Before I begin my review, I feel it necessary to make something clear. I am fully aware that this game was made using RPG Maker. To me, it doesn’t really affect the game’s story or gameplay, so I will be writing the review focusing as much on the game itself as I can.
On the surface, To Ash has a simple story. Players take on the role of Demitri, a hero who once saved the world from a great evil, and had the gods freeze him, so that he could be revived should the evil ever return. Accompanied by his enchanted, talking shield Gallium, Demitri embarks on a journey to rid the world of evil once more. Simple, right? Well, there’s an interesting twist to the familiar RPG story. Demitri is no spring chicken – in fact, he was placed into his frozen slumber at the height of his strength. What goes up must come down, and with Demitri at the top, he begins to decline from the moment he embarks on his quest. The game’s themes revolve around death, aging and acceptance, and it shows. Throughout the course of the game, players are presented with important questions, signaled by the mournful tolling of a bell. The questions are important, and you must answer questions that deal directly with death and the acceptance of it. These questions play an important role in the game, as they ultimately affect the ending you will receive.
The gameplay, at first glance, also seems like your typical RPG fare in which you earn experience and gold. Again, though, there’s an interesting twist, one that I have yet to come across in another RPG. Since Demitri has started at the peak of his powers, the aged hero actually grows weaker as you level up. As your level increases, your stats decrease. Your MP drops, your attack grows weaker, defense grows worse and you become increasingly slow. As if that didn’t put you at enough of a disadvantage, after particularly rough fights with a boss, you also begin losing your skills, with the most powerful being the first to fade. To some extent, this is offset by equipment that you can find or buy throughout the course of the game, but by the time I reached the end, I was definitely weaker than when I set out.
While there are random encounters on the world map, most of the enemies you’ll be fighting are found in the game’s various dungeons and are represented by admittedly simple sprites. Often, monsters will be guarding chests, and the only way to get to it will be to fight them. I found this to be a fun challenge, as, if you’re anything at all like me, the need to explore every nook and cranny and open every chest is deeply ingrained. I had to decide if the potential outcome outweighed the very likely chance that I would become weaker.
Finally, in terms of gameplay, it’s worth noting that Gallium, your enchanted shield, plays an important role in battle. While unable to directly attack enemies (with the exception of charging up something known as “TP” while in battle), he will impart various defensive boosts based on which “stance” you choose to put him in. The power stance will increase your physical and magical damage for that turn, the iron stance will increase your defense for that turn, while the spirit stance will increase your magic resistance and restore a small portion of your MP for that turn. Enemies will occasionally charge up for a special attack, and you’ll be given a hint as to whether it will be a physical or magical attack, prompting you to use one of Gallium’s two special stances. With the parry stance, you’ll greatly reduce damage from devastating physical attacks, while deflection will greatly reduce the damage received from powerful magical attacks.
As far as the audio/visual aspect of the game is concerned, I can’t say too much, as I’m not terribly familiar with RPG Maker. What I can say is that the sprites fit the characters well, and the overall look of the game was pleasantly nostalgic. The music was frequently catchy, and matched the setting and tone quite well. One thing of note that I found particularly interesting was the “victory” music after winning a battle. Instead of the cheery, catchy music associated with a victory, the music is forlorn, almost depressing. It’s not really a victory so much as it is one step closer to the end.
In terms of replay value, I actually recommend playing through the game twice. The first time, I recommend playing it through on “full mode” as it includes all the battles and strategy required. The second time I played through the game I played it on “adventure mode” just so I could make different choices and see how it affected the ending of the game. “Full mode” took me about seven hours to complete, while “adventure mode” only took me a little over an hour or so.
There are a few areas I feel could have been improved. I feel that the weakening aspect of the game could have been perhaps played up a little more – perhaps making it so that Demitri couldn’t equip certain weapons or armor as he grows increasingly weak. I feel that the Demitri’s back story was perhaps a little light, though I’m a little more lenient on that aspect as the game is made to feel like an old-school RPG. There are some great concepts and ideas here, I just feel like perhaps they could be taken advantage of just a little more.
Overall, I very much enjoyed the time I spent with this interesting title. To Ash is not perfect, mind you. There were times when the game lagged (mostly around lava, though, to be fair, this could be an issue with my computer and not with the game), froze (only for a few seconds, and infrequently), and did need a little polish with the grammar in a few sections of the dialogue, I feel that it had a lot of interesting ideas and mechanics that it executed pretty well.
Total Score: 7/10
The review copy of To Ash was provided by the game’s developer.
You can visit the game’s website here, and you can check out the trailer below.