Preview: Astria Ascending

There’s a certain je ne sais quoi that accompanies a JRPG that a lot of games try and fail to emulate. It feels reductive to say that these games have to come from Japan, of course, but for every game that manages to feel authentic to its JRPG aspirations despite not originating in the country in the name, there are a couple dozen that bear the fingerprints of being in the style of a JRPG rather than being a proper JRPG. Browse through the tag on Steam and you’ll almost certainly see what I mean.

Astria Ascending is a game that definitely has some JRPG pedigree behind it. While the game is developed by the Quebec-and-France-based Artisan Studios, the team has brought in staff from some of the various Final Fantasy games, including narrative designer Kazushige Nojima, composer Hitoshi Sakimoto, and visual design work from the CyDesignation studio, headed up by Akihiko Yoshida and Hideo Minaba. The team has some JPRG bona fides, in other words. But the real question is that elusive feel. Does the game still feel like a satisfying JRPG?

Heck, more importantly, is it fun to play in the first place?

Astria Ascending releases on September 30th on PC, Switch, PlayStation 4 and 5, and Xbox One/Series X/S. The Steam version was played for this preview.

Demi-deity

Astria Ascending wastes absolutely no time throwing you into the deep end of the game’s narrative. It’s quickly explained that the world is ruled over by the Harmony, a pact between the various sapient races of the world that is sealed through eating of fruits known as Harmelons. In Harmonia, the center of everything, the Goddess Yuno oversees the team of demi-gods charged with protecting the Harmony, with the demi-gods in question getting three years of power and status before, well… dying.

At the start of the game, you take control of the 333rd demi-god unit, commanded by Ulan and containing Kress, Alek, Eko, Dagmar, Arpajo, Alassia, and Kaydin. And I do mean it throws you in; these characters are all promptly introduced to you and given a quick rundown, since the unit has already been together for about two and a half years (meaning that their deaths are rapidly approaching) and has established dynamics by this point. Almost right away, there’s a strange attack of the Harmony-threatening Noises in the Peyska district of Harmonia, which prompts a meeting with Yuno about investigating what’s going on and…

Look, you get absolutely no points for figuring out that something is going on beyond what you’ve been told in this particular case, because that mostly means that you’ve played a JRPG before. The introduction to an established group dynamic does throw you off a little bit at first (it certainly did for me), but it also means that the game can dispense with the slow assembly of the party and move straight into the more interesting part where there’s an established set of character dynamics and individuals to play off of one another.

It helps that the characters all get a quick dose of introduction, from Dagmar’s gruff pessimism to Alassia’s imperious intellectual nature to Eko’s clear need to prove himself. Everyone feels realized right out of the gate, and thus the game moves into the more interesting part wherein you get to see how they all play off one another and how the story unfolds.

The plot isn’t going to amaze you right out of the gate, and it’s a bit intimidating to be thrown into the deep end quite so quickly. All the same, once you get a feel for what the game is doing, it really does feel like a good bit of narrative shorthand that elides the more tedious elements in favor of direct development.

Demi-perspective

The other way that the game throws your right into the depth of itself is with the battle system, which as you can gather gives you a full party of eight characters right out of the gate. This is a bit overwhelming, considering that most games start you off with a handful of characters and abilities. However, it’s once again a basic sleight-of-hand trick; the game is assuming that you’ve played a JRPG before and thus don’t need to be introduced to the basic concepts of “attacking” and “defending” and can get right into the more interesting elements of the game’s systems.

At its core, to be sure, this is a very standard JRPG engine. Characters take turns to act and choose between attacking, defending, using abilities, running, or focusing (more on that in a moment). Enemies have certain weaknesses to exploit, every character has a unique mixture of abilities based on their class, and you continue until all of the enemies are dead or until you are. Simple and straightforward.

However, there are a couple of deviations. First of all, the ability to swap party members is very flexible and straightforward; choosing the Switch command allows you to swap out your entire party if you so choose, so you’re never devoid of the ability to swap in party members you might need. As a result, your frontline party setup is less about the characters you need to use first and foremost and more about the characters who can handle the widest variety of circumstances you expect to encounter. Characters not engaged in battle by default get just as many experience and skill points as the front-line group, so there’s no need to worry about swapping people around all the time.

You can change this if you so desire, of course; there’s a whole set of ways to tune the experience gains and such in the options menu. Quite flexible.

Focus points are the other main addition to the game’s battle system, with the party acquiring point for hitting enemy weaknesses, losing points for being hit by a weakness or having attacks resisted, and each focus point being used to enhance an ability’s effect by 50% per point (up to a maximum of 200%). This allows you to bank up points to make a weakness-hitting attack hit even harder, or turn a default physical attack into an extremely damaging one. It’s a nice addition to the battle system and it gives characters with nothing else to do a chance to Focus and fill up the gauge a bit for someone who can make use of it.

Outside of battle, the game is a side-scrolling platformer sort of RPG, with Ulan moving along a single plane and jumping on platforms, entering indicated doors or talking with people along the way. It’s hardly the first JRPG to use this perspective, and it takes the opportunity to also incorporate some simple puzzles along the way. Worth noting is that you can also theoretically slash enemies on the field to get in the first attack; I say “theoretically” because despite my best efforts it seemed finnicky in the extreme in terms of hit detection.

There’s also the token-based J-ster game, which is clearly based on minigames like Tetra Master or Triple Triad in that it’s another area of the game to explore if you’re so inclined. I’m personally not a huge fan, but you might really enjoy it; it’s not a bad system by any means, and it breaks up the flow of fighting and buying new items which, true to form, makes up the bulk of the gameplay.

Players also get to pick various additional jobs for the characters as the story progresses, allowing you to combine various sets of abilities – you could make Ulan into an Enhancer, for example, improving her natural support abilities with more buffs, or you could add on Guardian to turbo-charge her tanking. It’s worth noting that these are choices, not things you swap between a la a job system; once you make your choice, you’re locked in. The net result is that each character has a lot of trees to choose between advancing; think of it a bit like Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age‘s various license boards combining and you’ll be halfway there.

Demi-drawn

Astria Ascending uses a lush, painterly style with big, expressive sprites laden with detail to animate its characters. This is the sort of style that can go very wrong, as painted characters against a painted backdrop can sometimes make it hard to distinguish between background decorations and foreground objects, but thankfully the animation and design makes it crisp and clear what’s going on, where you can go, and what’s in the foreground or not. It’s a gorgeous game to look at, with lots of incidental animations for all the characters.

The music is pretty immediately catchy and atmospheric, although it reminds me a bit of what I’d consider general JRPG music from the PlayStation era; good, but not “this soundtrack slaps and I want to listen to it on repeat” good. The voice acting in English feels remarkably solid, to boot; the localization on the script feels solid. (A few other areas in the game feel like localization missed things here and there.)

Unfortunately, the game does fall down slightly in not having a clear control layout anywhere I could find and also having some controls that are rather obtuse; it’s not clear how to actually use the various teleport points right away, for example, and considering that you may need to evacuate back and forth to and from town while exploring a dungeon, not knowing how to do so is kind of a big deal. There’s also no option to remap keybindings, accordingly; when there are so many options for reworking the game’s balance in terms of experience/SP gained, this feels like an oversight.

Demi-delivered

It should be clear by this point that Astria Ascending isn’t a perfect game. It has perhaps a little too many moments flinging you into the deep end for its own good, and it expects players to just roll with it pretty quickly despite not easing people into things very well. It also has the odd niggling issue and the simple issue of how much is there vs. how much the player is introduced to things.

However, if you can push past the initial disruption, what you find is a game that has the heart of a very solid and impressive JRPG beating within. Astria Ascending is definitely hitting the right notes for what it’s trying to be, and if you can get over that initial presentation hiccup, the rewards for doing so pay off abundant dividends. Anyone who likes JRPGs would be well advised to keep an eye on this one.


Preview copy provided by Dear Villagers. All screenshots courtesy of Dear Villagers.