Desert Ashes isn’t exactly a newcomer to the gaming world. Having first gotten its feet wet in the PC marketplace, it has made the transition to the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation TV in that dubious “free-to-play” format that makes some gamers uncomfortable. While you could go download the game right now, without giving it a second thought, I think it is worth discussing the nuances of this relatively unknown title that borrows heavily from one of the best portable games around.
The Great Pretender
At first glance, Desert Ashes looks like Tim Burton’s reimagining of Nintendo’s Advance Wars series. While I don’t have any love for the aforementioned film director, Advance Wars is an entirely different story; despite being a sacrilegious Nintendo property, it made an otherwise complicated strategy genre into an approachable engaging game with a deceptively cute art style to go along with the carnage of war. In some ways, Desert Ashes is able to recapture that same spark, but developer Nine Tails Digital fails to efficiently utilize the power they’ve harnessed.
Desert Ashes doesn’t have a story per se, but the game does center around a conflict between two warring factions: the Winged Crusade and the Landians. Diving into the single-player campaign, gamers learn the ropes of the different units, step-by-step to show strengths and weaknesses of each unit. This first chapter acts as an extended tutorial as a subordinate and a commanding officer of the Winged Crusade exchange some clunky exposition to explain away every detail of combat.
Similar to Advance Wars, Desert Ashes pits infantry, ground, sea, and air units against each other in a rock-paper-scissors style of gameplay. For example, infantry can take care of air units with ease, but ground vehicles wipe the floor with infantry units. There is a mix of different units in each of the four categories, some that excel at a range while others get up close. To add more units, you’ll need to capture cities (resources) and additional factories while keeping the enemy at bay. As time passes, the water will freeze to allow land units to cross otherwise impassable regions. In addition to water, the very terrain a given unit stands on can be the difference between a movement penalty or a defensive buff. At a basic level, Desert Ashes provides combat that can easily be enjoyed if you’re willing to put the time in.
Visually, the game looks a lot like Advance Wars (except for the squidy-looking monster things), sporting a goofy, vibrant styling to it. After your troops engage in combat, the more unusual art style appears. Metal clad monsters, cannon-mounted monstrosities, and propeller-powered beasts fill the landscape with an absurd-ish look that helps define the game beyond just a clone. Due to the unconventional unit design (not your typical tank or plane icons), it can be difficult to keep track of exactly which enemy units you have to contend with. The art design really cuts both ways, adding personality while requiring more involvement to learn the basic unit structure.
Freemium Isn’t Free
After completing the first chapter of the campaign, your options are limited on what you can see and do. You could jump into some multiplayer matches, square off against a friend locally, play a one-off match against AI, or throw a few bucks towards the developer for chapter 2 or 3. By dropping $1.99 on another chapter, you’ll get a ton more multiplayer maps and continue the campaign story further. What story there is dives deeper into the history of the Landian/Winged Crusade conflict, at least compared to the barebones first chapter. Mostly, the story serves to set up the next combat encounter rather than growing a world. Much like a piece of bread, the story is a delivery system, not a meal unto itself.
Switching over to the online multiplayer, there is the ability to create or search for a game based on a few different parameters. Three game modes are available across local and online multiplayer: assassination, annihilation, and conquer. In assassination, your goal is to protect your own VIP while defeating your opponent’s. In annihilation, the focus shifts toward taking out all enemy units, whereas conquer requires that all buildings are captured. Regardless of the game mode, you’ll be capturing bases, producing units, and taking out the enemy.
One of the unique aspects of Desert Ashes is its use of asynchronous multiplayer. Playing online, you’ll have the choice of time between turns. You could go hours or even a full day between turns, allowing for multitasking of other matches or even an entirely different game. In some ways, the asynchronous multiplayer reminds me of the day of correspondence chess. Unfortunately, I’ve come across some obstacles (low player count, periodic connection errors) that have prevented me from otherwise completing a single round of online multiplayer. Alternatively, local multiplayer on both PlayStation Vita and PlayStation TV works through “pass and play.” It can be a lot easier to sucker your friends into playing with you on the spot and it works just as well as the single player does.
Perhaps one of the more disappointing features revolve around presentation. The menu system is capable of creating, deleting, or cloning any campaign or local multiplayer game, but the interface is cumbersome to handle. I fumbled through the menus more often than not, or simply gave up a turn in combat when all I desired was to see if any online match was progressing (spoilers: they never did). Even if the menus were designed more intuitively, the sound design, or lack thereof, puts a damper on my desire to keep playing battle after battle. The same music loops around, the tone of which doesn’t properly match up with the gameplay. Even if you love bombastic musical scores with a punchy, brass sound, it still isn’t quite right. Navigating the menus doesn’t bring about any audio feedback and even battles themselves lack variety in sound effects. Presentation issues are often what holds some indie games back from being better received by a wider audience. I have no doubt that this will be the case here.
Whether you buy into or simply leave it be at the low, low price of “free,” Desert Ashes has a decent offering for those craving some turn-based strategy action. Having the online multiplayer on the free side of the paywall is a smart move on the part of the developer, but with limited success in finding or maintaining a game, I caution anyone hoping to use this as their online game of choice on Vita. If you find yourself enjoying the free-to-play portion of the campaign, the DLC offers up some additional challenges that are worth the $2 buy in.
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