A lot of video games like to flaunt a system of choices. They’ll wave a player-driven narrative around during the marketing, though it never amounts to much. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, for instance, puts a series of dilemmas in the player’s lap — but the path you choose to take never matters much to the overarching story. If that’s the case, then Ashwalkers goes against the grain. Ashwalkers is a title completely predicated upon choices.
The story is fairly generic — you’re a group of Scouts in your standard post-apocalyptic world. Something called the Cataclysm covered the known Earth in a thick layer of ash, or so I could surmise. The whole thing is really quite vague. You control four characters (more on that later) on a journey to find the Dome of Domes, a promised land of sorts. There lies salvation for what’s left of humanity.
Along the way, you must manage your ragtag group of intrepid explorers. Food and shelter are at a scarcity. There are dangerous savages plus threatening flora and fauna blocking progress. Ashwalkers gives you the opportunity to deal with these situations as you feel fit, yet the whole thing feels like a watered down Dungeons and Dragons campaign. An invisible hand guides the Scouts along a very linear path.
Ashwalkers throws so many dilemmas at you that it sometimes feels akin to getting bludgeoned over the head with a bat. During several expeditions, I was bombarded with some sort of fork in the road every few minutes. Ashwalkers is proof that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
Ashwalkers plays out like a 3D visual novel of sorts. The only interaction you have with the world is pointing at a spot on the ground and clicking to send your Squad there. As you trudge through the ash, you’ll be faced with random encounters. These can range from humans, both threatening and non, to rabid animals. There are a few moral dilemmas for flavor.
This is where Ashwalkers started to lose me. Its environment, though unique and varied with eight different locales to meander through, was not interesting enough. Yet you spend a lot of time staring at it. The Squad walks at a snail’s pace, and there’s no way to speed things up. The path is also quite linear, with random invisible walls blocking any hopes of exploration.
The only points of real interest are the aforementioned encounters. At first, it’s an exciting wrinkle. But after so long, they start to bleed together. The differences between a pack of wolves and a patrol of other humans aren’t apparently noticeable. Ashwalkers‘ flavor text tries to add some life, but it all boils down to the same thing. For each threat, you can either sneak around it, set a trap, wait for it to go to away, negotiate, or attack it head on. After seven or eight of these, no matter the skin it wears, it all starts to get quite mundane.
There are a few interesting, bigger quandaries that seem to have more of an impact sprinkled in. During one of my playthroughs, my Squad heard rumors of a place called Oasis. It was allegedly a bountiful area shielded from the ash, with natural resources aplenty. With this new information, the Squad had to decide if it wanted to veer from the path into the unknown. The Oasis was enticing, but we knew the Dome of Domes actually existed.
Each small decision does carry some weight as well. Ashwalkers boasts 34 different endings, and to my understanding, every choice you make plays into each one you get. I did not get near to most of the conclusions, but I saw several. A lot of them felt empty, with a slideshow of text blandly stating what happened to each group involved. While the allure of a new ending is enticing, it doesn’t feel worth it to play through again and again.
Lack of character
Ashwalkers could be forgiven if it was driven by the characters. Games of this ilk can create strong narratives with gripping text. Your Squad is composed of four people, each of whom you have a degree of control over. There’s Petra, the strategic captain, and Sinh, a savage warrior. Rounding it out are Kali, a researcher, and Nadir, a scout.
That’s basically all you ever know about these characters. Occasionally, they’ll blurt out plot points while walking through the wasteland. The text bubbles disappear before you’re able to read everything. At the Campsite, one of the game’s primary mechanics, you can have the Scouts talk with one another. I did this twice. The first time, Kali told a random story about almost drowning. The second, my camp was attacked by rats before a word could be said.
Each character is very vanilla; they act exactly how you’d expect. Sinh offers an aggressive option, Petra prefers diplomacy, Kali always wants to know more, and Nadir is in favor of sneaking around. That’s it. There’s no variety to how they approach different situations. There’s no growth throughout the journey.
At least you know what to expect.
Struggle for survival
Outside of the “non-linear” story, Ashwalkers flaunts survival mechanics. They’re quite rudimentary. You have to monitor the Squad’s hunger, temperatures, energy levels, and overall morale. There are random events that will add or detract to each. Otherwise, the best way to deal with these mechanics is via a Camp.
At any point, you can make Camp. Adding Kindling to the fire will warm your Squad and increase the effect for each further status. You can also feed them or heal any wounds. While at the Camp, the Squad can rest to boost Energy, or Talk to increase morale. As I hinted to above, I rarely used the Talk function. It never seemed necessary in the scope of things. Energy depletes far quicker than morale. It was almost a guarantee that I’d set whoever had the most Energy to guard the Camp while the other three slept.
As for resources, those can be gathered in random spots throughout the world. They’re marked by glowing wisps, which is helpful. Otherwise, the resource piles would be virtually indistinguishable from the background. There is a scarcity however, so resource management is important. Ashwalkers‘ best series of decisions amounts to when and how to use up your supplies. It’s a fairly simple rotation, but it created some interesting dilemmas.
Ashwalkers is not a terrible game. Each expedition has a crisp two-hour run time, so it isn’t a huge time sink. But for a game that markets 34 endings, the replayability is low. It’s repetitive, not very innovative, and the story is severely lacking. If you’ve got a few bucks to spare, and you’re really into visual novel-type games, then Ashwalkers could offer some entertainment. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend it.