Astria Ascending Review: On Its Way Up
It’s been about a month since I first gave my thoughts on Astria Ascending in the form of a preview. You can go check it out if you’d like, but I’ll go ahead and save you the trouble by telling you that I liked what I played and thought that it did a great job with paying homage to a number of classic RPGs. A lot can change in the course of a month, though–including people’s opinions on games… but that totally didn’t happen here. I still like it a lot.
Artisan Studios has really managed to impress me in a number of ways with this game. As hesitant as I am to start throwing shade, their previous game, Super Neptunia RPG, was, and I say this with no disrespect, a little rough. Because of that, I was a little hesitant when I first approached this game–especially being aware of the fact that Astria Ascending is in many ways very similar to Super Neptunia RPG. Still, I wanted to stay hopeful that Artisan Studios would deliver with this one–and they most certainly did!
The Candle That Burns Brightest…
Taking a unique approach to some rather traditional tropes, Astria Ascending‘s story follows Ulan Merer, the leader of the 333rd demi-god brigade, and her seven other compatriots–collectively known as the “Fated Eight”–as they seek to maintain the Harmony which permeates throughout most of the world of Orcanon. Now, you might be tempted to think that being a demi-god would grant you a bunch of cool new abilities, and you would be right in doing so. However, in this world, such power also comes at a great cost–the fact that you only have three years to live after ascending to demi-god-hood. And the 333rd demi-god brigade? Well, they’ve only got a few months left. It seems as though they won’t have any time to ponder their approaching demise, however, as their most defining moments as demi-gods have yet to come.
Overall, Astria Ascending‘s story-rich narrative is quite enjoyable and progresses along smoothly with the rest of the game without feeling overbearing. However, while there are plenty of things to like about the game’s story, I would have to say that my favorite thing about it is its contrarian, almost deconstructivist, approach to how it sets up the Fated Eight. Not only are these eight chosen individuals literal demi-gods, but they’ve also worked closely with each other for almost three years by the time the game begins–but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them.
Despite all they’ve been through thus far, much of the Fated Eight still don’t get along with one another. Between the haughtiness, ambivalence, and blatant disrespect constantly being thrown around by different members, it’s a wonder they’ve gotten anything done, and it’s extremely interesting watching working them as the game’s heroes because of the many ways in which they defy expectations. Astria Ascending has some great writing overall, but it always manages to shine the brightest when it’s focused on the game’s main characters.
A (Not So) Harmonious Journey
If you’ve played Super Neptunia RPG, then I’ve got some good news for you–Astria Ascending plays almost identically to that in terms of how exploration is handled. If you haven’t, then the best thing that I can compare it to is Valkyrie Profile. And if you haven’t played either of those games… well, then I guess I had better actually explain what’s going on.
Despite being a traditional turn-based RPG in many ways, and taking a great deal of inspiration from the Final Fantasy franchise (which makes sense because a handful of FF veterans worked on this game), Astria Ascending doesn’t play like you’d expect it to. Rather than using top-down, isometric, or 3D perspectives, the entirety of Orcanon is presented to players as a 2D side-scroller. While Astria Ascending isn’t the first game to do this, it’s still uncommon enough for it to feel novel. However, “novel” and “good” aren’t the same thing in every case. Fortunately for this particular case, however, they are! Not only is platforming simple, enjoyable, and unobtrusive (meaning that the turn-based combat is still the focus), but this game has some absolutely phenomenal artwork going on. So, while getting from place to place is never terribly difficult, make I’d recommend not going so quickly that you don’t stop to admire the scenery around you!
As with any RPG worth its salt, Astria Ascending also has some side activities for players to partake in during their journey to save the world–and none is more prevalent than J-Ster. Playing fairly similarly to Final Fantasy VIII‘s “Triple Triad” card game, J-Ster is a competitive medal-battling game that has players attempting to strategically overthrow their opponents. Unlike Triple Triad, J-Ster is slightly more obscure with some of its rules and can even feel a bit convoluted at first, but I can promise you that, given enough time, you’ll grow to love it just as much as I have… at least if you like stuff like this.
The Right Demi-God for the Job
Are you at all familiar with the old-school Final Fantasy games? If so, then you’re already familiar with about 90% of Astria Ascending‘s battle mechanics as well! Battles are, for the most part, two things; turn-based, and tough. But, so long as you’re good at strategizing (and are willing to swap out party members as needed), you should be just fine! Aside from that, there’s really not much to say. As far as traditionally minded RPGs go, Astria Ascending pretty much has things in the bag.
As far as non-traditional mechanics go, Astria Ascending really only has one thing going for it; the Focus Point system. Working incredibly similarly to Octopath Traveler‘s Boost Mode mechanic, the Focus Point system allows players to bank a special type of energy known as Focus Points–or FP for short–which can be used to power up almost any offensive or defensive skill. FP is a fickle mistress, however–while it can easily be obtained by hitting weaknesses, it can also be lost (and can even go into the negatives) by having enemies resist, block, or absorb attacks–working similarly to Shin Megami Tensei‘s Press Turn Icon system in that sense. FP can be a bit annoying to manage when fighting certain groups of enemies, especially Phys-resistant ones, but, overall, it’s a pretty neat (and oftentimes very helpful) gimmick.
Flying Toward the Sky
When it comes down to it, Astria Ascending is a charming blend of new and old, and a very enjoyable RPG experience overall. I’m always happy when I see a game successfully emulate the spirit of the ever-sacred old-school RPG, and I can happily say that Artisan Studios really outdid themselves with this one!
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 5 (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC; Publisher: Plug In Digital, Dear Villagers; Developer: Artisan Studios; Players: 1; Released: Septpember 30, 2021; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher.