Mistwalker's first DS SRPG outing, ASH: Archaic Sealed Heat with development being done by Racjin, didn't receive such a warm reception in its homeland. Whether it had anything to do with the zero promotion the game had during its development cycle or its poor marketing is unknown which gave the game a lot of anonymity, but in the eyes of many who've played the game with ample time, ASH is more of a double edged sword than a fine wine. While the game may come from Final Fantasy father Hironobu Sakaguchi and has an overall amazing story with interesting gameplay that can be hearkened to Bahamut Lagoon, its the other details that seem to hurt ASH more than it does help it. Though personally I found the game and its gameplay mechanics to be interesting and somewhat trivial, I can't help but ignore the many criticisms attached to the game. Of course I'm not going to flat out bash the game and deem it a huge failure since I liked it, but for the many of you who've shared an interest in the game since its announcement and release, and have different tastes when it comes to your handheld SRPG fix, ASH may not be for you.
Let's start with the two negatives that really matter for those who are interested. For starters and perhaps the most obvious criticism, ASH's 2D interface isn't very pretty on the eyes. If you were to look at a screenshot or video of ASH in motion, you'd more than likely notice that ASH's overworld and battlefield map visuals are perhaps the ugliest 2D visuals you've ever seen. The characters and enemies don't move around very smoothly and instead move in a jagged manner above all else. This shouldn't really bother anyone who can get past a game's graphics and instead focus on its substance, but you can't help but notice how vague it really looks considering how much of the game is spent looking at and maneuvering in its 2D interface.
Another big problem with ASH is its heavy emphasis on using only the stylus. While it does sound very good in theory, it doesn't transition very well in practice. Everything from purchasing items, equipping characters with new equipment, summoning more recruits to battle functions like moving team units on the field, selecting an enemy to attack, selecting a character to heal, and even selecting a treasure to open are all done with the stylus. Of course it may not sound so bad right now, but what's really the issue is the whole double tapping process which really isn't necessary considering one tap is more than enough. In a typical battle, your actions would primarily consist of the following flow chart:
Double tap unit(s) > double tap selected area of movement > double tap to confirm selected movement > double tap whichever unit you want to initiate the attack > double tap monster you plan on attacking > double tap to confirm once more and enter battle > double tap command you want your unit to initiate when its his/her turn and repeat until battle is over > double tap to confirm that team's turn is over
As you can clearly see, its the double tapping and not the actions themselves that are more of a problem. While you may think its something small and easy to ignore (which it really is considering double tapping isn't something you mind constantly doing), its the systematic double tapping itself that seems to be so out of place and unnecessary the further you get into the game and realize all your actions and choices could easily be done with just a single tap.
These two major criticisms are what really bring out the bad aspects of the game for the majority who share a concern over such matters, but those who can look past these major issues are those who can see the good aspects of the game. Battles themselves are done in traditional turn-based fashion with both enemy and team units appearing as high resolution pre-rendered models that animate very smoothly as opposed to their 2D models that animate very jagged. Every single attack an enemy or a unit can initiate all have their own smoothly animated movements which don't take too long to end, and battles initiated by your team units don't end until you've defeated the enemy, the enemy has wiped you out, or you simply choose to run away and flee. What's interesting about ASH's battles is what many of you familiar with Fire Emblem already know, and that would be the all time concept of permadeath. If any of your team members are defeated in battle phase and aren't immediately revived during the battle phase, that team member, whether it be a key character of the game or a warrior you summoned from the ashes, is gone for good. This adds a nice element of strategy to the game as keeping your characters alive is what you really want to do to avoid any complications should any arise.
Though there aren't any field bonuses or terrain bonuses as there are in other SRPGs, the amount damage both your characters and the enemy deal and receive varies on your range from the enemy and vice versa. Range is the key to carefully conducting battles in a precise manner as all classes don't share the same physical defense as others, and what makes range lovely is the ability to have your mage units (White, Black, and Monster) and Itemer remain a few blocks away from your primary physical attackers (Stealer, Battler, and Longsword) and still deal a nice sum of damage via magical attacks or elemental pots. Physical attackers don't share this luxury of dealing strong amount of damages from far away, but they make up for it by being closer to the enemy. Another interesting thing about your units is the ability to sacrifice them through a process called Engage. When sacrificing your units for the sake of your party leaders, your party leaders earn a nice stat boost as well as learning some new personal skills that are exclusive to them. Of course you can't just summon an ASH warrior and initiate Engage, so you'll have to have those warriors participate with your party leaders in battle for a while before Engage can be initiated. This makes things a lot nicer for those who are stat boosting aficionados and are looking for a quick fix to power up team leaders.
Skills and spells themselves are learned in typical level up fashion with skills and spells being limited to certain classes and conveniently categorized into elements or attributes. All skills and spells have a maximum level of 6 with each level obviously consuming more MP, and you are free to choose at which level a skill or spell can be executed. While some skills and spells are limited to one enemy/unit, other spells can be cast on all enemy/units by simply moving the stylus across the screen to select all monsters/units with damage being equally divided among the three or heavily dealt on one.
The game features well done voice acting and an abundance of FMV sequences that help branch out the story of a young princess going on a journey to reclaim the bracelet of the Kingdom of Millinear from an ancient evil that's brought destruction to her kingdom. Whether or not ASH will see a Western release isn't known; and even though the game isn't fairing so well in Japan (sold 67,000 units as of yet total according to this week's Media Create sales), it doesn't change the fact that ASH truly is something worth experiencing for the sake of seeing and experiencing Mistwalker's first DS game. Even if the double tapping is nonsensical and the 2D interface atrocious and outlandish, it's the deeper substance of ASH, its gameplay mechanics and strategic approach to battles, that truly bring out the best in the game. Do yourself a favor and play the game with an open mind to determine whether or not its really for you.