Back to Ashes by InDID
Back to Ashes is a small team’s attempt at a Dark Souls-inspired, third-person action RPG. The team is so small, in fact, that it began as a single-person studio run by Michal Samociuk before he was able to secure the efforts of a few additional volunteers for help with UI, dialogue and musical score.
Is it remotely possible that such a tiny team could produce something to rival the grim masterpieces of FromSoftware?
Early Access Issues
The easy and obvious answer is no, of course not. But Samociuk and friends have come awfully close.
To get the other obvious part out of the way, Back to Ashes does have its issues. Wall clipping glitches, clumsiness with enemy targeting, and typographical and grammatical errors especially make themselves known early on.
There are also some graphical inconsistencies with textures. In particular, the interactions between meshes make your main character look particularly ugly when he’s wearing a helmet. (Admittedly, without a helmet, you can see his man-bun, which might be even worse.)
More seriously, the UI can be less than intuitive, and much as I hate the dodge-roll as a mechanic in general, putting the dodge-roll key next to the key that opens your character sheet is almost unforgivable. Thankfully you can change key-bindings easily.
Here’s the thing, though: those are all pretty tiny issues, broadly speaking, and easily fixed. Plus, Back to Ashes is in Early Access, and little glitches and problems are to be expected.
Already Kicking Ash
Those minor problems aside, Back to Ash is a blast. Movement feels nice and combat feels even better, relying on the now-standard mixture of blocks, dodges and strikes while also monitoring the dual bars of health and stamina.
Fights are hard, too: One soldier or skeleton is manageable, but if you’ve got two coming at you at once, there’s no way you can get by with just mashing your attack button, and if either of them has a pole-arm or – gods forbid – some kind of fire-summoning magic or whatever, forget about it.
They don’t get significantly easier with time, either. Returning almost to the game’s starting point, I encountered a couple of guards from early on in the game who had re-spawned. Assuming I was now powerful enough to take them out with one blow, I got sloppy, didn’t bother to properly time my strikes, and was immediately smote.
More importantly, the different weapon types all feel delightfully different; an axe-swing is slower and somehow heavier than a sword and spinning around with knives in each hand far lighter than either, and the clanks and thuds of steel against steel make fights feel visceral and vibrant.
Add to that a range of item types and enchantments, diverse level progression and equipment-customization systems and even a lock-picking mini-game that manages not to be annoying, and Back to Ashes shows scope and depth that would be impressive even from a studio triple its size.
Ominous Ashen Gloom
As expected, the world of Back to Ashes is dreary and bleak. You’ve got your magical curse that’s turned the world into an ash-haunted nightmare – complete with magical ash as currency, a la Deck of Ashes – and if that’s not bad enough, you’ve also got a rift into a ghostly alternate dimension where everything’s even worse.
It’s so effectively presented, though, that it feels almost fresh. Instead of leaning into the Lovecraft-inspired surrealistic horror of its inspirations, InDID went in a more grim and realistic direction. Apart from the fireballs and skeletons, in fact, the first few hours of the game could almost pass for a historical Medieval game, albeit a depressing one.
But from the crumbling, desiccated corpses of the underworld – reminiscent of the dead uncovered at Pompeii – to Sam Oz’s score, which has occasional moments of epic fantasy bombast but largely, wisely hovers ominously in the background, Back to Ashes is consistently creepy. Between the constant reminders of death and the very real possibility of it due to the difficulty of combat, this one kept me deliciously tense throughout my time with it.
As Back to Ashes comes closer to leaving Early Access, it’s bound to get even better, but honestly, I found this game so compelling I’m comfortable recommending it in its current state. A really impressive debut from a tiny but talented team.
Back to Ashes is available via Steam Early Access.
Check out the official trailer for Back to Ashes below: