The wonderful world of JRPGs has delivered incredible experiences to gamers through the decades, and maintains its popularity to this day. Even when taking off nostalgia goggles, the gameplay of the genre holds up to be one of the most engaging and narratively successful in the games industry.
Artisan Studios, with offices in Quebec, Canada and Montpellier, France, has an incredible team, individuals whose portfolios boasts titles such as Nier Automata, Bravely Default, and of course, the Final Fantasy series. The studio have worked on Super Neptunia RPG, a turn-based offering of a similar experience. Astria Ascending hopes to be an updated adventure filled with gorgeous hand-drawn illustrations and a sweeping soundtrack.
Astria Ascending is available on the Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PS4/5, and PC on Steam for your regional pricing.
Story – The Rule of Thirds
Astria Ascending‘s world is fascinating enough to draw people in. Its beautiful watercolor-esque landscapes and unique character designs promise an immersive tale JRPG lovers will dive head-first into. You step in the shoes of Ulan, the captain of the 333rd Demigod squad. In exchange for your power, there’s a mere three months before your retirement (AKA your party’s deaths) – but evil never rests, and you journey across the land of Orcanon to stop it.
Your party, the cornerstone of every JRPG experience, is large and diverse. You start off with a team that is acknowledged as Demigods, the strongest in the realm and keepers of the peace – whom you have full control over customizing their build and job class. It’s a bit overwhelming to start out with 8 different characters to try out and get the feel of, but the journey of trying each out was pretty intriguing. Each character has their own interpersonal relationships within the whole group, and you can see their pasts affecting who they are as current Demigods.
I really enjoyed our party’s character designs. Yet, I did not find myself getting attached to any of them. And if you’re playing a party-based RPG, that is a big red flag. The game’s characters are beautiful and pique your interest, but your actual journey with them hardly reveals anything new to the player. They’re all supposed to be overpowered individuals, so there’s some ludonarrative dissonance when I was just picking up the basics of the combat and getting served on a platter by the earlier bosses.
One of the best parts of a traveling party RPG is the development that occurs between the characters. It’s pleasant to explore the overworld even when it’s just Ulan on screen and hear the rest of party banter on. However, their conversations were mostly about the immediate observations of the mission or environment, and their banter was almost always mean-spirited, particularly against the young Peyska warrior Eko. There was little development in the characters and their relationships with each other.
Despite the middling story and character development, the narrative does have some powerful, emotional moments. However, these are stunted by awkward dialogue and slow pacing.
Gameplay – Cool but Cumbersome
Having Astria Ascending in your hands will remind you of JRPG greats that have come before it. My favorite part is the amount of job classes and specialization that you have available makes for a customizable run. Choosing how to spend points in the Ascension Tree also gives you another way to fine-tune your party. Because of the possibilities, it’s really up to you to spec out each member according to your party balance, though I suspect in terms of power, you will have your favorites among the eight, and stick to that team when you can.
Astria Ascending is not a game that takes combat lightly. If you’re not careful, even typical random encounters in temples will wipe out your entire team. You need to pay attention to the turns of the opponents and keep aware of the situation at all times – especially when they are quick to dish out an Omni-Stun move that will leave you helplessly staring at the screen for 12 turns. The best way to take out the enemies is to find their weakness and exploit accordingly, which takes some trial-and-error.
Other things that add to the difficulty is the fact that you start out with very low MP levels compared to how much each heavy-hitting skill/spell takes. Balancing your melee options and MP consumption as well as how each party member can be used in every fight is key to surviving dungeons. Or, of course, you have the option of grinding your levels, skills, and trees – which will almost be necessary as the bosses hit very, very hard. Overall, I found the combat fun and engaging, if a bit demanding and sometimes too reliant on luck.
The game allows you to choose from Hard, Normal, Easy, and Very Easy options to help out those who might be more interested in the story or the combat. You can toggle these difficulties throughout the story, so if you feel a bit burnt out from the combat while trying to make your way out of a dungeon you have this option.
Speaking of dungeons, my biggest gripe with the gameplay is the map design. So much of my time was spent aimlessly wandering looking for the next thing to do or trigger. The in-game maps, floating boxes with a suggestion of being connected to each other, are rather unhelpful especially since they just show which room you are in, rather than where you are in the room. As someone who is rather bad at reading maps in the first place, this frustrated me to no end and negatively impacted my experience exploring these beautifully rendered dungeons.
Aside from the typical combat, you can also play J-Ster, a game-within-a-game using tokens received from enemies or produced by Arpajo’s skill. Amongst traditional RPG side games, it’s par for the course, but it’s good that they managed to find an engaging way to find more tokens to play with, encouraging you to do battle and find the opportunity to tokenize your favorites!
Audio and Graphics – As Stellar as They Come
Astria Ascending is a gorgeous game, from the character designs, backgrounds, and visual effects. It’s hard to tear your eyes away from the fantasy world being built in front of you. Each area looks pretty similar in terms of layout, but the designs are fresh and fun to look at. In a genre which still employs low-poly renditions of important party members, It’s definitely one of the most beautiful turn-based RPGs to date.
Each member of my party has a thoughtful design that carefully matches their personality. In particular I liked Kaydin and Kress, both sword-wielding characters, but their designs spoke about their role in the team. I enjoyed that equipping them with different weapons also changes their sprite – a surprising level of detail that really focused on allowing the player to feel like they’re in control. Even the enemies look very interesting, especially the bosses that usually transform between phases.
The voice performances suited the game well enough. I alternated between the Japanese and the English voices and ultimately decided on keeping the Japanese voices, and to my surprise, during the playthrough they would alternate! This mostly happened during the party banter sections, where I would hear English lines. While the voice performances were passable, I couldn’t help but be unimpressed by its direction – two different characters pronounced “Awisi” (one of the races in the game) different ways in the same conversation.
Astria Ascending was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with a key provided by Future Friends Games.