In the darkness below the surface, two lone treasure hunters have come together to explore a dungeon in search secrets from a world lost long ago. An ocean of black envelops them both, the only salvation in the depths provided by lone lanterns each wanderer carries. A somber melody plays somewhere, echoing from deep within the tunnels running though the heart of this cavern. Distracted, the hunters miss something flash before the lantern light. Whatever is lurking has its eyes on our adventurers. This is the world of Ashen, and it will test your spine and ability to cooperate like few other games.

Thousands of years ago, the world of Ashen lost its sun. While there is still some light, working in the dark is how most of the characters in this world must survive. Of course, being out in the open in that blackness is dangerous, and only the bravest souls dares to explore and guard the remaining population from the evils lurking just beyond sight. We played as one such character, a nameless treasure hunter interested in helping her allies live longer than they would without her aid. When Ashen releases next year, players will be able to customize their characters, but for the purposes of the demo, we were locked into one of two playable models: the woman and the mustached man.

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What's interesting is that even though we showed up as a woman on our screen, we appeared as the man on our co-op partner's. Cooperative play has an interesting hook within Ashen, as every player character you meet has an opportunity to become a non-playable character in your fledgling town. The more often you work with a given character, the better the odds the AI version of that person will decide to settle in your village, and the same is true of your character in their town. Community is a big part of what Aurora44 has in mind for making Ashen stand out from similar action role-playing games, but we didn't get to see any of those elements at work. Our demo was primarily focused on exploration and combat.

Ashen's exploration requires you to work well with others, which is made just a tiny bit difficult by the lack of chat options. The only talking that happens is from NPCs you manage to discover that have something to share about the greater mysteries at the heart of the world's troubles. Players must use some rather rudimentary signaling to get the point across, but with the help of lanterns every player character has, it's actually surprisingly easy to convey plans. Provided you're not acting a fool on purpose, that is. Just a simple thing like turning off the light as someone is heading down a path you don't want to explore yet lets them know they shouldn't advance without you.

Even with their own lantern, a single player can't see much of what's going on in the dungeons or caves where all the goodies lurk... and also some monsters too. Teaming up to shine lights for one another is key, and as we saw in our time with Ashen, necessary in order to survive even the most basic of dungeons. The tutorial area we worked our way through was full of winding paths, pitfalls, and deadly spiders the size of a small car. When one of us had to swing our spear or club, the other held the light so we could see the target. And forget climbing with a lantern. You've got to go one by one, as you don't have enough hands to do both. It's a clever way to ensure teamwork and that even the slightest contributions can save lives.

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The lantern also proves useful for learning more about Ashen's world, as the light awakens spirits thought long abandoned in the tunnels. These are the actual Ashen, and the stories they tell explain what was happening wherever you're exploring, or even just a little bit about their own lives. The more you uncover, the more you'll learn across the few dozen hours the base story will last. Devoted players will be eager to invest more time than that however, which Aurora44 is more than happy to oblige. Just the glimpses we saw of the world-building in our 30 minutes with Ashen had us eager to learn more, particularly when we got to the end of our dungeon and met one of the old gods of this realm.

Combat is relatively easy, with characters having a melee weapon with strong and light attacks, as well as a dodge. The "boss" fight at the end of the dungeon was a true test of stamina, as that's the only measurable related to Ashen's combat as it stands today. That combat isn't very difficult to learn is a blessing given how many other challenges stand in your way, but enemies are still powerful enough that you'll need to think tactically. Observing attack patterns and learning when and where to strike is key, especially when an enemy is agile and leaping all over the place. Tracking it with the lantern will help, but only if you have someone with you to then land a strike. Trying to fight one of these elder creatures in the dark was a bit like trying to hit a pinata while blindfolded, only you also didn't know if the pinata was even in the same room where you were standing.

Ashen's stylized interpretation of a fantasy realm is one that will surely draw it more attention as its release draws near. The concepts at play are what will keep those lured to Ashen working late into the night in the hopes of uncovering yet another lost artifact. We do want to see more of the civilization-building elements before we fall too hard for Ashen, but it's unique take on cooperative play certainly has our interests piqued.

Ashen will be available on Xbox One and PC in 2018.