Game name: Ashwalkers
Release date: April 15, 2021
Available on: Steam
Genre: Narrative focused survival adventure
Developer: Nameless XIII
Publisher: Dear Villagers
Ashwalkers is a weird game for me. I don’t normally enjoy survival games, and I’ve been drifting away from management sims lately, but in spite of having both of these things working against it, Nameless XIII‘s debut release managed to hold my attention for the past week, even goin as far as making me miss part of the current Season in Forza Horizon 4. Sounds weird, doesn’t it?
The world of Ashwalkers is bleak and almost monochrome, as a horrifying disaster has covered the land in ash, destroying human civilization as we know it, and populating the barren wastelands that we used to call home with violent packs of savage animals and roving gangs of marauders who fight to survive to see another day, no matter the cost. Against all odds, a group of four explorers sets out to find the Dome of Domes, an almost mythical refuge that could save the remaining pocket of civilization.
This scout squad is under our command, and it is our job to ensure that they can successfully navigate the harsh post-apocalyptic landscape, gathering resources and managing tricky situations without dying in the process. Gameplay-wise, Ashwalkers is quite simple. We see the world in a somewhat restrictive third person camera angle, and control the movement of the whole squad with the left mouse button. If there’s an item that can be interacted with, we’ll click it, and if we come face to face with a problem, we deal with it in one of four ways: strategy, combat, diplomacy or stealth. These choices are directly tied to the members of our team, so if we run into trouble and one of them gets killed, we’ll lose the method they represented. This choice-based approach to problem resolution can sometimes feel a bit unfair, as during our first playthroughs of the game we’ll probably try to do things that “sound” like good ideas but end up being utterly useless, and result on our squad getting hurt or losing out on a potentially better way of solving a roadblock in our way, but at the same time, I think that it works with the narrative the game is going for, so I wasn’t as frustrated as I expected to be.
The squad has basic needs that must be fulfilled in order to keep them going ahead with their journey, and we have to direct them to gather resources which will then be spent when we decide to make camp. Gathering is simple (select the team member for the task, then hold click on the resource) but it’s important to pay attention to their fatigue meter, so we should always be switching between all four scouts when picking resources from the wastes. The camp interface is also pretty straightforward, letting us allocate food and medicine as needed (though we’ll probably have to choose to leave some team members untreated during our first runs, as we get our bearings on this savage world and learn how to best manage our scarce resources). We also have to take care of keeping a good enough fire burning so the squad doesn’t freeze to death, and their mental health is also important, so at some points we might wish to have team members talk to one another to reassure their confidence in the mission (it’s also nice to hear the stories they tell, as they do a great job of fleshing out their personalities). If that wasn’t enough, keeping guard is also an important task that must be accomplished lest we risk getting attacked during our most vulnerable hour, so we’ll never be able to fully rest all four party members, which once again ties into being able to make the right choices before and after camping.
Should we be forced (or choose) to engage in combat, we’ll encounter a text-based affair where selecting different choices leads to different outcomes. For anyone tired of seeing the same black/white/gray environments, blood is vividly rendered in red, so getting hurt or inflicting wounds on others will break up that monotony. Interestingly, the fact that we have a warrior in our party doesn’t mean that they are always the right character for the job when it comes to getting to fisticuffs, and squad members’ morale will play a big role in any fights we find ourselves dragged into. Thankfully, combat can be avoided a lot more than one would expect from a game set in such a bleak world, and diplomacy/strategy will often resolve violent situations far better than trying to come up on top through the use of brute force.
What can’t be avoided, sadly, is the slow pace of the exploration, which felt good for my first expedition into the unknown, but quickly became a cumbersome slog by the time I’d seen the first three endings (as far as I know, Ashwalkers features 34 endings, so you will be replaying the game quite a bit if you are like me and wish to get the best possible outcome for the squad and the people waiting for them back home). I understand that slowly making our way through the ash fits the somber tone of the experience, but doing it over and over again quickly becomes frustrating and will discourage players from further expeditions, which is a shame, as the replayability level is high if you don’t mind getting most of your thrills from text based descriptions. This issue could have been avoided with speed options that could unlock after completing the first expedition, for instance, and I feel that the game would be a lot better if such a mechanic was added. Other than that, I’d also contend that once we understand the mechanics at play (which are quite simple) the game becomes rather easy. There are specific parts of the adventure that will seem unfair on a first playthrough, and then become trivial to solve after a few, and I actually enjoyed that aspect of the game.
Overall, Ashwalkers is a rather unique take on the survival genre that relies on narrative and choice rather than outright combat. Sadly, its slow paced exploration can quickly wear out its welcome, pushing players away before they complete their journey.