Ash II: Shadows Episode 1 Review

(Editor’s Note: What follows is the original review written for the first version the author played. Since then, one or more major critiques have been addressed by the developer. For a list of these, see “Addendums” below the original review score at the end of the article.)

Ash received a major visual overhaul last month, but it turns out that wasn’t the only shocker SRRN Games had up their collective sleeve. The sequel, Ash II: Shadows, just hit the App Store among the barrage of high profile releases this week — with publishing rights picked up by Konami, no less! Before we get into the review, let’s take care of some important preliminaries. Ash II  is available in Silver ($2.99) and Gold ($4.99) editions, the major difference being how many of Ash II’s planned installments you’ll get. The Silver edition nets you the current episode and the next, whereas the Gold edition entails all six in one bargain-priced package. Whichever way you go, note that only the first episode is available at the moment.

Ash II picks up right where the first game left off, with mercenary-turned-revolutionary Damien hot on the trail of an evil emperor who’s fled to a recently unsealed continent. If he’s lucky he’ll also find out what happened to Nicholas, his mentor, who’s been quite literally corrupted by the black goo that plagues their world. Fair warning: jumping straight into Ash II without having played the prequel would be a little like starting The Lord of the Rings by picking up The Two Towers. There’s some cleverly contrived exposition, but this suffices only to bring the Ash fan back up to speed.

That said, Ash II definitely retains the strength of its predecessor in the story department. It’s worth noting that the mood has shifted somewhat, however. Wisecracking Damien and grave-tempered Nicholas made a wonderful odd couple in Ash, which hit a perfect pitch in the way it could be deadly serious in one scene and hilarious in the next. With Nicholas out of the picture for much of this episode, funny quips take center stage — so if you’re a fan of oddball humor in your JRPGs, rest assured you can look forward to a script with few dull moments. Some item descriptions could use a little cleanup, but the story dialogue continues the Ash tradition of impeccable text delivery.

Rather than rely on the exact same game engine, the developers have experimented on several fronts. Enemies can be seen before they’re encountered – ever the best design choice a JRPG developer can make! – and battles are completely absent on the overworld map so you can focus more on ferreting around for optional dungeons. A journal system keeps the player well informed of Damien’s next destination even after a healthy break, and while only the overworld has a map, only the overworld is complex enough to require one at the moment. On the character management front, there’s a weapon experience system that lets the player gradually train Damien and his motley crew out of their defaults. Also appreciated is an auto-save system that does a stellar job of saving the player’s behind whenever he or she forgets to save manually.

And then, there are those changes that will disappoint both Ash fans and longtime JRPG veterans. Ash was the most challenging genre title in recent memory, forcing the player to exploit the interesting subtleties of its skill system and keeping the heat on consumable inventory. Consumables have been wiped from Ash II; characters exit battles fully healed instead. This design choice is neutral at worst — while I genuinely miss inns and potions, I have to admit that the new approach makes things scarily convenient. The great drawback that’s been introduced is the complete nerfing of enemies on top of this. Damien’s team cuts through mutated grizzlies and other unsavory creatures like hot chainsaws through butter; to give you a good idea of just what I mean, I took out this episode’s climactic boss in just a few hits with a party that was only decently outfitted for the job. Let me rephrase that again: I almost one-shotted the last boss, and I didn’t have to raise a golden chocobo to do it. True, it’s fair to expect the difficulty of this three-to-five hour snippet to be lower than it will be in the chapters to follow. But even if we grant it that, Ash II is shaping up to be much too easy for the genre at this point.

Virtual D-pads have made such strides on iOS since the first Ash, it’s all too easy to find disappointment in the tiny one on offer in Ash II’s user interface options. On balance, the default control – which has the player tapping in the direction he or she wants Damien to go – is just as robust as it was in the first Ash, and this is what virtually all players are sure to stick with in the end. Also retained is the player’s control over battle speed and the ability to tap on enemies rather than swim through menus for regular attacks. All in all, Ash II leaves me impressed with solidly executed battle, navigation, and character management systems. Its greatest technical shortcoming is its tendency to skip like a damaged record while transitioning from exploration to battle, and from exploration to the character menu. This definitely feels like a memory management issue, so it could be specific to the iPod Touch 4 — ever the bane of iOS developers with its pretty Retina display and yet half the memory of its phone-capable sibling. It’s yet another reason to skip right past as many battles as possible and get on with the story if you’re playing on this device.

Like its predecessor, Ash II has a bit of a quirky visual approach: Retina-worthy sprites, yet only minimal animation. Such is the case both in and out of battle, leaving me holding out hope for continued evolution as the series matures. The game’s character art is absolutely stunning though, and a new collection of atmospheric orchestral tracks lends Ash II a presentational punch that goes beyond what you’d expect judging from screenshots. The first episode of Ash II will last three hours at a minimum, and a cool developer room with bonus dungeons is on hand to tide victorious players over until the next episode hits.

iFanzine Verdict: If you loved the first Ash, you’ll want to grab this one if your chief consideration is the continuing story — but be prepared for disappointingly low challenge and also technical hiccups if you’re playing on an iPod Touch 4. JRPG fans who haven’t played the first should go do that now. You’ll get the best of both worlds, because by the time you get to Ash II, it will hopefully have received some difficulty rebalancing and extra polish in updates.

Addendum: Difficulty rebalancing.