Astria Ascending is certainly showing us that old genres can bring about new wonders
The Indie game scene has really come a long way in the past decade or so. In fact, it’s grown so much that it seems like things have almost come full circle. We’ve gone from industry giants ruling everything, to smaller developers making games to fill in the proverbial gaps that the bigger ones missed, to people who previously worked with large developers now working with smaller ones. It’s a little ironic if you think about it, but not at all bad. We’ve seen games like Bloodstained and Azure Striker Gunvolt created, and, more recently, the game we’ll be looking at today—Astria Ascending.
Astria Ascending isn’t the first game that I’ve played that tries to invoke an “old-school JRPG feeling.” Far from it, actually. But it’s certainly one of the best that I’ve played in quite some time. Part of that is probably at least partially due to the fact that Artisan Studios brought in some real heavy-hitters to work on this thing—all of whom seemed to have worked on at least one Final Fantasy title in some capacity. Of course, I’m well aware that experience and prestige aren’t instant guarantees of success when it comes to developing new games, but it seems to have worked out quite nicely in Astria Ascending‘s case—and I’m all the happier for it.
Fighting Like There’s No Tomorrow
Astria Ascending follows the story of eight demi-gods—mortals who were given immense power at the cost of only being able to live for three more years—as they use what little life they have left to drive back the dark forces which threaten to overthrow the world. Rather than starting at the beginning of this journey, however, Astria Ascending begins near the end—with the demi-gods having gone through all but their last handful of months. You wouldn’t know that by looking at them, though.
Despite all that they have supposedly been through, this latest group of divine mortals, much to the chagrin of their leader Ulan, doesn’t exactly get along. Regardless of this lack of comradery, however, these eight have committed the rest of their lives to protecting the world. And, while most of their time is behind them, their most difficult challenges yet still await.
While my time with Astria Ascending wasn’t able to show me as much of the game’s story as I would have liked, I’ll admit that I’m fascinated by what I’ve seen thus far in the preview. In many ways, the beginning of this game feels like a deconstruction of several major JRPG tropes. We have a band of heroes from all walks of life who were forcibly assembled into this group of demi-gods and who have already done most of their work as such before the game began.
Because of this, you’d think they would all be relatively committed to one another, but the group’s social hierarchy is in shambles, and they have almost no time left to fix things. On top of this, every single character—one of whom is a child—is literally staring death in the face. It’s a bastardization of any traditional Final Fantasy party, and while I’m sure they’ll get along in the end, it’s been a lot of fun watching how things pan out thus far.
Hop, Skip, and Jump
Based on everything that I’ve said so far, it probably won’t come as a surprise when I say that Astria Ascending draws a lot of inspiration from the older Final Fantasy titles. But that’s only partially true. While many facets of this game are incredibly Final Fantasy-esque, there are others that aren’t—and that couldn’t be any more obvious when you look at how this game handles exploration.
Rather than utilizing a 3D or omnidirectional space to wander about in, Astria Ascending presents its world to players in a style similar to that of Valkyrie Profile. Simply put, it’s a 2D sidescroller. Given how much the rest of Astria Ascending panders to the Final Fantasy crowd (and I say that with no disrespect), the decision to set the game up like this is a little odd. But not necessarily in a bad way. While towns might not be quite as explorable as I would like (this game’s artwork is gorgeous, and I want to see as much of it as possible), it actually works really well with everything else. Dungeons are refreshingly different, albeit not in any far-out or zany kind of way, and the game still manages to hold onto a familiar JRPG feeling throughout it all. Sometimes, different is fun!
When it comes to combat in Astria Ascending, a lot of things are self-explanatory. I mean, I’ve been comparing this game to Final Fantasy for most of this review, so I don’t think that I need to go into detail too much when I say that it uses “traditional turn-based combat.” Saying that things stop there, however, would be a lie. Despite the overwhelming familiarity that this game exudes in its combat department, there are a few things worth mentioning.
Despite being very traditional overall, Astria Ascending does put its own spin on things with its Focus mechanic. Like Octopath Traveler‘s Boost Mode, it allows players to store up special energy known as Focus during battle—by either hitting an enemy’s weakness or using the “Focus” command—and use Focus to improve whatever skill they might be using. However, it’s important to note that, unlike Boost Points, Focus is shared among the entire party, meaning that you need to be especially careful when and how you use it. All-in-all, it’s a neat mechanic that compliments the rest of the game nicely, and doesn’t feel overly intrusive.
It’s also worth mentioning that this game gives you a lot to work with straight from the get-go. While many JRPGs have players slowly building their party throughout the duration of the game, Astria Ascending hits you with eight different characters at once. Because of this, you might be worried that you’ll have to pick a party and stick with it before you really get to know how each character works (I know that I was). Fortunately, this game won’t have you doing that. Astria Ascending makes it very clear that consistently switching up your party to match any given situation is not only good, but encouraged, and allows you to freely do so whenever you’d like. On top of this, each of the demi-gods are also eventually able to unlock new classes (which are used in tandem with their base classes), giving the player even more creative control over when and how to move things along. It can get a little overwhelming at first, but, once you get used to it, the number of options at the game throws at you in terms of party setup is pretty great.
Ascending to Greatness
As someone who grew up with traditional JRPGs and still harbors a great fondness for them even today, I can honestly say that I had a blast with Astria Ascending thus far. While mixing ideas from games like Final Fantasy and Valkyrie Profile might seem strange at first, they end up fitting together very well, and the final product created by such a mixture is quite addicting. It’s really too bad that the game doesn’t fully release until the end of September, because I’d love to sit down and play through the whole thing right now. Ah, well, I suppose good things do come to those who wait!