This is a weird review for me to be writing. Not in the sense that it has to be a negative one or anything like that, but in the sense that this is the first time that I’ve reviewed a game I previously previewed. As soon as it was clear we would be getting a full review copy of Astria Ascending I was quick to volunteer to pick up the full game, because, well… the preview of the game had already whetted my appetite, and I had a lot of positive things to say about the original preview event.
You can check that out here, if you haven’t already. A certain amount of expectation of prior research is useful in this case.
So the real questions are twofold for a review of Astria Ascending. The first is whether or not the story significantly improved from the one that was on display during the preview; the second is whether or not the game mechanics felt good or got annoying along the way. Is the title one with promise that fails to deliver or does it still hold up to the praise I gave it during the preview?
As before, the game was played on Steam for this review, but it will be available on September 30th, 2021, on PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
To start with, I’m going to quote directly from my preview of the game’s story, because it’s useful to have this as a comparison point:
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.
That was my experience after a smaller slice of the game’s story. After exploring a larger chunk of the game’s story, I’m happy to report that my initial evaluation at least held true for my personal feelings on the matter. More time with this group of characters meant that I quickly found myself growing more attached to all of their various idiosyncrasies and unique quirks, and you steadily find yourself actually caring about this world and the people within it along the way.
The downside here is that the plot never managed to really floor me with originality or some twist that I didn’t see coming. I’m being intentionally vague here because, well, some people may not have played as many JRPGs or might not be as familiar with story structure and I freely acquiesce some people might find later developments genuinely surprising. But for the most part, the game hits the notes you’re kind of expecting along the way.
Is that really such a bad thing, though? Instead of trying to be too clever by half, I found that Astria Ascending knew what it wanted to do and delivered its story and characters with a genuine sense of loving familiarity. Eko in particularly grew on me after I expected him to be one of the most pedantic and annoying characters – he manages to hit that “kid character who wants to be taken seriously” note well and with some genuine pathos along the way.
The story, then, winds up what I consider to be the equivalent of a solid base hit in baseball. It’s not going to clear the stadium, but it hit the mark of never pissing me off to the point of just wanting these characters to shut up and stop talking, and it’s consistently entertaining enough. At worst there are times when you might wish the characters got to conclusions about obvious things a bit faster than they do; as problems go, that’s a relatively mild one.
All right, time for a confession – as much as I love JRPGs, I always worry that I’m more than just a little crap when coming up with character builds. And based on the complexity of this game’s multiple overlapping trees, that’s a bit of a problem! I found myself worrying a lot along the way that I might be inadvertently ruining someone’s playstyle or making someone weaker than planned or picking the wrong thing. Scratch that – I am relatively confident that once guides start to come out I’ll find out that I did make some wrong choices, inevitably.
This is, ultimately, all right. Because the best thing I can give the game’s battle system is that I never found things to be so difficult as to leave me with no idea what I was doing or leave me feeling underpowered. The game consistently gives you options and relies on the idea that you can spend and play smartly to get around limitations, which is a good thing. But boy, there are a lot of overlapping choices here, and it can be hard to analyze all of them in the abstract in the span of time the game actually gives you for everything.
Less to the game’s credit is a feel of grinding to the proceedings as you go further through the title. I can’t say this is wholly unexpected, nor is it really something that you have no control over. (I resisted the urge to turn up experience gains and the like in the game’s menu; you can, but I think it’s generally a bad idea when reviewing a title to do so without playing on the expected defaults.) This is not a crippling flaw. Combat is fun, after all, with a whole lot of tactical options and a nice feeling of flow as you hack your way through enemies. There are worse things than grinding away. But between the limitations of items for certain skill tree unlocks and the sheer amount of grinding needed at times, it did get a bit much for me in places.
This, however, is… also kind of what was expected given the game’s basic premise. Like, call me cynical, but I actually expect a certain amount of grinding to come out of a JRPG as you move through it, especially one where you get a fair amount of freedom in your character builds. Like, that’s part of the point is that you built your team to wreck things and now you get to wreck them. Boss battles remain fun challenges that err on the side of “difficult” without creeping quite into “frustrating.” Status effects matter. The system is familiar, but darn if it doesn’t put paid to all of the elements within.
Ultimately, I feel much about the game’s visuals and graphics as I did before, only more so having seen… well, more of them. This is a gorgeous game, and I found that more time did a good job of slowly working through at least some of the graphical oddities that made for some foreground/background confusion early on. And that’s not even a major issue, since you’re only moving along a fixed plane; generally, you can make a mistake and just try for a jump or a position without too much downside if you turn out to be wrong.
The music also just gets better the further you go through the game. I originally found it a bit generic, but like the cast, it grows on your steadily over time, up to the point when I did find myself humming along with some of it. Whether that’s familiarity or genuine goodness is an exercise left for the reader.
I still do feel like some bits of the control interface aren’t adequately explained, though. But that’s a minor quibble and it’s only for edge cases. Nine out of ten times everything just works the way you expect it to.
Worth the Wait
If you haven’t gotten the impression from the review and the preview yet, I liked this one a lot. What I expected to get from this title was something that looked pretty but ultimately felt disappointingly generic, the equivalent of a dollar-store bargain title, hitting all of the expected JRPG notes without getting any of the more subtle music right. I’m happy to be wrong about that. There’s definitely some generic veins running through here, but the whole package winds up feeling less like a generic title that’s not trying and more like a love letter to some familiar games with some beautiful graphics and a lot of fun stuff baked in along the way.
It feels like a throwback to the PlayStation era in the best way, when there were always new JRPGs showing up in the hopes of getting the same sort of cult reception as Final Fantasy VII, always new titles to try out and new stories to experience, some of them winding up a bit generic but others turning into unexpected little gems along the way. Astria Ascending feels like one of those gems, except it’s a new game right now and benefits from all the hindsight that implies.
If you love JRPGs, give this one a good shot. You’ll be glad you did.
Review copy provided by Dear Villagers for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Dear Villagers.