Date: September 27, 2021
As a huge fan of JRPGs, particularly the Final Fantasy series, I got excited when I heard about the development team behind Artisan Studios’s upcoming game Astria Ascending. Kazushige Nojima (FFVII Remake, FFX and FFVII) helped shape the game’s narrative, and Hitoshi Sakimoto (FFXII, Vagrant Story) composed the entire soundtrack with Basiscape. The visuals for the game are from CyDesignation, a team lead by Hideo Minaba (FFVI, FFIX, FFXII) with contributions from Akihiko Yoshida (FFXII, NieR: Automata). With an amazing development team behind the game, how does Astria Ascending hold up? While the game was a very fun experience, it wasn’t without its flaws.
The story takes place in a world called Orcanon, where the Goddess of Harmony watches over the peace and happiness of the many races that live there. This utopia is maintained in part by everyone eating fruits called harmelons, and by the Demigods, who are tasked with protecting everyone and fighting off Noises (monsters in the world that want to destroy its Harmony). The Demigods are eight chosen heroes that gain incredible power, but at the cost of dying after three years. After their time is up, another eight champions are chosen, beginning the cycle again. The game puts you in the 333rd Demigod cycle, which is being led by Captain Ulan Meyer in their last three months.
You are introduced to all eight of your playable characters at once, and the game wastes no time putting you into conflict with the Noises. As you try to figure out what’s causing them to attack Harmonia, you find a group that can control them as well as take control of the Astrae, powerful beings that will only grant their strength to a select few. When Astria Ascending starts, you are giving almost no information about the Demigods in your party. Luckily, as you progress through the story and visit the characters’ hometowns, you start to learn more about their backstories, and their connection with the ongoing conflict. However, there were times when it felt weird that these companions who have been working together for almost three years did not know some of this information about each other already.
Despite a strong setup for the main conflict, the ending does not stick the landing. Throughout the story there is a gradual buildup, and the stakes get high, but once you beat the final boss, it kind of just ends. I didn’t feel like there was a proper resolution to the stories of these eight characters I just played with for around 25 hours, and we don’t get to see the aftermath of the main conflict. There is a cutscene and some dialogue about the results of the final battle, and then it cuts to the credits.
Astria Ascending features completely hand-drawn art for every aspect of the game. While the character models personally reminded me of something you’d see in some mobile gacha games, the environments and spells look great. All of the various locations you explore throughout the game feel unique and have a lot of detail behind them, and spells and abilities look and feel appropriately powerful. While the game reuses many of the regular enemy models as you progress through the game, all of the bosses have a completely unique design from each other, allowing their appearance to match the mechanics of each fight.
The game has some pretty solid music as well. I found a few of the songs (particularly the main battle theme) stuck in my head while playing through the game, and there were no songs that I disliked. Every song felt appropriate for the area I was in, or for the tone during the various cutscenes.
Astria Ascending is completely 2D, and as you explore all of the various areas in the game, there is some platforming and puzzle-solving involved. As you go through dungeons, you will gain new abilities to use while exploring that will help you with the puzzles, and open up new paths to explore. Later dungeons will even have you combine powers to progress, but the puzzles are never too overwhelming. There were times when the platforming felt clunky however, especially during sections where you had a very short amount of time to jump onto a rising or moving platform. There are also no random battles in Astria Ascending. You can see all of the Noises on the field, and you can avoid or even stun them if you don’t wish to fight them.
My biggest gripe with exploring in the game is the map. The map opens up like a scroll, but it does not show any of the terrain. You only get a vague idea of where doors, treasures and objectives are (for example, it’ll show you that there is a door somewhere on the right side of the room), and show you a connecting line to where doors will take you. The map doesn’t even show you where in the room you are, as it simply locks an icon of you in the center of the room no matter where you are. This can make things really confusing in some of the later dungeons, as they have many interconnecting and multi floor rooms. There were times in the final dungeon where I tried looking at the map to see where I was, and it only made me more confused.
Where this game really shines is in it’s combat system, which is tactical and incredibly customizable. The game plays similarly to classic JRPGs, with a turn based combat system, and MP as your resource to use spells and abilities. You are able to swap party members in the middle of battle, and you can even replace your entire party at once. This becomes very helpful in later fights, as bosses will start to change weaknesses and resistances mid battle.
