Ashen had a lot to live up to. From a large degree of hype built-up by a Souls-hungry consumer base, the project was lauded as the indie response to FromSoftware’s critical dominance of the action-adventure genre. None of these assertions or expectations came from the developer, A44, itself; the game was thrust on a podium that it did not ask for. Ashen had glimmers of overlap with its Souls-like brethren, but really, it was something entirely different.
Three months after release, A44 is “deep in postmortem for the project,” but how does one measure success of a project more hyped than the sum of its parts? OnlySP sat down with creative director Derek Bradley to discuss all things Ashen and how the months post-release have been treating the New Zealand-based team.
“It has been surreal seeing how well received Ashen has been from a critical and consumer point of view,” Bradley begins. “Watching streams, reading reviews and player’s stories all over the internet, it has been something we could have only hoped for.” The game, which sits at a very respectable 82/100 on Metacritic, did manage to meet the expectations of most of its players. Ashen is very much an indie success story, which is reflected by the team’s unwavering passion post-release:
“We were always hopeful that Ashen would resonate with players around the world before release and we have been so excited regardless to see the wonderful reception Ashen has received since launch. It’s always nice for your game to receive great scores and recognition from the press, but we’ve been most overjoyed by the reception from players who have embraced our approach to stamina-based combat and the unique world we’ve created for Ashen.”
The embracement of Ashen’s stamina-based combat is particularly interesting given the mixed response to the mechanic in non-Souls games; stamina-based gameplay is difficult to pin down, making this singular aspect of combat one of Ashen’s greatest successes. The combat system has laid the foundation for several surprises for the developer, too, who has been “[excited] to see players trying to tackle enemies and bosses in their own way since release.” Surprises include the lengths players have pushed themselves to speed-run the game, as well as watching players interact with the densely-layered labyrinth of “hidden shortcuts […] that [the studio] actually implemented in dungeons and throughout the world.”
Ashen was a huge indie hit for Microsoft, which brought the game to Xbox One with shared exclusivity with the much-discussed Epic Games Store. This loyalty appears to be extending indefinitely, with A44 “currently [having] no plans to bring Ashen to other platforms.”
The long process of development has left the studio humbled by its New Zealand surroundings, too. The relatively untapped talent pool of New Zealand was more than hospitable to A44:
“We are lucky to have an extremely rich ecosystem of talented developers and artists in Wellington, New Zealand—with a thriving film and games industry. The New Zealand games industry is relatively small, with around 550 game developers across 40 studios. It’s a young industry but is growing incredibly fast, and we’re excited to play our part in the future!”
Even for the most well-received games, the list of things to learn following release seems endless. For Bradley, the case is the same:
“As […] with any game you ship, the list of what you learn and can bring to the next title is rather long. We are deep in postmortem for the project as we speak so we can make sure our next project is bigger and better in every way possible.”
What will that next project be? Bradley was tight-lipped or, rather, too busy for this sort of answer, but the studio has expressed interest in “[furthering] the world” of Ashen “if the opportunity [arises].”
What is clear from A44’s post-release analysis of Ashen is that games do not expire on release. In our current culture, games are disposable assets which we, as a community, rarely return to after a select window. OnlySP’s interview with Bradley and A44 was a reminder that after games are shipped, digested, and reacted to, the studio behind the project still toils away, reflecting.
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