N-Gage Review: Ashen

Set up more for simple pick-up-and-play titles, the N-Gage was never meant to play games beyond its capabilities. Still, give a developer the tools, and they'll make some small miracles happen. On par with any standard first-person shooter on the PS One, Ashen is a technological marvel in the graphics department, though they drag this one down in heavily detailed areas.

Taking us back to an era where the genre was still simple, Ashen's quick and basic point A to point B gameplay does feel a little archaic. Imagine Doom with the ability to look. It lacks Quake's speed and intensity, so that comparison doesn't work. Varied stages are laid out so that being lost is rare, and the solution obvious.

That saves hours of game time, and the eight stages seem to fly by. Enemy encounters are sparse for the majority of the game, probably for the best given the control scheme. Turning and walking are handled with the d-pad, while the strafing duties are left to the 4 and 6 keys. It's not that difficult to fire with 5 and dodge enemy fire.

Sadly, looking is not as convenient. At the default, you look down with 2 and up with 3. It's hard to understand how those keys are supposed to represent looking since they're side-by-side, and you can't look up while shooting. In a tense firefight against enemies on different levels, you'll have a hard time making a stand without being blasted repeatedly.

Ashen's only other mechanic (besides shooting everything that moves) is a set of goggles. Beginning in level four, certain foes are invisible to the character's eyes until they strap on these glasses. Aside from providing extra light, they don't offer any actual variety, and if the game lacked this feature, it would be no worse for the wear.

The unique graphics engine puts this first-person shooter near the top of the N-Gage's graphical elite (exclusive company to say the least). It works on what can be described as an as-needed basis. Objects in the distance appear in blocky form, and as you move closer, the stunningly clean and realistic textures draw in. It can be painfully obvious in spots, but it doesn't actually detract from the gameplay. Instead, it succeeds in creating beautifully rendered environments that makes everything easy to see on the small screen.

While the pop in isn't a problem, the frame rate is. It's smooth enough for basic wandering and searching. When in combat, especially in areas where the detail overwhelms the hardware, things go downhill quickly. You'll be fighting in the single digits often. Thankfully, to compensate for both the graphical hiccups and only possible sub-par control scheme, the ridiculously generous hit detection will make sure enemies go down if you're even remotely looking in the right direction. Sadly, that renders the four player deathmatch mode useless with only luck necessary to win.

While not the involving, expansive, or deep console experience it wants to be, Ashen is a light treasure for N-Gage players. It's easy to find the games flaws unforgivable, but with a little time and effort, you'll likely find yourself playing through this one more than once. On a system with so few totally original titles, Ashen is a treat and highly recommended.

(**** out of *****)

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