Sometimes a game comes along that can’t match the visual flair of its competitors, but something really special lies at its core that its competitors lack — call it “soul.” It’s utterly trite to begin a review this way, and yet, Ash is one of those games. SRRN Games really makes a gamble with an aesthetic that can only inspire comparison to the oft-maligned RPG Maker development suite, but once you spend a little time with Ash it becomes clear that the development team is absolutely serious about its craft.

Ash begins with an artfully executed silent intro – here, “silent” means no dialogue text boxes – in which its central character, a veteran general named Nicholas, survives a mysterious spate of violence that carries overtones of assassinatory betrayal. The central question of how he and his ill-fortuned family became targets thus planted, Ash‘s narrative fast forwards five years to a haggard, graying Nicholas eking out a living as a mercenary with his younger protégé Damien. Their present task is to venture into the mines of Nikel to discover what’s spooked the town’s miners and shut down ore production.

What they find isn’t particularly friendly, and in its death throes it curses Nicholas with an ash-black lesion that confers dark powers on him while gradually consuming his body and mind. In a race against time, Nicholas and Damien scour their medieval-themed world for clues as to what’s stricken him. The plot’s pair of central mysteries – the first presented during the intro and the second in Nikel mine – threaten to tear the story in twain as they compete for narrative attention at first, but they’re gradually woven together with care and backed up by genuinely witty dialogue. Everyone from the lowliest NPC to Nicholas and his growing party brim with personality, but it’s always the informal father/son relationship between Nicholas and Damien – fraught as it is with hilarious verbal jabs at one another – that furnish Ash‘s most poignant moments. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a JRPG with a narrative constructed and told as well as it is here, and I must say the wait was absolutely worth it.

That’s not to say that Ash isn’t loaded with its fair share of cliché – female healers and evil imperial magistrates abound – but its plot is so well conveyed that it shrugs off whatever déjà vu might have plagued a story written with less skill. It’s as if SRRN Games took a look back at the state of RPGs in the early 1990s and decided on a project that would capture that era’s gameplay mechanics while beefing up the narrative quality to a truly professional level.

 

That means, of course, that Ash‘s gameplay feels dated in certain respects – but at least it’s beautifully executed on the iOS. Field and overworld movement occur via a sort of relative virtual D-pad scheme in which Nicholas’ sprite lies at the center of the control points: press left of him on the touchscreen and he moves in that direction, etc. Tapping on objects and NPCs initiates investigation and conversation. Shopping runs and the game’s battle system revolve around big responsive virtual buttons and intuitive drag-and-drop maneuvers, so there’s no struggling to scroll menus and tap virtual buttons too small for their own good as iDevice gamers have experienced in a few too many ported titles.

The most recent update adds an explicit, stationary virtual D-pad and an interaction virtual button, but I found the virtual D-pad far too small to bother with and thought the original setup perfectly suitable in any case. One thing I did long for was a way of making Nicholas run; he sure does take his time moseying through towns and dungeons!

As expected of a game that sticks close to early JRPG conventions, the player’s experience in Ash can be conceptually divided into exploration and battle. Exploration here is a real treat that’s sure to invoke nostalgia for pre-1995 greats like Lunar. Even when there isn’t a useful item stuffed into a given barrel or cave nook, the player’s consolation prize for taking the time out to explore is more often than not a laughworthy quip. Also, rest assured that Ash is free of those “fetch ten of these!” sidequests that feel so much like content filler in the Action RPGs that populate much of the genre’s iOS library; all of Nicholas’ travels flow logically from the story.

Unfortunately, the fact that the player isn’t encouraged to go on assignment collection sprees in Ash apparently made way for the game’s most glaring flaw. Absent the pressure to manage multiple sidequests at once, SRRN Games overlooked the mobile player’s critical need for world map and story progress references; at times I found myself wracking my brain trying to remember which town Nicholas & co. were supposed to head for after setting the game down for a few hours. As a stopgap measure the developers provide the game’s world map on their website, but here’s to hoping this becomes accessible in-game via future updates.

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