Do you like your games with a healthy dose of stress? Want to relax by doing the same thing that you do every day of your life: survive? Well then, may I introduce you to the genre of survival games!
I kid, of course. But survival games, or games with survival mechanics, have quickly become one of the next “big things” in gaming over the last decade or so. From classic indie titles like Don’t Starve to more recent hits such as Valheim, the desire to simulate living in desperate situations doesn’t seem to be leaving the minds of gamers anytime soon.
Much like how “RPG mechanics” make their way into everything from action-adventure to sports games, “Survival mechanics” are also cropping up in completely different genres as well. Case in point, the game we’re looking at today: a narrative adventure game with said survival mechanics.
Developed by Nameless XIII and published by Dear Villagers, Ashwalkers was released on April 15th, 2021, for PC via Steam.
What Destination Awaits
Ashwalkers follows four people in a post-apocalyptic future. Various geological disasters have turned the Earth into an ash-ridden wasteland where people struggle to survive. These four people are on a quest to find the “Dome of Domes,” seemingly the greatest sanctuary and current center of much of human civilization.
To get there, though, the four have to deal with various dangers, ranging from man to animal and nature itself. The struggle isn’t only from outward forces; finding food, warmth, and sanity in a dead world is also a major obstacle on the journey.
Ashwalkers is a very open-ended game, where every choice directs the plot to one of a staggering 34 endings. Some choices are simple, such as what path to follow on the journey. Others become more difficult and may test your ethical leanings. Do you free the “savage” human that’s been captured in a web by monstrous locusts, putting yourself at risk of death? There’s no guarantee that the person will be grateful. Hell, they may turn around and kill you for your rations. Or they might help you out later. The choice is yours.
Most choices reflect the thoughts and morals of the four survivors you’re playing as: bold, cautious, violent, or optimistic. One thing I can say the game does well is that, often, no choice is obviously “correct.” Some questions cause the player to have to weigh the expected cause and effect of each choice, and determine what consequences are most worth having to deal with.
Unfortunately, if you want character development, you’re going to have to work for it. Very little characterization is given to the four survivors during story beats, outside of the choices they present that line up with their core personalities. There’s the ability to learn more about them by setting a couple of them to talk to each other when resting at a camp…but doing so means giving up resting, which is vital for survival (more on that later). Being that survival is the main mission here, it often made more sense to forego the character development option just to help keep said characters alive.
Wear Down Those Boots
While the world of Ashwalkers is certainly intriguing, and the choices it makes you take are often difficult, the actual act of playing the game is…well, it’s a dull slog.
There aren’t many options for getting from point A to point B in this post-apocalyptic world, so the four survivors make do with what they have: their legs. It’s all walking, and you’ll be doing a lot of it.
Unfortunately, unlike a game like Death Stranding which offers plenty of obstacles and challenges during your infinite walks, Ashwalkers is literally just walking in a straight line until a new story beat plays. No obstacles. No enemies. Just click on the environment to move, and keep moving forward. Maybe you’ll see a glowing object you can click on to gather supplies from, but that’s about it. I had to fight myself to not pull up a YouTube video or some other kind of entertainment on my other monitor while mindlessly clicking to keep the party walking forward.
Of course, we can’t forget about the survival mechanics. Each member of the survivors has a few gauges that are constantly decreasing: energy, warmth, hunger, and motivation. The speed with which they fall depends mostly on the environment, although they can also be affected by story decisions. If any of the first three bottom out, then that character begins losing health. I had a hard time figuring out what exactly the motivation gauge affected; it appeared to mostly affect decisions during story moments.
You have the option of setting up camp at nearly any moment, using resources you’ve collected to restore these gauges. Wood to light a fire and build warmth. Food to satiate hunger, obviously. Medkits for health. For energy, though, nothing but good old-fashioned sleep will do.
It’s in camp where you can also set the survivors to talk if you want some character development…but to do so, you have to forego sleep for them, meaning no energy gain. You also have to worry about a “danger” meter, which shows the chances of an attack or other negative story event happening during camp. Setting a survivor or two to be lookouts can mitigate this…but again, no sleep and no energy gain.
Everything is a game of balance here. The first two stages I went through weren’t too difficult to keep everyone’s gauges somewhat full. Around the midpoint of a run, though, that’s when resources became more scarce, leading to decisions such as who can survive going hungry for a while. I did manage to finish my first run with everyone alive, although I practically limped to the finish line.
The thing is, though, that the survival elements aren’t all that exciting either. It’s literally just managing numbers and pumping them full of items when they fall too low. I don’t know how it managed to do it, but Ashwalkers managed to make surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland one of the most boring experiences I’ve had recently.
Ash in the Eyes
To start off here, I can see and appreciate the artistic intention behind Ashwalkers‘ presentation. This is a game that takes place post-apocalypse in an ash-covered world. Everything’s grey, everything’s destroyed, the world is suffocating, there’s almost no hope to cling to. The design evokes the feeling of despair quite well.
…but that doesn’t mean it’s particularly interesting to actually look at.
It’s grey. It’s all grey. Everything’s grey. Aside from some splashes of red on the survivors I saw when their health was getting low, Ashwalkers is an exercise in greyscale. While some environments I trekked through looked like they may have been interestingly designed, the ash wash just makes absolutely everything in the entire game blend together into one big amorphous blob.
There’s little in the way of interesting sound either. Aside from a few ambient tracks droning in the background on occasion, there ain’t much when it comes to music.
Destruction Made Mundane
If I had to use one word to sum up all of the paragraphs above, it would be “boring.” Ashwalkers takes some intriguing prose and some truly difficult decisions and casts them all into a dull world design with tedious gameplay. The visuals and interactivity presented here do so little to prop up the relatively decent writing that I can’t help but wonder if this game would’ve been better off as a book instead.
Not every game needs complex interactivity, of course, but I wish Ashwalkers would’ve given me something more than clicking to move and manipulating objects to refill meters. The game is built for multiple playthroughs to explore how the story and ending changes around your decisions, but the sheer boredom I felt in the playthroughs I did run have me hesitant to ever return and explore more.
Ashwalkers really just isn’t an interesting experience. It takes the post-apocalypse and manages to make it soporific. I can’t really recommend it unless you’re looking for a unique way to cure your insomnia.
Review copy provided by Dear Villagers for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Dear Villagers.