Heave lads, ho lads // forget the comforts of home, you’re a nomad.
I love Frostpunk — I used to play it so much I’d get burns on my legs from my gaming laptop. The stakes were incredibly high, but there was a glimmer of hope with each small sliver of good news that would occasionally grace the weary Frostland citizens, seeking warmth wherever they could find it. Often, that good news came from the scouting missions, the intrepid explorers scouring the frozen wastelands in search of supplies, survivors, and information that could benefit the struggling population back in their new home. It was a mechanic I wish had been further expanded on, and it’s this mechanic I felt played out well on screen in Ashwalkers.
Developed by Nameless XIII and published by Dear Villagers, Ashwalkers is described on its Steam page as “a survival journey through a harsh world without rules or judgment.” A choose your own adventure type story with 34 different endings, Ashwalkers asks players to “manage your party, food & equipment in this non-linear narrative survival sim.” With an introductory price of $10.19 (regularly $11.99), this apocalyptic adventure game is sure to please those who, like me, enjoyed Frostpunk but wanted to know a little bit more about the world beyond the generator.
Ashwalkers has players taking on the role of four brave scouts referred to as “the Squad.” Petra, Sinh, Kali, and Nadir each bring to the table unique strengths and skills that will help them on their journey. Where are they going? To find the legendary Dome of Domes, a mythical safe haven that may or may not exist. With the Citadel’s future an unknown and 250,000 souls that need shelter from the hazardous elements wrought by the Cataclysm, the Squad must find humanity’s new home before time runs out.
Controls are simple, as it’s all point and click. You’ll take control of one person at a time as they traverse the gray, ashy landscape, occasionally picking up supplies in the form of medicine, meat, and firewood. These supplies are critical to their mission, as finding the Dome of Domes can take several weeks or even months. Ensuring the party members’ bellies are full, bodies are warm and rested, and their morale is high will be key to surviving the monochromatic, icy deserts. On occasion, the Squad will come to a halt, presented with an opportunity to make a choice. How will you fend off any wild predators? Should you trust the people who live in this barren wasteland? And what happens when your supplies run low and it gets too cold to press on?
I genuinely loved the aesthetics of Ashwalkers. I found the use of color — or lack thereof — both an interesting challenge and great immersion tactic. A challenge, certainly, because of how hard it can be to make things pop when you’re only using grayscale. Yet Ashwalkers succeeded in this endeavor; there were plenty of times I could see shadowy figures on the horizon or a predator out of the corner of my eye, everything spookier, colder, and just a little more sinister in this mysterious hellscape. Combined with the camera angles that really showcased the environments, I really appreciated the world of Ashwalkers, enough that it became a character of its own.
When it comes to the narrative aspect, I found Ashwalkers to be sufficiently interesting. I didn’t feel gripped by the edge of my seat, but I also found it hard to tear myself away. What I appreciated most about the storytelling specifically is that I was able to express intent and not just the event. When presented with an option to further the story, each character can offer the way they would solve the problem or handle the situation — one likes to brute force their way through, while another relies on stealth. Yet another is an engineer of sorts and likes to use items to MacGyver solutions, while another seeks to negotiate. Each option will likely yield a net positive — or at least a way forward — but I like that I can show why I chose an option and not just pick without any meaning behind it.
As for the survival aspects, Ashwalkers is stressful enough without being too punishing. I’m sure it’s possible for one of your Squad members to die, but I didn’t ever get to a point where I felt like that was going to happen. Perhaps it was because of the way I chose to play — optimistic emissaries — but supplies were always within reach, attacks were always able to be fended off, and the cold never got fatally bitter. That’s not to say that it was easy keeping everyone alive, of course, but more that a hopeful ending with all party members is an achievable goal. My advice? Hoard medical kits, don’t stay in one campsite for too long, and make friends with those that dwell in these ashy lands. You’ll have a more fruitful time befriending those who know how to walk these dreary paths than if you were to wage war against them.
If you’re looking for an engaging story along the lines of an RPG, you won’t find that here — Ashwalkers is more about soaking up the apocalyptic landscapes, experimenting in each scenario with different options, and living to tell the tale. After letting it sit for awhile, I find myself thinking more about the Squad sitting around a campfire, silently processing all they’ve encountered while keeping in mind the heavy burden they bear on their shoulders. I find myself curious about what the Cataclysm is, how their world got this way, and just how they’ve accepted this life as their “new normal.” I feel intrigued, I feel creative, but mostly, I feel cold.
Ashwalkers toes a fine line between survival and story and does a great job of it. The storytelling is just enough to tease out a unique ashy apocalypse without getting burdened by too many specifics, while the survival aspect is stressful but not impossible to overcome. While playing, I found myself invested in not only the Squad’s survival but the fate of those 250,000 souls back in the Citadel, only satisfied once I got an ending with a hopeful note. If you enjoyed the scouting section of Frostpunk and wanted to see that mechanic expanded upon, look no further than Ashwalkers.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Dear Villagers; Developer: Nameless XIII; Players: 1; Released: April 15, 2021; MSRP: $11.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Ashwalkers provided by the developer.