An episodic JRPG seems like a hard sell – how do you cut a genre built on the backs of immense sagas and marathon weekend play sessions into bite-sized chunks? Apparently by writing cliffhangers into each narrative focal point and developing for iOS, where mobile users might appreciate a light-weight, turn-based trek through RPG Maker heaven.

Armed with a built-in audience, a new publishing deal with Konami, and a multi-tiered business model, Ash II: Shadows [$2.99 Silver Edition $4.99 Gold Edition] should have been a sure thing for SRRN Games. The UI is cleaner, the sprites more detailed, and random encounters replaced with on-screen enemies – Konami cash put to good use. I have the lasting impression, though, that SRRN's business concerns have impacted – if  not downright dictated – some of its design choices.

The first – and so far, only – chunk of Shadows lasts about five hours, during which time players are exposed to enough world-building and character introductions to feel the full weight of the cliffhanger that introduces the inevitable second chapter. Creating a coherent narrative arc in a relatively confined – by JRPG standards – space means that Shadows employs rather brisk pacing, both narrative and systematic.

I haven't played the original Ash [99¢ / Lite], but I enjoy feeling like a newcomer to the world, and Shadows does a good job of dripfeeding players relevant information without getting too bogged down in exposition. The interpersonal relationships are full of sharp, punchy dialogue that achieves a great amount of characterization in very little time.

Indeed, Shadows puts a premium on action – Damien, a disgraced Aghausian rebel, and his ragtag band are constantly questing and exploring, and they spend very little time actually discussing their options or thinking rationally. It's nice to avoid hearing them labor every detail of exploring what they call "a magical fairy continent," but Shadows can feel ill-plotted and haphazard as a result of its breakneck pace.

The upside is that, by constantly offering something new to see and learn, Shadows' narrative elements can keep players hooked where its systems fall short. Like most things in Ash, the systems are relatively basic and cribbed from larger, more-established franchises. The basic components of the game are a paper-rock-scissors elemental system, a weapon proficiency meter, a queue that maps out the order of the turn-based combat, and skills which are gained by leveling up.

At its best, Shadows is a game about balancing power for precision. Players balance equipping their characters with weapons that carry a high proficiency with ones that come with elemental bonuses. Combat is an exercise in trying to manipulate the queue to your advantage, in trying to get as many turns as possible without letting the enemy in line – it's just too bad that all the best attacks come with heavy queue penalties.

These are basic RPG conceits, but there's potential here – they're common because they work really well. The problem, quite frankly, is that the game is too easy. This is ostensibly in response to the first game's difficulty, but because each battle ends so quickly, I never really have to make any tough choices or fully take advantage of the mechanics in place. When Shadows lets me one-shot my way through the first five hours, it leaves an entire combat system unused and unexplored. (There's also IAP to, god forbid, buy XP-boosting equipment.)

The larger point here is that Shadows' story works well with the game's episodic structure and the gameplay doesn't. As a five-hour mirco-RPG, Shadows provides a satisfying narrative arc. It's ok to take it slow if your game lasts 80 hours, but this one only lasts five –the systems feel underdeveloped and stunted. There's a disconnect in Damien's experience as a player-character and my experience as the man behind the scenes. On the bright side, though – there's no grinding necessary, which lets me get back to the story all the quicker, and there's nothing stopping SRRN from re-balancing the game before Chapter 2 is released.

That's the thing: there are still five more chapters to play. Ash II: Shadows comes in two packages, gold and silver. If you buy the gold version, all future content will be free. Silver buyers get the second chapter free and a discount on extra content.  There's also a "bronze" version in the works – the first chapter will be free, but subsequent content will have to be purchased. Since the rest of the game hasn't been priced yet, it's impossible to know how the silver and bronze packages will shake out.

This is a quandary: I like the story and want to see more of it, but I want the systems to get more engaging before plopping out more cash, especially because it's so easy to see that the fundamentals are already in place. Ash II: Shadows is an improved game over the original in many ways, but until some tweaks are made and we see how the rest of the episodes shake out it's hard to gauge if it's ultimately an overall better experience.

TouchArcade Rating

StarStarStarStarNone
  • http://entrepreneurialblog.com Niclas Johansson

    Ehrm...

    "I haven't played the original Ash"... and then "Ash II: Shadows is an improved game over the original in many ways" made me not very interested in reading the rest of the interview, sorry.

    • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

      Well, if you stopped reading there you only missed half of a sentence. :)

    • http://twitter.com/ndre_Ba Andre B

      Agreed. Why would you even assign a journalist to review Ash 2 if they haven't played the first. This just leads me to believe that even though TA talked a lot about Ash 1 when it first came put, they never even finished the game. They just jumped on the bandwagon and reported on it. Pretty crappy way to review a game without even finishing it.

      • http://twitter.com/JaredTA Jared Nelson

        I'm the one that reviewed and beat the first Ash, FYI.

        I don't necessarily think a person reviewing a sequel MUST have played and beaten the original. It's actually a nice perspective getting somebody's thoughts on a game who is brand new to the series, and seeing how well the sequel handles introducing them to the world or summarizing the important plot points from the first game (if at all).

        I mean, the dev of the game would obviously like to expand their audience, rather than strictly cater to just the people who have played the first game, no? I think Joseph's evaluation of the game was pretty much spot on, too.

    • http://twitter.com/JaredTA Jared Nelson

      I actually added that last line in myself. The review ended kind of abruptly and I wanted to end on a short summarization. Sorry if that made it confusing for you.

      Besides that, though, I think this was a very thoughtful review and accurate evaluation of the game. You should try reading it sometime.

      • http://entrepreneurialblog.com Niclas Johansson

        Will do, and will probably buy/play the game in the end. First I need to play the first one though, still have it on my catch-up list... 

        And yeah it makes more sense now that you clarified those two sentences being written by two different people. Just didn't add up in my mind :)

      • http://twitter.com/JaredTA Jared Nelson

        haha, yeah that's the byproduct of an editor making decisions at 4 in the morning :) Anyway, do finish the first game and consider checking this one out, they're pretty sweet little RPGs. Cheers :)

  • Anonymous

    Well, if the reviewer would have played the original he'd probly understand what's going on and not feel like damiens character is in some "disconnect" with how he see's the game. I agree though, I don't feel like the game is quite as polished as the first one. All I can say is maybe it's easy because it's just the first chapter and maybe by the second they,ll address all the issues. For right now though there are a few major issues keeping me from even playing much less enjoying the game. The load time between fights etc.. Accompinied with a white screen and disruptions in the music are unbearable. I still think the controls could use an upgrade as well.

    I think reviewing Ash 2 is a bad idea, theres not enough material here to be able to form a complete and thorough judgement of the game. At the same time maybe releasing the game like this was a bad idea if waiting a year to get the game out in full form or even half I think would have been a better way to go. I guess they were a bit to eager in getting the game out perhaps...

    I think once they've released everthing they can go back and put it with the first one and release it all as one game. For right now though it feels like a bad freemium game waiting for updates and improvements.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CUJHSQSQYTYT4DPZSKTVESYNQ B

    According to the developer, a patch that makes the game more difficult and address the issues in the music (which I haven't noticed because I turn the music off) has already been submitted -- they're just waiting for Apple to approve it.

    I agree the game as it currently exists is too easy, so I'm going to wait to finish this chapter until the patch goes through.

    As far as plot: I don't find it rushed at all, but then I played the first game (and just re-played it last week before I started the sequel.)  I highly recommend playing Ash before Ash 2 -- and for its own sake as well.  I think Ash 2 is to a certain extent assuming you're attached to and care about the characters already at the beginning of the game -- which if you played Ash, you do!

    IMO the strength of the franchise is the storytelling.  My experience with JRPGs (and in fact most RPGs) is that they tend to skimp on story, that the stories tend to be predictable, and that you don't become strongly attached to the characters.  Ash, on the other hand, has a story I find compelling, plot twists I wasn't expecting, and characters I care about.  (I'm going to be very sad if Nick and Damien don't make it out of this.)

    Personally, I bought the Gold edition and am eagerly awaiting Chapter 2. :-)

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CUJHSQSQYTYT4DPZSKTVESYNQ B

    Oh, also:  I appreciate the clever dialog and the fact that so far there have been no "collect 12 of some random item for no readily apparent reason" quests.  Pretty much everything you have to do in the game is story-related.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/S5VAEN6VMDUM7GVAIHW6J6KY3A montana

    Uh, 5 hours? I beat chapter 1 in less than 30 min. You can just march right past enemies and still beat the bosses easily and cut it to 20 or so min.

ASH II: Shadows (GOLD Edition) Reviewed by Joseph Leray on . Rating: 3.5