Post-apocalyptic dystopias never seem to go out of fashion. Ever since the original Fallout there’s been a growing subgenre of games involving survivors journeying to find safety in a world ravaged by nuclear or environmental disaster.
Ashwalkers takes the latter form of disaster, being set 200 years after geological catastrophes have left the world covered in ash. Your squad of four distinct survivors has to work together to travel across the landscape and find a new space for your colony to move to. This is all presented through a distinctive black and white art style and gameplay that reminded me of choose your own adventure books.
First up, it’s worth mentioning the origins of Ashwalkers. Much has been made in the pre-release news that developer Nameless XIII is headed up by Hervé Bonin, one of the cofounders of Dontnod. This has certainly helped to give the title some added attention, but it appears that his role has been one of mentor to a young team who have taken the core parts of Ashwalkers from a student project. The end result is a polished title given the relative inexperience of the dev team, but one that only has a superficial resemblance to Dontnod’s games in how you make choices that direct and develop the story as you play.
The aesthetic of Ashwalkers is striking and perfectly suited to the apocalyptic setting. The monochrome graphics give everything the effect of being pencil art and the result is often stunning – it’s like a top end graphic novel. The use of line drawing serves to give the impression of an ash-covered and desolate landscape and works brilliantly, accentuated by the vivid splashes of red when a character is injured and marked with blood. The six different biomes in the game feel distinctive and the creatures and characters you meet are suitably shadowy and ominous. This aesthetic, especially combined with the droning audio, works well to create an atmosphere of decay and dereliction. You soon become absorbed in the relentless trudge forwards, anxious to uncover something, anything, to distract from the harsh reality of your existence.
The characters of Ashwalkers are nicely defined, although you’ll know little about them when you begin. Petra is the brave and rational captain of the squad, Sinh a powerful fighter, Kali a young and naive diplomat, and Nadir a cautious and experienced scout. Their dynamics come into play through optional dialogues whilst camping and through the various options available to counter the obstacles and threats that will face you.
The defining characteristic of each member of your squad means that losing any of them will close off that possible path of interaction. Losing Kali prevents you from negotiating with strangers, whilst Nadir being killed means you lose stealth approaches. This is a relatively simple system, but it works well to give a narrative structure to the alternative choices available.
Losing characters is a constant threat and there are no reinforcements or backups to be found. If three squad members die then it’s game over, but even without this terminal threat, the way your options close down will encourage replaying areas with a full squad. This is important as the bulk of the game involves replaying your journey and experimenting with different options.
A full playthrough of the four biomes you’ll traverse in a run takes around an hour and a half, but there are thirty-four different endings to discover. To aid you in this quest you can unlock the option to start from different parts of the journey to avoid having to play the full game through again and again – a necessary option to minimise the chore-like nature of such an endeavour and the game’s pacing.
Ashwalkers gets quite a lot of things right – the atmosphere, the aesthetic, the sense of dread, and the range of approaches are all huge plus points for this kind of narrative choice-based game. Resource management is skilfully handled through an intuitive system and character development is subtle and organic. Unfortunately, most of this is overshadowed by the experience of actually playing the game itself.
I mentioned choose your own adventure books in the introduction to this review and this comparison stands for the role of choice and consequence but, rather than skipping straight to the next page reference, here you have to trudge at a glacial pace to the next interactive point across environments that are unnecessarily large. This is only compounded by the fact that the game depends on you doing this same thing over 30 times to unlock all its content, with the only variation being the dialogue option you select.