I love a good JRPG, and with the release of Astria Ascending, it looks like my dreams may well have been fulfilled. Coming from Artisan Studios, Astria Ascending promises to meld the old and the new, bringing proper JRPG turn-based combat up to date with modern graphics. Can the game live up to these lofty ideals, or is it another also-ran? Let us set off for a world of Harmony and Dissonance and find out, shall we?
First off, the story. A good JRPG lives or dies by the strength of the narrative, and luckily here Astria Ascending is alive and kicking. The world of Orcanon, where the game is set, has seven main races that inhabit it. These are a varied bunch, ranging from the hulking Arktan who look very threatening just standing still, via the bird-like Awisi to the diminutive and fish-like Peyska, who live underwater and need a bubble full of water on their heads to survive on land. The various tribes of Orcanon live in Harmony (yes, with a capital H) and in order to maintain the Harmony, the tribe members are required to eat a fruit called Harmelons.
Now, as you’d expect in a game of this type, there is a rebellious faction who don’t want to eat the Harmelons (amusingly called the Fruitless – one of the less threatening group names I’ve come across) and as they refuse to go along, Dissonance builds up and starts to affect the world. What Orcanon needs is a group of heroes, and luckily they have one in the shape of the Demi-Gods. The Demi-Gods are drawn from every race, and they come together to protect the world. They are given a lot of power, but in exchange they have their life expectancy cut to just three years. As the game opens, the 333rd company of Demi-Gods are three months from the end of their lives, and they have one final task to achieve: to vanquish the Fruitless!
The first thing I want to mention is the quality of the Astria Ascending’s presentation, which is absolutely top notch. The graphics are truly beautiful, with a gorgeous hand drawn style, and character and monster designs which are very well realised. In fact, the look of the game, the way that the different races of Orcanon come together, and the way they are lovingly drawn is one of the best I’ve seen in a JRPG for a long time. The presentation is also helped by the voice acting; every interaction with main characters is fully voiced, and there are a whole load of different sounds for all the different people. Dagmar, or Arktan, has the expected deep and gravelly voice, while Eko, the Peyska, has a childlike quality to it.
The whole experience of playing the game is lifted by the obvious care and attention that has been put into these areas, and while the writing is pretty good, there are a few occasions where the game strays into JRPG cliche territory. The music is another high point, with the composer from Final Fantasy XII on board, ensuring the tunes throughout Astria Ascending are of very high quality. A big tick here for the developers.
Of course, the greatest games in this genre have a little side hustle that you can invest time into if you wish. Think Triple Triad from FFVIII, which to this day is still the greatest mini game I’ve ever played. Astria Ascending has its own version calle J-Ster (pronounced Jester) and it follows a similar pattern to Triple Triad, but with some tweaks. It takes place on a board with hexagonal spaces, and as you fight monsters and open chests, you will receive J-Ster tokens that allow you to play. These tokens have numbers on, and as you’d expect, the higher the number, the better the token. However, there are a couple of caveats to that, and the tokens have a ring of symbols around them that can be rotated before you place the card. Some of the symbols make the token weaker, some stronger, and it adds a whole new layer of strategy, as now the tokens that you place can be beaten by a lower value token if the symbols align. So think on!
Now to the actual gameplay, and the first impressions are a little strange. The character you control, Ulan, can only run left and right in a 2D plane, and can also jump about and do a little light platforming. There are doors you can go into in the background, and you have to line the character up with the door fairly precisely in order to make the prompt appear. As you explore the various locales, there are a number of different routes you can take, and exploring in this manner will usually reveal some treasures in chests, as you’d expect.
The enemies you will fight are all visible on screen before you engage (the enemies are called “Noises”, tying into the Dissonance thing), and you can try to hit them to gain a preemptive strike, or freeze them with a blast from your Zodiac ring, in which case you can jump over them and carry on running away. However, like any JRPG, avoiding fights just means that when you get to a mandatory boss, you’re generally under levelled, so I’d advise fighting as much as you can.
Combat is fantastic in Astria, there’s no two ways about it. There are a variety of different things going on in every battle, ranging from gaining and losing Focus Points (depending on whether an enemy is weak to your attack or whether it resists it), to building up Cosmo Break attacks (which are the rough equivalent to FF’s Limit Breaks) to playing each character’s Job, which can change as the characters level up. Buying new equipment, from swords and staffs to different necklaces is vital, keeping the damage output up while gaining extra armour. With a fully realised skill tree, not only for each character and their main jobs but sub jobs as well, there is so much going on here that to explain would require the equivalent of a university dissertation.
The downsides to Astria Ascending are very minor, and in fact the only issue I’ve had is that every now and then the game seems to get out of sync with itself. As an example, when fighting the boss of the first Temple, my characters would get hurt or even die before the boss launched his attack, which was a bit weird. I’ve noticed it with chests as well; the game uncovering what’s in it before Ulan has performed the animation to open them. These are not game breaking by any means, but still a little disconcerting the first time it happens. There are also some odd choices as regards combat, such as positioning not affecting the amount of damage a character receives. In every other RPG I’ve played, putting the weaker characters in the back row affords them a degree of protection, but not so here.
In conclusion, Astria Ascending is a worthy entry into the JRPG genre. It’s beautifully presented, has a cracking story, engaging combat and enough side quests to keep you busy for a good long time.
If you have the slightest interest in JRPGs – in fact, even if you haven’t – I urge you to give it a try.
You can pick up Astria Ascending from the Xbox Store right now. It’s optimised for Series X|S