Version Reviewed: v1.00
FPS loving N-Gage loyalists who have been with the system from the beginning know well enough the disappointment that was Red Faction. While it was not unplayable many felt it was close and the fun value was very low. Worse still it raised the question of whether the N-Gage was powerful enough for the genre. As if to answer, Nokia enlisted Australian developer Torus Games to develop Ashen.
Announced in December of 2003 and hyped right up to its May 2004 release, Ashen is a horror-laced FPS built around the story of Jacob Ward, Jacob's foolish occult loving sister, Seven River City, and an alternate dimension forcing its way into ours. If it sounds interesting to you that's probably because it is. While not without a cliched ring to it, the story is sufficient to tie the levels together and is at least on par with other similar offerings in the genre. Moreover there was an obvious attempt to make this a game heavy on atmosphere and story instead of just an exercise in circle strafing and ammo expenditure management. Levels move in and out of buildings, through dark and lit areas and progress in a gradual sort of downward spiral as you first try to find your sister and then deal with what she has unleashed.
Probably the best aspects of Ashen are its solid 3D graphics and the statement they make about the potential of the N-Gage within this and other 3D genres. Where Red Faction was fairly bland and often ugly with sluggish frame rates at the best of times, Ashen hums along at a steady pace regardless of outdoor areas and numerous enemies. Don't get me wrong, this is not Halo or Return to Wolfenstein, but features like dynamic lighting and much more interesting environments (my particular favorites being the rooftops) in which you can have battles with more than one enemy at a time, really bring the FPS experience home (or on the go since the N-Gage is so absolutely portable). One of my big beefs with Red Faction was that I was always peeking around corners and throwing explosives to take out bad guys because I couldn't realistically fight a dangerous enemy at the frame rates provided, but here I'm blasting them by the boatload and not afraid at all to turn a corner and have to jump into the action even against bosses. This is a cornerstone of solid FPS gameplay in my mind and Torus really did their job with delivering it. Often times you'll be prancing along happy as a flower bathed in day glow when something nasty spiders its way out of a crevice and requires dispatching. In Red Faction this meant your death because by the time you figured out why everything slowed down you were dead with no chance to mount an offensive, but here you just spin around back-stepping gracefully as you double-gun pummel his unfortunate unholy arse. Lovely.
As important to the playability of this title as its graphics and their frame rate is the workable controls. I have been highly critical of Nokia from the start for not including shoulder buttons on a system purporting to provide 3D gaming and felt my position justified by the awkward controls of some of the other 3D titles available, but Ashen is part of a new wave of titles like Ghost Recon who have proven that a focused developer can surmount almost any challenge. Ashen uses the control pad to control looking/aiming and then recreates that pad again on the keypad for your forward/backward movement and strafing with your fire button stuck right in the middle of the keypad action on the 5 key. This (albeit cramped) config actually accurately emulates the more comfortable dual analogs of most modern home consoles and allows a nice ability to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee even when you're in the heat of it. You will occasionally fire off an unintended shot when moving fast through an area or back-peddling out of a fire fight but these instances don't take away from your feeling of control and really the biggest grip one can have is that Torus included jumping sections in the game with a death consequence (I have hated these ever since Turok The Dinosaur Hunter on my N64). Thankfully these plunge to your death moments exist primarily in only one level near the end and with practice are easily passed (look down when jumping so you don't over/undershoot your target platform).
On top of the solid controls, decent story and good graphics of this title, Torus has seen fit to lay out a nice sound scheme. There's little I hate more than a game that looks great, plays smooth, has clean controls and then screws the pooch on sound. You're floating through the wasteland, eyes of the eagle style, ready for anything that could come along and SCREECH, CLANG you are assaulted by the worst sound effects and most horrendous tinny music imaginable. It makes you just want to turn a game off. It can ruin anything else in the game and Torus thankfully understood this. The sound effects are a nice lot and the music has this dark electric feel that reminds me of the Tangerine Dream soundtrack for The Keep in the early 80's. It's not going to win awards mind you, but it gives another layer of ambience to the game and doesn't ever really annoy.
All in all Ashen is what it promised to be, a solid story driven FPS adventure. It's not going to change your world or redefine the genre like Goldeneye or Halo, but when you take into account its 4-player Bluetooth deathmatch option and Arena rankings the value is increased yet again. I wouldn't put it against Ghost Recon for replay value but I definitely had a good time with it and happily recommend it with a score of 77%. Let's just hope now that Nokia and Torus consider the franchise value of Ashen and make cheaply available its potent little engine for a few other FPS titles from third parties.
Reviewed by Chris Rydberg at