The walking simulator has come a long way in recent years. There’s the spiritual likes of Journey, the emotional ones like What Remains of Edith Finch and Firewatch, and horrors such as Layers of Fear. Now, thanks to Ashwalkers, there’s the “choose your own adventure” walking simulator hybrid.
Set in the bleakness of the apocalyptic future, under a hue of greys and ash, Ashwalkers is a sombre experience. The world’s gone to pot and your team of scouts is on a seemingly fruitless journey to find a new haven. Teamwork is key, as is maintaining the scouts to complete their journey.
On paper, it sounds like a good twist on the walking simulator. But putting concept to practice, as we never, doesn’t always work well. Is this one of those times, or is it a surprising hit? Let’s venture out to find the answer.
Darkest of Days
Humanity is near existence and the world is a barely habitable mess. In Ashwalkers, that is. I wasn’t going to go all doom and gloom on you here, don’t worry. The world is all Mad Max: food is scarce, no one trusts anyone and the majority of the terrain is of the barren kind.
And, as the name suggests, there’s a whole lot of ash. The sky is grey, the landscapes are grey, even the player interface is grey and bleak. As far as tones go, Ashwalkers is very much on the, “Woe is me” scale. Don’t let that put you off though.
The aim of the game is to improve the mood, by guiding your search party across the wastelands to find a new hope (to live, not the original VHS unedited copies).
Onwards and Thumbstick Upwards
It’d be nice to say that the gameplay of Ashwalkers makes up for the dour setting, but unfortunately, I can’t. At least in Mad Max they give you a car to toot about the apocalypse in, whereas here, it’s just your feet. Very, very slowly moving feet.
There are four members in the squad, all of which can be switched out to be the walking “leader” at any time. There’s no real point to this, other than personal preference on which nondescript grey shape you’d like taking point.
With no difference in speed, other than the default slowness, all players will be doing is holding the left thumbstick up, or a slight degree to the left or right, until something happens. This can range from finding some supplies on the road, setting up camp (more on that in a bit) or one of the game’s promising features, the choose-your-own-adventure decisions.
Have It Your Way
One of the positives about Ashwalkers is that it promises player choice and, unlike most binary systems that games offer, actually delivers on it. That’s not to say there aren’t any basic “go left or right” moments, but they’re secondary to the bigger issues you face.
To pick one of many examples, the scout party will come up against camps set up by other survivors. Some may seem hostile, but aren’t, whilst others are the opposite. How are you going to know this from making a basic judgement? Well, that’s the thing: you can’t.
So what Ashwalkers does it present you with options. If this band of stragglers seems too keen on inviting you in for shelter, it might be that they want to attack you. So, you can choose to walk on by at the risk of more fatigue, or take the upper hand and preemptively strike. Or, the might actually be trying to help… or they might jump you.
These are the choices you’re presented with, and that’s no surefire way of guaranteeing the outcome. It does mean that no two playthroughs are the same, with the game boasting some thirty four endings. Yet it also means you could have a really strong trip, lasting many days or, like my first one where I chose intimidation and violence, only last about thirty days.
The Quiet, The Desolation, The Futility…
It’s just a shame that the main tenet above cannot carry the rest of Ashwalkers boring gameplay. Yes, yes, I know, what I find boring could be exciting to some. Like Skyrim, I just don’t get it. But don’t take this just as opinion, but also a cautionary tale for what to expect.
The other part I mentioned is the camping, necessary to stop your team from burning out and fading away into the ashen wasteland. Each scout has a few parameters, like health and energy, and these must be looked after.
At any point, players can set up a camp and take some well-earned rest. In these moments, food and medical attention can be divided between who needs it. It starts off simple enough, making sure each one gets a fair amount. But as time goes on, players will be faced with moments that go wrong, with one of their team needing more medicine at the expense of another’s wounds.
It’s not quite the moral dichotomy it sounds like: it basically boils down to “look after your team, don’t make any rash decisions” as you go.
It’s Course, It Gets Everywhere and It Hurts To Look At
And now, folks, we get to the part in the review that put me off of playing (and subsequently reviewing) Ashwalkers for so long: its presentation. I said earlier that it’s all hues of greys and dark colours, but that in itself isn’t an issue. Games like Limbo, Inside and White Shadows use darkness to good effect, so it’s not based around that.
Instead it’s more that on a Switch Lite, the formatting of the characters and text is so bad that it actually strains my eyes to play it. Yet I don’t think that’s a problem due to playing on a Lite rather than a TV-based Switch. I’ve played The Witcher 3 on a Lite, and that looks incredible.
By comparison, Ashwalkers is just not very well polished. Text is tiny, and has this weird border/shadow thing to it that makes it nigh on illegible at times. It’s not a good sign when you’re holding your Switch close enough to your face to make sense of it.
It also has a jarring framerate to it that massively off-putting too. Whilst there’s no way of telling exactly what, and I’m not a savant, I’d predict it’s something like six frames per second. Alright, slightly hyperbolic, but it’s not enjoy to look at, let alone keep holding the thumbstick forwards for.
Left In The Dust
I wanted to like Ashwalkers. I really did: I love a good post-apocalypse story, and whilst survival games aren’t my usual forte, I’m always pleasantly surprised when a good one comes along. That’s why I took this on for review, because the trailer made it look interesting. But alas, it has properly Dead Island’d me.
As it happens, I lost interest quite quickly. I couldn’t even be bothered to make a note of the four character’s names, that’s how much the apathy got to me. Which is a shame, because the options the game presents does lend itself to the potential of a multi-playthrough kind of game.
However, potential doesn’t equate to practice and unfortunately, Ashwalkers became such an attrition to play that I just wasn’t enjoying. If it were to be patched then maybe I’d reconsider. But there aren’t enough hours in the day to wait for if‘s.
What could have potentially been a good hybrid of walking simulator and multiple choice adventure is instead buried under boring gameplay and eye-straining visuals. Ashwalkers squanders any narrative replayability by being an all-round drab experience that is as uninspiring as the wastelands it’s set in.
Ashwalkers is available now on Nintendo Switch (reviewed on Lite) and PC.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
If you enjoyed this article or any more of our content, please consider our Patreon.