This week, Yahtzee reviews Gris and Ashen.
You know what they say: if you're going to get kicked in the balls, might as well get kicked in the balls twice so they stay symmetrical, and that's why it's time for the first indie double-bill of the year. Gratifyingly for my love of connecting themes, both games are named after a word that means "grey"; not only that, but they're both words that mean "grey" that you might use if you're a pretentious twat, or French, for all the difference that makes. So let's start with GRIS. Gris is a platformer. There, I just described the game about nine times more efficiently than the blurb on Gris' Steam page, which describes it as a "serene and evocative experience" about pain and an atmospheric "journey through sorrow". IT'S A FUCKING PLATFORMER, ALL RIGHT?!
You remember that game, FAR: Lone Sails, which should more accurately be titled CAR: With Sails? Nice little idea about maintaining a complex vehicle on a long journey, but went for a slightly inconsistent, bleak melancholy atmosphere because, as I said at the time, it had a bad case of "indie game-itis". Well, GRIS is Patient Fucking Zero for indie game-itis. Always the same, these Oscar-bait games: just make an atmospheric platformer where the main character is implied to be sad and watch the Best Art Direction prizes roll in. GRIS is about a stick figure in a dress with a girl's head trying to cheer up their giant statue friend, but when that doesn't seem to be going well, she must explore a strange, empty world to repopulate it with colors while being threatened by an ever-encroaching amorphous blackness, also known as "Baby's First Metaphor". The flat-out stated intention is that this is all a metaphor for overcoming sadness, which invites further analysis; maybe the one ability where you make yourself very heavy and do a ground-pound is a metaphor for eating a bunch of cakes to cheer yourself up.
In all seriousness now, GRIS is, of course, a very beautiful game with haunting arty watercolor-style backgrounds, a very good soundtrack, and what looks like hand-drawn animation as smooth as a virginal college boy's hand moving across a frustrated cougar's thigh. But then actual control is given to me, and I'd push right, only for the character's beautifully-animated walk cycle to glide across the ground like I'm dragging an icon across a Windows desktop, and that sums up my issue with this very artistic and emotional experience: that its eyes keep glazing over whenever it has to address the whole "video game" thing.
As I said, it's a platformer; it's sort of a Metroidvania because you unlock new movement abilities as you go, but there's not much point in going back to old areas unless you're having trouble sleeping. The level design kind of herds you through the setpieces, and there isn't much challenge; at one pseudo-action sequence when my character was fleeing with the blackness snapping at her heels, I experimentally put down the controller, and she successfully fled the blackness anyway. GRIS, do you really need me here, or would you rather just very artfully wibble away to yourself while I pop out and run some errands?
I know this was the intention; let's go back to that Steam blurb: "GRIS is a serene experience, free of danger, frustration, or death." Listen here, Clever Tits: locking myself in a fucking bathroom with a paper bag on my head would also be a serene experience free of danger and adversity, but I wouldn't base a game around it. You indie emotional experiences and walking simulators need to stop being so fucking sniffy about gameplay; challenge is the tool by which video games pace themselves and direct the player's attention, and frankly, I found GRIS to be very boring. Yes, a good story can be challenging in its own way, but what's the story here? "Sad person wants to be less sad"? Not exactly American History X, is it?
So, our second game whose title means "grey" is Ashen, which initially caught my interest because, at time of writing, it's exclusive to the Epic Games digital store. Yeah, hope you're paying attention, Steam, 'cos plucky little underdog massive games company Epic and its twelve or thirteen games, most of which Steam already has, are gearing up to take you on! Well, it's early days, yet we might all be enslaved in the Epic mega-corporation bitcoin mines by next year; let's not tempt fate like I did with the "President Trump" joke. Ashen is a Dark Souls clone; again, I've just been about nine times more informative than its own store page was. It's not even trying to hide the Dark Souls influence; it's a high-difficulty action RPG set in a dying world, and the opening cinematic is essentially a creation myth, although instead of an epic battle between gods and dragons, you get a bird who sits on a tree branch for a bit, then falls off, which rather sets the tone for Ashen, and that tone is "grey". Wow, both the games called "grey" turned out to be boring; it's almost like the color grey has certain associations attached.
What probably doesn't help is Ashen's distinctive art style that makes it look like Dark Souls the Playmobil set, where every character is a faceless plastic dolly running around a landscape that someone with far too much time on their hands made out of papier-mâché for their Warhammer meetups. And the gameplay is also the Playmobil version of Dark Souls; they give you a map, for a start. Christ, why not give us fucking bunny slippers while you're at it? Dark Souls is about exploration; sticking objective markers all over it is like publishing a crossword with half the answers filled in. Honestly, though, I can't complain, 'cos the NPC quest-givers would only talk at me in flowery Shakespearean monologues, so I needed the objectives to inform me of what the fuck they actually wanted me to do.
The plot of Ashen is that you're exploring the embers of the world to find NPC specialists who can come help develop your home base at Firelink Shrine, I mean, Majula, I mean, Vagrant's Rest, and they give you sidequests to do alongside your main quest to... you know, it was probably mentioned at some point, but then the combat annoyed me too much, and all I can remember is my eyes filling up with blood. As far as I can tell, the main questline was "Keep advancing along a linear string of areas so that you can do sidequests in them", but that doesn't matter.
I'd like to address now Ashen's most significant feature: the multiplayer! I'd like to, but sadly, I have no fucking clue if I participated in it or not. How it works is, you have an NPC support character most of the time as you explore, and if another player happens to be around pursuing the same quest, then they seamlessly take over your support character. Consequently, a lot of the game is designed around co-op: Dark Souls combat is best-suited to one-on-one fighting, but the enemy almost exclusively ambushes in groups, and support is vital. But either I never ran into another player or the game had assessed my combat skill and decided to exclusively matchmake me with the severely mentally disabled; I wouldn't mind an NPC that just stood still and drew aggro while playing with their belly buttons, but they're just competent enough that you start relying on them, until you wade confidently into a battle and glance back to see them 100 yards behind, taking undue interest in a shelf bracket.
I gave up on Ashen altogether after my seventeenth failed attempt to get through a long, boring dungeon, trying to keep my support character alive only to watch them thrust a bit too eagerly and plop off the walkway yet again. It'd be a good scam, wouldn't it, claiming that we're playing co-op with uncommunicative humans indistinguishable from NPCs? It'd be like an inverse of the Dumbo's Magic Feather trick. Maybe I could've beaten that dungeon if the other guy hadn't been such a fuck-up. "Haha! Don't you see? There was no other guy! The fuck-up was in you all along!"
- Grey as a mule: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- The Epic Games Store's main strategy seems to be to give away free games by the same principle that motivated unpopular children to bring bags of sweets to school
- But was it more an ocean grey or a military grey