Weakness plays a huge role in Astria Ascending’s combat. There are eight elements in the game in addition to normal physical attacks, and just about every enemy in the game is weak to at least one of these, and will be resistant or even immune to another one or more. Your own characters are subject to being weak or resistant to these elements as well (which you can change with the armor you equip). A big part of the tactics in this game is finding and exploiting your enemy’s weakness, while also avoiding them exploiting yours — because they can and will take advantage of it.
The battles in the game also have a Focus mechanic. In battle, both you and the enemy get one Focus Point (FP), and can get more by taking advantage of an enemy’s weakness. FP is shared across the party, and can be used to charge up any attack or spell in the game. You can spend up to four points, and each one will boost the upcoming attack by 50%. You will gain two points for hitting a weakness, but will also lose points if you hit an element that’s resisted/negated/absorbed. Taking advantage of the Focus mechanic can help make battles go much quicker.
Astria Ascending also features a Job System, which is where a lot of the customization starts. Every character starts with a unique Base Job, which give them a unique role in battle. For example, Ulan’s Captain Job focuses on being a tank for the party, while Dagmar’s Sorcerer Job gives him access to spells for most of the elements in the game, allowing him to take advantage of an enemy’s weakness and dish out big damage. As you progress in the game, you will unlock the ability to give your characters one of three Main Jobs. This will change the kind of equipment they use, and potentially give them a whole new role in combat. Eventually, you can also unlock Sub Jobs, which will allow characters to use abilities from another Job, and finally Support Jobs if you want to do some extra dungeons.
On top of the standard leveling, each Job in the game has an Ascension Tree. In battle you earn SP on top of your EXP, and you use these points to fill in nodes from the Tree. These nodes will range from new abilities to use, to passive abilities and stat increases. The stat increase nodes allow you to pick which stat increases as well, further adding to the customization. As each character can have 3-4 Trees, admittedly it could be a little overwhelming for someone that isn’t used to talent tree systems. However, between the number of potential job combinations, and being able to go through the Ascension Trees as you wish, you have access to a high amount of customization for every character, and it allows for countless potential party combinations and play styles.
The game has some great difficulty options, which allow you to customize your game to give you exactly the challenge you want. As well as having four general difficulties, you can add the option of seeing an enemy’s weakness automatically, choose if enemies will respawn in dungeons, and how much EXP/SP party members that were not in the battle will receive. The game even supports low level challenges, as you can turn off EXP/SP gain entirely. All of these options are available to change at any point of the game, so if you feel like the game is becoming too easy or difficult, you will be able to adjust things as you see fit.
There’s a good amount of side content in Astria Ascending as well. The majority of the side content consists of two types of quests: normal side quests and Hunts. The side quests you will pick up from various citizens in the game’s major cities. The objectives for these quests can be killing a specific Noise or finding a hidden item, and there are also job-specific quests that unlock as you gain new Jobs. Most of these quests are straightforward, but early on you will get some quests that require you to go to places you don’t have access to yet. Hunts on the otherhand are picked up at Guilds, and require you to hunt down powerful Noises.
There is also a minigame called J-Ster. It is a token based game that you play against various NPCs in the game. In it, you must try to be in control of more tokens than your opponent by the end of it. The game is fairly straightforward, and matches are quick, so it’s very easy to lose track of time as you attempt to challenge every everyone in Orcanon and try to collect as many tokens as you can. You only have to play J-Ster twice in the game’s story, and winning or losing will not affect the story.
While Astria Ascending is not a masterpiece, it is an enjoyable game, and I think it would be worth playing for anyone who enjoys classic JPGs and Job systems. While the story picks up well and tackles themes of family and legacy, its ending unfortunately doesn’t give it the conclusion it deserves. However, its deep and engaging combat system creates a very fun experience. The game takes around 25-35 hours to complete the story, and potentially over 70 hours if you wish to do all of the side content. The game’s customization will allow multiple playthroughs, trying different Jobs and party combinations to give yourself a new experience each time.