Desert Ashes is a turn based strategy game on a grid with a dark fantasy theme. It manages to feel familiar, yet so alien at the same time. In traditional game of this genre you’d have infantry, cannons, ships, tanks, airplanes, battleships and so on, but with Desert Ashes you have spiders, dragons, demons and airborne creatures. The objective itself is simple, capture the enemy’s base while defending your own. You get money with cities that belong to you and make units from fortresses. The game’s biggest boast is a seasonal system that will freeze water allowing for ground based units to traverse them and naval units to get stuck. In practice this takes too long to be used that often.
Each unit has its type, movement, attack range, strength and weakness. The larger the attack range, the slower and more expensive it is. Air units are weak to infantry. Infantry is weak to heavy and heavy is weak to air. Its a solid rock-paper-scissor mechanic. Then they all have their range of attack which becomes an issue, because you can move and then attack rather than a balance where long range units can only attack or move. Heavies can only travel on flat ground while infantry can go over mountains.
On paper, I like the game. Its a fun, easy to play game with unnecessary frustrations. The dynamics are simpler than other games of the genre and twist them in slight ways. There are no airports, rather factories that can generate any unit with the exception of water bases will generate naval units. In combination with the rock-paper-scissors mechanic, this makes every factory dangerous.
When capturing a city, you first remove the opposition’s capture rather than making your own. This will put more effort on the defender when their income has been nullified with a single turn. This allows you to free a city and stay moving at the cost of unclaimed cities that you never stuck around long enough to capture. Captures can be made only with infantry and an infantry of low health can capture just as quick as one with full health.
The terrain you’re on gives you bonuses to your defense, but it feels like the rock-paper-scissor far outweighs any defense. Each unit has ten points of health that get whittled down until that unit is destroyed. Finding a cactus will replenish infantry and only infantry health in every season except the winter. Once again, as a dark fantasy game, cactus mean health. There is no health increase for standing on your own cities or factories nor any way to merge two damaged units of the same type. You can also sell a unit that is on a city for a refund.
Each unit can move and attack in a turn. When attacking you see who you can attack and the damage you will do along with if that unit can counter strike. The battles are cut scenes where you see your hideous creature and its low budget animation attack. Then its followed by watching the defender get attacked and then a counterattack from any surviving members.
There are three modes to the game, a campaign with three episodes and multiple missions. The first episode feels like a rushed tutorial before the second episode lets you get into the game. There’s a multiplayer and a single player skirmish mode. Beyond that are a slew of other menu items, but its awkward getting to those items because you need to click and drag to the left to find them before you click and drag to scroll through the items. I smell mobile game design. Another indication of mobile design is when purchasing a new unit, you need to click it twice. One to show the unit and a second to buy it.
As for multiplayer, I attempted to login, but the first party support must have been pulled for this game. Even more interesting than that, if you’re offline from Steam you cannot even open the game. I assume its because your Steam account is your login for multiplayer, even if you only want single player.
Skirmish mode lets you select from many different maps and face the computer or a friend in either conquer or annihilation game types. Kudos to dark ashes for making a map that looks like flesh peninsula extending up into water. There are two playable characters, but its sad there are no abilities to differentiate them in terms of gameplay. No strengths or weaknesses.
With each victory in the campaign, you’re just shoved off to the next battle with no fanfare. A break to show you a score would have been nice and give a reason to replay each mission. Every new battle in the campaign kicks off with a lot of text that I just mash my way through. I have no investment with these creature characters.
My biggest hangup with the game is my inability to look at a spider and know that is a cannon, to look at a whale and know that is a battleship. To look at a depressed bird and see its a short range air vessel rather than a perky flying lizard to see that its a long range airborne cannon. Its easy to type what they are, but it seems so completely foreign.
Even if you’ve mastered which of your units do what, the enemy units are different than yours. Clicking on them reveals they’re an enemy, but what type is a mystery unless you recognize it. They do the same things, but you need to recognize and understand, so its as if the game is in three different languages. The military strategy game that is typical, your units and the enemies units. It turns into guesswork. Is my troop safe here or are they safe there?
Every creature is a different color, green, blue, red, yellow, white and so on, so its tough telling your army apart from your foe’s. They all face south, so there’s no help there. This becomes a major issue when you look at a crowded map and need to find all your units to play. If you chose to end a turn, the game never warns you there are unused units that need to move. Even though everything is on a grid, some units and your home base can obscure units behind them.
One of the infuriating things about the game is how I was able to dismiss a unit by accident several times. When you select a unit, you see flashes of red, units you can attack. So its easy just to select the unit and then attack. Well sometimes those highlighted units are out of range, so in place of attack is dismiss. There is no confirmation, they are just gone. It gets worse, because five percent of the time, the unit menu will start you on the dismiss command rather than the stay command or stay rather than attack. Repetition of always knowing that it will be stay leads to my own efficiency, but then when its sometimes something else boggles my mind. This is a major issue that needs consistency.
I learned to take my time to avoid missteps and after two hours I was able to understand which unit does what. A longer learning curve than expected for a genre that I know so well.
Each battle has a unit capacity, which is a good idea so its strategy rather than sheer numbers. If you reach your maximum capacity, you need to dismiss a unit and wait for the next turn before you are allowed to purchase a new one. To keep you on your toes, the unit capacity seems to shift, even during your turn itself. I’ve seen it go from twelve to fourteen.
Desert Ashes is a tough game to get into, but there is still fun here. Its a dirt cheap game that might be worth a risk to pick up. It has depth, a healthy campaign for the price and skirmishes to keep you playing.