Reviews  |  DS


ASH -Archaic Sealed Heat-
starstar

By Alex Kierkegaard / November 7, 2007


Considering that a large part of Ash's development was done by Racjin (known mostly for working on licensed properties such as Naruto, Hagane no Renkinjutsushi and Bleach), their name is conspicuously absent from the box, the title screen, and even the game's official website. As far as the general public is concerned, Ash was developed from the ground up by Sakaguchi's Mistwalker, while Racjin are just the underpaid hacks working behind the scenes, getting recognition for their efforts only on websites such as Wikipedia and the one you are reading right now.


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But perhaps they don't necessarily want recognition for this particular effort, because as of this writing there's still no mention of Ash even on Racjin's own website. Or perhaps they are not allowed to talk too loudly about their involvement. And how substantial was that involvement anyway? No outsider seems to know, though from the few Japanese sources (and they were very, very few) that I managed to come across it seems the bulk of development was done by them, with Mistwalker handling only the producing side of things (excepting the Napoleon-like Sakaguchi of course, who apparently not only designed the game, but also dreamed up its poor excuse of a scenario).


But the exact details of who was responsible for which part of this cold, calculated DS SRPG bandwagon-jumper should not concern us any further, because by now the more astute observers of the travesty that is the modern videogame industry will have already figured out Sakaguchi's gameplan. You see the man's on a mission to create a Squeenix-rivalling brand whose name he can stamp on as many game-containing boxes as possible, selling them by the millions and ROLFing all the way to the bank. The actual coding of Mistwalker's games is being done by, at best, second-rate unknowns such as Artoon, Racjin and cavia, or unproven start-ups such as feelplus. A thick coating of pretty artwork and music is then slathered on top by the biggest names Sakaguchi's money will buy (PROTIP: he has lots of money), and the final product is hyped and promoted according to the latest scientifically-proven public-defrauding schemes.


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You think I am being too cynical? Did you get around to playing Blue Dragon? Well, okay, Blue Dragon wasn't quite as bad as this, and I still had my doubts about Mistwalker after slogging my way through it -- but play this and you'll see where I am coming from.


This is the worst SRPG I've played since Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Sakaguchi enters a genre where you have to be an expert at sucking to make something bad, and proves he can suck right up there with the best of them. Incredibly inane and clunky battle system, butt-ugly graphics, annoying music and sound effects, generic everything -- it even has some of the flatout stupidest character names in a game ever! (not to mention the title). I don't even know where to begin -- perhaps I shouldn't!!


The battle system is such a weird mix of SRPG/JRPG conventions, such an idiotic, ridiculously convoluted mess, that even though I forget these kinds of "systems" (it's a euphemism, don't you know -- because there's nothing systematic about them) the moment I am through with them, I'll probably remember this one to the day I die. In a nutshell, you move units around a map SRPG-style, but when one of your units engages an enemy TIME FREEZES OVER FOR EVERYONE ELSE ON THE BATTLEFIELD while you are whisked off into a JRPG-style individual battle sequence. Your OTHER units on the map join in, but only if they are within range (if they are at long range they can only fire spells etc., and if they are too far away they can't do jack shit).


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BUT -- and it's a huge but -- once an engagement has begun YOU CANT MOVE ANY UNITS -- EVEN THE ONES INVOLVED IN THE ENGAGEMENT! I MEAN HOW FUCKING DUMB IS THAT IN A TACTICS GAME?


Meaning that if one of your fighters happens to be just a bit too far to attack with his sword, he is not allowed to put one foot in front of the other and approach the enemy -- even if the battle lasts all fucking day!


There's so much crap like this in the game that I could go on for pages, and you know what -- perhaps I will!


The maximum number of combatants in each of these engagements is capped at three-on-three. This is no doubt because the DS couldn't handle any more of the ZOMG PRETTY PRE-RENDERED 3D MODELS on-screen at the same time. So even if a dozen enemy units are within range when you initiate an attack, only up to three of them will take part per engagement. Of course even Sakaguchi could see that an SRPG which only allowed you control of three characters at a time would be laughed at even by the zombie reviewers of Famitsu and IGN, so he came up with the concept of "teams" and "leaders". Aisya, the heroine, is one such leader, and more start joining you after the first couple of chapters. But characters controlled by one leader cannot enter an engagement under the command of another, so you get the travesty of battles where, even though some friendly units are closer to the enemy than the ones currently engaged in battle, they just sit there and do nothing. For as long as the engagement lasts. They just sit there.


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Dear reader, there are more retarded design choices where the above came from, but do you really care by this point? Ash blows because a) Sakaguchi knows absolutely nothing about designing strategy games, and b) his overriding priority was in shoving in your face the largest, most detailed character models possible. The result is a battle system that defeats the whole purpose of having grid-based tactical combat in the first place.


And of course everything that could be done to remove the main distinguishing feature of SRPGs over JRPGs (that is to say the challenge) has been done. A quick-save can be made at any time during a battle, items are shared from a common pool so that every character has access to them at any time in any place, dead characters are restored to life in exchange for a negligible amount of money -- and if all that was not enough the battle set-ups themselves are extremely easy.


As for the gfx, which were supposed to be so great that they would only fit on an 2 gigabit card -- man oh man. Granted, the models themselves move smoothly and all, but the backgrounds in the battle maps are made up of jerkily-scrolling PS-era polygons, and the tiny cheapo sprites only have, like, three frames of animation and look like they were borrowed from a cellphone game.


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Everything in Ash feels like an afterthought, though this perhaps is not the best way to put it since an afterthought implies some amount of initial thought, which is nowhere apparent here. The first enemy you'll meet is called -- I shit you not -- "Fireball". That's right, there's a class of monsters in this game called Fireball. There are character classes named "White Magic", "Black Magic", "Battler", "Stealer", "Itemer" (he also runs the shop) and "Longsword" (guess what kind of sword he uses). There are characters named "Bullnequ", "Razor", "Needle", and "Dan". So-called "potions" are not actually imbibed -- they are used, much like most ranged weapons in the game, with a simple wave of the hand. There is a certain cruelty and predatory attitude towards potential players of this game which can be discerned in all its aspects, and which can only depress those with the eyes to see it.


In closing, I must mention that I gave the game an extra star because it serves as a perfect case-study of shitty game design. I have no illusions about Sakaguchi-san anymore. Lost Odyssey is coming soon: prepare for the worst.



Screenshots courtesy of Dengeki Online and Gpara. There are currently no plans to release Ash outside Japan.