Title: Astria Ascending
Developer: Artisan Studio
Release Date: September 30, 2021
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Dear Villagers, Maple Whispering Limited
The standard JRPG quest has a few combined factors to deliver an engaging adventure where time seems to fly by and five hours quickly becomes 50. It’s these experiences that I look for when jumping into a new game, especially the Artisan Studio-developed Astria Ascending. Comprised of developers who have worked on some of my favorite titles, it’s hard not to look forward to this. Sadly, although epic in scale, quality improvements are needed for this game to truly shine.
Astria Ascending introduces players to Ulan, the leader of the 333rd Demi-Gods, a group of warriors assigned to protect the peace and fate of the world. Although this group of eight is chosen, they have to accept that their life has a time limit, and their power comes at a cost. In this case, they have three months left to live, but some strange events begin appearing that cause them to journey across the lands and piece together the disturbances.
The story is the absolute highlight of this experience as each character will receive their own bit of backstory, but it isn’t until 10 hours into the game where you’ll start to care about them. This is an issue with how the game begins where the group has already been formed, and they set out from there. The characters’ backstory is delivered at a steady pace, but it’s easy to lose interest in some of them, such as Arpagjo and Alek; I didn’t care about them at all.
What creates some of the more interesting moments is the sheer amount of tension the group shares. They aren’t friends, and yet, they must work together to complete this mission. Small arguments pop up in conversation, and that creates some of the more engaging moments of dialogue. When it comes to the final hours of the game, you’ll be in tune with these warriors’ cause and the injustices they’ve faced, but getting there is the issue.
Exploration takes place on a 2D field where Ulan can visit towns, navigate dungeons, and talk to NPCs. It’s rather basic, but the overall design of the backgrounds and environments are excellent. They make the 2D world more distinct as the more places you visit, the more you understand how it all connects. This shows in the various villages you see as well, which are more or less the same in what they offer but stand out thanks to the architecture and style of the environment.
Ulan can jump and execute a Ring Power while in a dungeon. Ring Powers are collected over time and allow access to new areas. Some of them feature puzzle-like elements, but honestly, they aren’t used too much, and I often forgot about them until I needed them. Some provide access to areas in previous dungeons, which are rewarded with treasure.
Battles are where you’ll spend a significant amount of time because they are primarily unbalanced. Don’t get me wrong, the battle system is fun most of the time, but it’s not hard to know that it is broken. Enemies have group Stun Lock and Confusion abilities that will wipe out your party in a matter of turns, and you’ll rarely be leveled enough for the encounters within new dungeons.
The best way to take on enemies is to first find their weakness and then attack that as much as possible. By doing this, you’ll gain Focus which can be used to charge up an attack. After I unlocked group hitting abilities, I pretty much just relied on Focusing with all party members and then charging an ability. This makes battles become repetitious and lengthy, but the biggest issue is that it mostly comes down to having enough items to get you through the fight.
Stocking up on Revives, Omni-Ethers, and Omni-Potions will allow you to pretty much chip damage any foe until they are defeated. However, as I mentioned, if they manage to Stun or Confuse your entire party, it’s a frustrating game over as you wait three turns to regain control of your units.
Each character has a general Job class and extra job classes available to them. Each class is tied to an Ascension Tree, which allows you to spend SP to unlock new skills and increase the character’s stats. This is as important as leveling up, so when grinding for experience, you’ll also be grinding for SP to unlock new skills. The only issue here is that with eight characters, you’ll be spending a lot of time here. I would love an auto function for this and even an auto-optimize for equipment because the time spent in menus adds up quickly.
There are guild quests within the game that provide more challenging battles and high rewards. It’s just something to do alongside your pursuit, but if you’re too under-leveled, I wouldn’t even attempt these fights. Bosses are okay, but the first encounters hold no weight. It isn’t until the antagonist is revealed that you understand the foes you’re facing off against. Still, they are challenging and require a high understanding of what each member of your party can do.
Astria Ascending is driven by its characters, who offer some of the better moments of the experience. However, their quest is depressing as they bring up how they know the end is near but still manage to keep true to their goals and fight for the planet. The art design for these characters is excellent, and I appreciated the numerous animations within dialogue and battles. However, I didn’t notice that some animations were missing, such as Water.
The game did soft lock on me a few times, but there’s a very reliable auto-save system in place that seems to save the game at every new screen or before a battle. Often, I would take on a tough enemy, learn their weakness, die, and then re-enter the battle, so I don’t waste items.
Regardless, the soundtrack for this adventure is fantastic, and the voice acting is decent for both English and Japanese. However, some things the characters say sound out of context, and you can’t skip through story scenes, so you’re forced to listen to the entire line as it auto-progresses.
Astria Ascending had me invested in the 25 hours it took me to get to the final dungeon. However, that comes with a padded runtime of level grinding, lengthy battles, dungeon navigation confusion, and many menu interactions. So if you begin, prepare not to understand what is going on until 10 hours into the game, but if you don’t have that time, don’t bother. However, those who do get far enough are in for a genuinely fun JPRG experience that only requires a few quality-of-life improvements.
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