you in the path of different hazards. These usually end up being text encounters, offering you a litany of approaches to even the simplest event. Meeting a mad fortune teller in the road, you can ask her for your fortune, ask her to tell a companion’s fortune, avoid her, turn back, or outright trample her. Sometimes these trigger battles, other times they can hit you with permanent boons or curses.
The parties you control also have their own considerations as they travel. Thorn’s group, for example, uses jewels called strixes to stave off the Reaping’s curse. They burn out over time so you’ll need to buy or find more to stay alive, and this can affect the paths you take through the wilderness. Hopper needs no strixes but must make several choices between weakening himself to stay the curse, or letting it grow and making the overall journey more difficult. Your resources must be managed as units that fall in battle gain wounds that can lead to permanent death, and can usually only be cured by burning strixes to rest for a day. Strixes can be bought with gold, which is also used to buy items, spells, and unlock additional story options.
Honestly you’ll be spending the majority of your time with the story, listening to detailed scenes between characters, hearing about the history and cosmology of the world, and mulling over serious choices. It’s a compelling tale with plenty of twists and turns, and the characters come alive through their dialogs and intricate portraits. But I’d be lying if I said the writing didn’t hold it back, or perhaps it would be more fair to point to the localization. The writing clearly has a great deal of effort put into it but is consistently marred by strange word choices and seemingly out-of-character moments. They read more like concepts that didn’t fully carry over in the localization process than weaknesses in the actual writing, but the end effect of distancing you from the characters remains the same.
It’s not just a tonal problem but a mechanical one, as well. The unusual word choices can sometimes make your dialog options unclear, and I’ve had more than one instance where I offended someone with a line that seemed utterly benign to me. It can be hard to read the relationships between characters at times, as the writing tries to work in layers of feigned emotion or deception but because the text itself is so unreliable it’ll take you far too long to understand the actual connection. Sometimes it even seems like this weakness was understood and planned for by the developers, as nearly every bit of speech is prefaced with a parenthetical that ham-fistedly states the intonation of the lines being said.
There’s no denying the effort put into the story though, and a similar degree of effort is found in the battle system. Ash of Gods borrows the Banner Saga system (which I haven’t played so I can’t comment on too much) wherein both sides of a conflict take turns acting with one of their units. This back and forth is constant even if one side only has one unit, mind you, so numerical superiority is often to no advantage. In fact, there are a few battles that make the most of this to illustrate the skill of your character, pitting your one fighter against an entire squad of foes. Still, it requires a different approach to combat than you might be thinking if you’re coming here by way of… any other tactical RPG, really.
Even more unique are the unit resources, health and energy, and their interactions. Both health and energy are used to power skills, with health usually expended for big attacks and energy used for buffs or magical effects. This makes for some risky plays where you burn half your health to one-shot a key enemy, or spend time whittling down energy reserves to cut off your opponents options. Once someone is out of energy, any further energy damage does double that to their health, so that’s also an option for taking down units with high health. Skills tend to have multiple effects and everyone has passives that provide significant boosts when they get hit or kill someone or just take a turn, so there’s a huge amount of complexity to the system that you’ll need to keep up with.
Is it a good battle system, though? Even without fully comprehending all the interactions I’ve been able to progress pretty smoothly, though at least one or two of my people go down every battle. It feels like something you can really devote yourself to learning, and at the same time lends itself to a few power strategies that obviate all other tactics. In the end I enjoy it though, and learning the ins and outs has been more engaging than troublesome. That’s essentially how I feel about the whole game, despite its many flaws, more interesting and entertaining than it is irritating. I know that’s not a ringing endorsement, and I wish it was with its deep story and fantastically detailed graphics and excellent soundtrack. But Ash of Gods is a flawed gem, one that’s still beautiful and valuable but only to those willing to look past its flaws and work around them.