When looking at Ash of Gods, there’s plenty that gets lost in translation—and not just in the text. I was given only a thin slice of this gorgeously illustrated tactical RPG. My biggest complaint, I suppose, is that I wish I could've seen more. It would've clarified my questions and given me more time to absorb an obviously complex world.
There were a couple small fights, a couple dialogue choices, and a lot of characters to meet in a very short period of time. I’m terrible at that. Nothing throws me for a loop quicker than introducing me to a dozen different characters and then asking me to care about who they all are. It’s a personal shortcoming, I know. But shaking hands with a veritable Fellowship of the Ring-sized company at least conveys the idea that Ash of Gods has a large cast of characters waiting. There are fathers and daughters, merchants and mercenaries, people with dull wits and sharp eyes, people with generous smiles and disingenuous intentions. I wasn’t given time to get to know them, though. All I know is, it was hard to grasp main dad Thorn’s character. He faces the identical question that Banner Saga’s main dad faces: Do I let my daughter grow up? To be expected, Ash of Gods’ Thorn is floundering with parenthood from the very beginning.
Now, my first thought was to dismiss Ash of Gods as a Banner Saga copycat and call it a day. A quick glimpse through the screenshots might make you draw a similar conclusion. I mean, Banner Saga isn’t the worst inspiration you could draw from. In fact, I think it's one of the best. But, on second thought, what Ash of Gods is (and isn’t) is more complicated than that.
Let’s clear up one of those things that might be getting lost in translation. Ash of Gods bills itself as a turn-based RPG with “roguelike storytelling.” Use of the word “roguelike” here seems to be a misnomer, or it's being used in a manner I'm unfamiliar with. At least in the code I previewed. There are branching story paths, but that doesn’t necessarily differentiate it from visual novels in general. I'm used to the word "roguelike" speaking to procedurally generated levels, randomized enemies, and permadeath, all done in the name of high replay value. Ash of Gods claims that the story goes on, even if you lose main characters. This preview wouldn't give me the chance to test that. My characters would fall on the battlefield and it would simply reload to the beginning of the fight. The story wouldn't progress without them. That doesn't mean there isn't permadeath; just that I couldn't achieve it in this preview.
So, I wasn’t able to experience what roguelike storytelling means, exactly. If you play the full game, which will no doubt have more opportunities to die, to travel down branching dialogue trees, and to take the other fork in the road this time, then you should have better luck at seeing what this roguelike storytelling is all about.
With that cleared up, what we do have is a (somewhat clunky) turn-based tactical RPG with visual novel elements tying the fights together. That much is accurate. I love turn-based tactical RPGs. And I am, day by day, gaining a greater appreciation for visual novels, especially after enjoying Pyre and, of course, waiting anxiously for the third part of the Banner Saga trilogy. Ash of Gods' bones are solid.
On the battlefield, you have a certain number of spaces you can move, and you can expend energy to move further. In addition to your health meter, you also have that energy meter. The energy meter does two things: it acts as a pool for expending extra energy, of course, but it's also armor. You can target either health or energy when you attack. It's not as complicated as it sounds. It just made a little more sense in Banner Saga when it was called strength and armor, whereas here it's health and energy.
Whose turn it is in combat can be confusing. There isn’t a visible turn order. I usually clicked through all of my characters until I eventually ran across whose turn it was. It wasn’t ideal. But the hacking and slashing in and of itself is just fine.
There are some cards that provide lite deck-building elements to the combat. I was unable to get a reaction out of the cards when I clicked on them. I don’t know if they were continually activated, or if activating them required some other button to push that I couldn’t figure out.
Some of the loading screen messages are also lost in translation, to greater and lesser degrees. “Unsolved mysteries are like an unquenched thirst. Premonitions of trouble to spur you to keep going.” I couldn’t tell of these two sentences were even related.
