Back in the day, some years after the release of Unreal, I realized that various custom Single Player maps were available to play. Packs such as The Sky Shard and Shinigami Level Pack 1 were already out. During my research, I stumbled across a certain one – The Ballad of Ash – mentioned frequently in Unreal-related websites, and later even in the Oldskool mod (which actually repackages it in the level selection menu). I played it once, and had some weird impressions. I replayed it recently to get a fixed idea about it. Is it worth it? Short answer: no. Long answer: read on.
The Ballad of Ash, built by author Lestat, consists of three playable maps, plus an intro and an epilogue. Before you start, you have to put the five maps in a subdirectory named "ash" in the Maps folder, otherwise the game won't find the levels to open them as you proceed through the pack. This is said in the readme, but why was this confusing arrangement of folders necessary?
Anyway, this is a sequel to a single map named Entombed, and I never played since it always crashed (it only works with Patch 220). Fortunately, the readme of this pack describes what happened in the prequel, as you (Ash, the main character and the actual Unreal character you can select) ended up on a planet and killed a Skaarj Queen and various Mercenaries. In The Ballad of Ash, Ash tries to escape with a ship but fails, and he decides to help the Nali fight the remaining Skaarj. But there's a certain arrogant Nali around that he doesn't like. This is all explained in the flyby intro map, in which you'll be more distracted by Ash (or simply, a bot running around because he "saw" you as an enemy) and by the eye-tearing skybox, instead of reading the on-screen messages and the disco UFO flying away.
Now onto the first map. Not much to be said about the build; the terrain is basic, and mountains have just completely unrealistic and ugly shapes. There are some blocks of brushes – walls, ruins or simply cubes. The place looks just... weird. Texturing? The grass on the terrain fits right, but the rest is mostly a repetitive use of Ancient.utx textures on said blocks. Misalignments for the mountains, and some ugly magma stone textures near the lava lake (that are put in the wrong position too). Lighting consists solely of a single zone light, with a steady white lighting which doesn't fit the skybox (which, amidst everything else, looks good) and no shadows. There are then some light actors for lamps, lava and waterfall.
Through a small portal you'll access the second map, probably the most memorable for one small reason. There's a large grey plain in front of you. Check it out, and you'll discover that it's actually water. It's clearly a "WTF" moment. The surface is static and doesn't look like water at all. And no underwater fog either!
Still extremely basic, the underwater outdoor section is the one which shines most in the pack, but that's not saying much. It's filled with structures containing cube rooms with lamps emitting either their normal or coloured lighting, plus there's a pyramid which emits a strong light from nowhere, but that's more of a magical thing. Even here zone lighting has been employed to illuminate the entire level.
The textures are once again poorly chosen, with almost no work put into the alignment. Flying from the top of the tower in the middle is funny though; you're probably going to do it because you're faced with three portals. One of them brings you to the final map, the other two will throw you into the lake below. No harm, just random entertainment.
The third map instead employs zone lighting which emits virtually no light (but the sky is brighter than the previous map!), so you have to be careful of enemies and use the help of some coloured lamps to make it through. The build style is the same as the first map, and there isn't much of an improvement in any field. There's another underwater section that is distinctly empty, plus you can see part of a Nali-like castle built in a crooked way.
In all three maps, Lestat made use of ambient sounds; dynamic ambient sounds are rare, and are completely dominated by the normal ambient ones. Some of the ambient sounds are well-chosen, but for the most part they cast repetitive sounds that would fit better as dynamic ones and generally feel out of place. For example, in the underwater cave of the last map, you'll still be hearing the crickets above.
Music tracks are in it too. Map 1 has Chizra1.umx and fits quite well; Map 2 has none, but you'll hear Warlord.umx for a nonexistent dramatic moment; Map 3 has Nali.umx. Honestly, complete silence would have been the best choice.
What happens during these maps, story-wise? Not much. I'd describe the story in this way: convoluted. The grammar in the various translator messages leaves a lot to be desired. They'll provide some tips as to how to advance in the game, the random feelings of Skaarj and Brutes, your personal logs (Ash seems actually pretty crazy here) and other messages regarding certain mysteries or other stuff that doesn't seem important in any way. There aren't any scripted sequences, and you'll simply have to arrive at the epilogue; I won't spoil it, but while honestly I didn't understand the reason behind its events, at least it isn't just another escape from Na Pali. You'll still be distracted by bots and the final part of the ending is somehow hilarious, and usually it doesn't really work properly as it is supposed to be.
The pack is very short, and quite easy, depending if you make good use of your SCUBA Gear and RazorJack blades. Opposition is limited, and there's no use of difficulty filtering. In the first map you're going to fight against some weak Flies and few types of Skaarj that don't seem to move correctly through the landscape (and sometimes getting stuck too). Facing two Giant Mantas in a row, with not much space to escape, can be a bit frustrating.
Luckily, already from the first map you can get strong weapons such as the RazorJack and the Rifle, and from that point the monsters will have a hard time teaching you a lesson. The lake of the second map hides something unusual: a freaking big Squid. Scary, but he can't do much since he's slow and too large to take you. The Slith and the Devilfish supporting him are more of a threat due to their low visibility, if you alert them. But the real issue is that without the SCUBA Gear (you have to find it), you'll start to drown while finding the levers and, opening the final tomb which takes too much time.
The third map is the easiest, as the enemies are all Brutes and can be easily killed with blades or the Rifle. Same story for the Devilfish and the weak huge one hidden in the underground lake. Harder will just be being quick enough in the underwater trip again, as there's only one SCUBA Gear to support you. Otherwise, you'll begin to drown.
Health isn't very common but is sufficient for you to survive everything (except cases of drowning accidentally); regarding ammo, sometimes there isn't any, but then all of a sudden you find something like 12 boxes of Rifle Shells on a guard tower (only accessible one time with Jump Boots; poor design choice). No work on the gameplay awe – you run and kill what's in front of you.
Other than combats, you have to pass puzzles, which are all about pushing buttons to open the next path. The hardest one is near the end of the first level, as you have to find a lever disguised in the mountain, hinted at by a message. If you don't press it, the following flooded corridor will be locked and you can't do nothing, other than die because you get damaged by seemingly nothing at all.
With story and locations that end up being very strange, The Ballad of Ash surely falls into the weird category. Mostly recommended for those who want to experience this kind of mood.
ArchitectureImagination, realism and detail of structures used in the design of the level.2
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.1
LightingLighting of the level: does it look cool? Use of light colour and other effects, and sourcing of lighting (no light out of nowhere).1
SoundUse of ambient sounds and event sounds to give the level atmosphere, and the quality of any custom sounds. Appropriate use of music and silence to complement the atmosphere.2
Technical ExecutionTechnical soundness of the level, i.e. no visual glitches, no random deaths or other gameplay bugs, and a good framerate.2
Conceptual GrandnessScale, imagination, awe & originality of design and layout, physical foreshadowing of future areas.2
Story ConstructionBacking story & progression via translator, subplots, and script of voice acting where applicable. Logical choice of opposition.3
Story ImplementationProgression of the written story via the events of the level, and performance of voice actors where applicable.1
Gameplay AweQuality of scripted sequences, originality and staging of combats. Maps that force the player to "learn by dying" will be penalised.1
Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.3