A narrative-driven, non-linear game from Life Is Strange co-creator Hervé Bonin’s new development studio that promises to blend complex, morally dubious decision-making with challenging survival game mechanics, all set to the backdrop of a post-ecological disaster wasteland? Sign. Me. Up. Bonin’s pedigree is well-established: Life Is Strange is considered by many to be one of the best interactive narratives in gaming, combining unique mechanics with a compelling story, likeable characters, and some genuinely tough choices. So Ashwalkers should be an absolute slam dunk given the decidedly grey area that post-apocalyptic life on Earth would inhabit and the many difficult sacrifices that would need to be made to survive. Unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to the high expectations it sets.
Ashwalkers sets up its basic premise early: Several hundred years after a cataclysmic volcanic eruption which has made the Earth a desolate wasteland, most of the surviving remnants of humanity live in the relative comfort of The Citadel (a type of mega-city), with some unlucky souls stuck battling the harsh conditions outside. Unfortunately, The Citadel is struggling to keep its population safe, housed, and fed, so a four-person squad of Pathfinders are sent to seek out the mythical Dome of Domes, said to have enough space and resources for everyone to live comfortably.
Players follow the squad on their journey, making numerous choices that range from the seemingly mundane (e.g., whether to go left or right at a fork in the path) to the more ethically focused (e.g., whether to take a diplomatic or forceful approach with a group of survivors, or play it safe and simply avoid them altogether). Credit where credit is due: These choices do lead to significant differences in not only how the story ends, but also the details of the journey itself. In fact, there are so many narrative branches in Ashwalkers that the game has 34 different endings, and any two playthroughs will see players experiencing unique events and navigating wildly different environments.
However, there’s little chance any player is going to be sufficiently engaged to play Ashwalkers enough times to experience all it has to offer. The game just feels so...bland. Aesthetically it’s very striking, thanks to its greyscale colour palette that cleverly uses splashes of red and the detailed environments that range from ashen plains to lightning-flicked deserts. The soundtrack also effectively captures the feelings of isolation and desperation associated with humanity’s predicament, focusing on slow, meditative drones and reverbed guitar twangs.
It certainly looks and sounds the part, but everything else just fails to capture the imagination or elicit anything beyond a half-hearted “oh.” None of the squad members have the charm or nuance of Max or Chloe from Life Is Strange, instead playing as a collection of four one-dimensional archetypes (the strong one, the sneaky one, the professional one, the diplomatic one) that do not experience any kind of character arcs throughout the narrative. The writing is also quite weak, with conversations between characters being cringey at worst, and passably interesting at best.
The story itself also never delivers any really impactful moments, even when it tries to convince the player that the choices they are making are high-stakes by placing squad members in danger or setting up moral dilemmas (which usually come down to “be a nice person” or “be an asshole”). There might be 34 different endings, but after seeing one, most players won’t feel particularly enthusiastic about doing the work to unlock the other 33. Indeed, players who were fans of Life Is Strange and had their interest piqued by the fact that Hervé Bonin headed up Ashwalkers are especially going to be disappointed by the story and characters.
The moment-to-moment “gameplay” doesn’t help matters either. The survival mechanics are nothing more than basic meters for health, food, heat, and energy, which are managed through simple cycles of resource gathering and distribution. This is a gameplay loop we’ve seen dozens of times before, and it’s not reinvented (or even iterated upon in any way) in Ashwalkers. Not that it matters, because there doesn’t seem to be any real sense of danger in the world anyway, with plentiful resources meaning that rarely does the player have to make any sorts of difficult choices about who to distribute what to, or worry about any of the squad dying from injuries. By half-way through the first playthrough, the survival mechanics are nothing more than an annoyance and add nothing by way of tension to the game.
The only meter which seems to require more than a few cursory mouse clicks every couple of minutes is morale (called “Hope” in Ashwalkers), which can increase or decrease based on the outcomes of choices, as well as be raised by assigning squad members to talk with each other. This is meant to elicit a risk/reward calculation from the player, as talking causes time to pass, and time is supposedly something the squad has little of. However, there never seems to be any real consequence of allocating time for talking, so there’s no reason not to have squad members converse and keep their morale up. Assigning characters to talk with one another is also the main way players learn anything about them and the world before the cataclysm (very little of the story is told through actual narrative events), so anyone playing for the story is going to allocate conversation time wherever possible, regardless of its effect on morale.
Ashwalkers is a game that, on paper, should have been amazing. It’s setting was perfect for the kind of nuanced, morally grey decision making it promised to offer, it was helmed by the co-creator of one of the best narrative experiences in gaming, and it just looked really cool (I guess that’s a lesson not to trust trailers). Unfortunately, whether it was the relative inexperience of Bonin’s studio leading to poor design choices, or the creative juices just not flowing freely enough, it ends up being an unmemorable, decidedly middling affair.
Ashwalkers (Reviewed on Windows)
The game is average, with an even mix of positives and negatives.
All style and very little substance, Ashwalkers feels as cold and lifeless as the world it portrays.