Another went: “What does one need to meet old age in peace? Only to avoid a major disaster.” Well, I guess so. Not exactly a pearl of wisdom. It sounds like most of the in-game dialogue went through a native speaker's translation, while other lines just took a cursory pass through BabelFish.
We’ve got awesomely rotoscoped character art, though. I’ll give it that. The good guys and bad guys, warriors and widowers, traders and traitors—everyone is drawn up with a skillful pen. It’s hard to ignore how Ash of God’s main character looks exactly like Banner Saga’s main character, though. I mean, right down to the gray strands in the bangs of his parted-down-the-middle haircut. They're a spitting image of one another, even if one is a bit older.
The up-close animations look good during the visual novel moments, but the battlefield animations were only just so convincing. Everyone walks stiffly on the checkerboard field. They run in place as they get going and also when they come to a stop. The animations, an opening message says, are not final. Fair enough.
The sword-swinging isn’t bad. A couple of these characters have some Jedi lightsaber tricks to hack down their enemies. I wanted to use their abilities more. But the fights were short.
Sometimes the time and place feels intimate, even if you're just one person in a crowded town square. But it’s funny that so many lines of dialogue begin with a shoehorned emotion. The text will start with something like, “(With hope) Is there any way to improve her health?” or “(In a bitter voice) I could never understand that.” Remember the Elcor in Mass Effect? The elephant people? Remember how they spoke with so much monotone that they had to start their sentences with the emotion they were trying to convey? Ash of Gods talks like that.
Early on, we’re introduced to Dorphkhal the Reaper. He looks like a sadomasochist’s bondage buddy, with black-hole eyes and chains clamped to his ribs. He’s pretty intense. Him and his other Reapers are a blast at parties, I can tell. When they show up, blood starts squirting out of people's eyes and noses. Can't wait for more of those encounters.
Some characters just don't make complete sense, though, at least when it comes to their thought process. One character pleads we stay behind the walls for safety. Then he's begging we head somewhere else. Then he says, “All I hear is talk,” when he was pretty much the one doing all the talking. Then the writing really swings for the fences on a certain poopy metaphor. One conversation kind of goes, “Did you s--- your pants?” “We’re sailing up s--- creek.” “Wash the s--- stains and run.” Okay? Here's your M for Mature rating, I guess.
The world building (again, I only played a small section) throws a lot of info at the reader at once. It crosses a couple different time lines, half a dozen locations, and introduces 13 or 14 characters before I could figure out what anyone was really about. There are Bestias leaving the forest of Datura, there's a Vandil witch spotted on woodland trails, and Atraakh was in Gordinn, who is apparently a harbinger of another Reaping, which could take place in the north and south vernal equinox in the towns of Wodan and Albius. You, Hopper, were once called Blance, but that was 700 years ago in a different part of Termium, and your former lover, Amma, is a seeress, who is Umbra, a mortal, but has been alive for centuries. And you've also got the daddy-daughter combo of Thorn and Gleda who, I'm almost certain, are your star characters.
I was a little lost. But again, that just means that I would've enjoyed more time with these people. Characters are developing rapidly all around, and I kind of like how chaotic and messy that character development was going.
Ash of Gods has flashes of brilliance. Like the apothecary that says he can’t sell you anything to heal a broken heart. Or the seriously distressing music that pounds through the speakers when Dorpkhal the Reaper appears. Or how on-point the art department handled their jobs. Then, sometimes, the writing goes right back to being lost in translation. “That’s what almost burnt my tummy!” says your full-grown daughter, who suddenly sounds like a four-year-old with a stomach ache.
The preview copy I played was just a vertical slice of the gameplay. It's understandable that there was too much to take in during a very short period of time. I just hope that once the wow factor from the artwork wears off, that the storytelling and gameplay mechanics assemble themselves into meaningful moments. Ash of Gods has a complex world with complex characters. I can already tell that much. I hope this game can speak fluently to its audience and not simply be lost in translation.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, or open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982, and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.View Profile