A new world where demi-gods reign as protectors…
Astria Ascending is a gorgeous hand-drawn JRPG that is brought to life by Artisan Studios alongside other developers from Final Fantasy and Bravely Default. Those who are familiar with the later games will find similarities in Astria Ascending, but this title is a refreshing addition to this genre with unique features of its own.
Demi-gods: A spurt of power in a shortened lifeline…
The player is introduced to the 333rd team of demi-gods from eight different races in the fantastical world of Orchanon. Although the demi-gods are blessed with incredible powers and abilities when they accept such an esteemed status, their lifespan is shortened to only three remaining years.
Dressed in slick red armour, Ulan is the defacto leader of the clan. Her sprite moves along in a 2D side-scroller, allowing the player to interact with other citizens or unexpected enemies. Deemed ‘Noises’, these are a new threat to Orchanon and it’s up to this team to discover their origins and protect their society. And so the adventure begins.
Visually captivating with enthralling artwork
No matter where your travels take you, the beautiful hand-drawn art elevates the world. The artwork is amazingly detailed from the different species to monstrous foes, and includes modest animations to visualise the towns’ climates. This could explain why there are occasional long wait times for loading scenes.
Played on the Nintendo Switch, the text is quite small. The developers appear to be aware of this as in Settings, the player can adjust text to 150% or 200% of its original size. This helped in dialogue but not so much when interacting with characters/objects, and even through the Menu screen. Even though I selected 200% text size, I still had to squint to make out the words.
Cutscenes are fully-voiced and in the English voiceover, there was a lack of chemistry between the characters. Although they stayed true to their own character in tone and attitude, it felt like a monologue when thrown in with other characters’ banter, particularly when names are pronounced differently and had nothing to do with accents. The soundtracks are fitting to the scenes but are outshined by the gorgeous artwork.
Attack… Defend... Focus!
Despite the lacklustre storytelling from the poor text visuals and stilted scenes, I found the combat sequences most enjoyable and the highlight of the game. Difficulties and extras (such as experience gain, item and money drops, displaying enemy weaknesses etc.) can be modified in Settings to your preference.
Four of the demi-gods come into battle when encountering foes. Like the majority of JRPGs, there are options to attack (melee), defend, cast spells, switch character (with the chance to select more than one character to interchange), but what’s new in Astria Ascending is Focus Points (FP). Starting at 1 and with potential advantages such as a pre-emptive strike, FPs are critical to your battle strategies.
It’s a feature similar to Bravely Default’s Brave/Default mechanism with the opportunity to stack FPs, which are influenced by exploiting enemy weaknesses or from rebuffing/nullifying their attacks. Consequently, if the enemy resists or is immune to your attack, you lose FPs instead. Each trigger grants you +/- 1 FP and if you decide to ‘focus’ for a character’s turn, that FP lasts for your team’s turn only. FPs can be utilised by another team member, which equates to 25% increments of their attack/spell. Therefore, there’s a maximum 250% (5 FPs) per character’s turn, with any leftover FPs for other teammates. Of course, enemies can also use FPs in exactly the same manner as you!
Outside of battle, your HP auto-regens while MP only auto-regens when you’re outside a dungeon. These are convenient features, particularly when you can teleport out of dungeons, but it also means that you don’t know when you’ll next encounter an enemy boss without the usual save points. Then again, a perk is that you can save at any time.
The dungeon maps take on a 3D impression, especially when you can rotate and zoom. Although different from typical maps, it is effective given the multiple levels and teleportal rooms within a dungeon.
The Skills and Class of a Demi-god
The demi-gods work most efficiently by complementing their skillset with their team members. After each battle, you gain Skill Points (SPs) to unlock further abilities. Defeating certain enemy bosses at Zodiac Temples rewards you with the relevant crests to upgrade a character’s class. This causes the characters’ appearance to change on the field and a wider selection of more powerful abilities at the cost of higher SPs.
Quests, Hunts, and a Game within the Game
Like many JRPGs, there are extras including side quests, hunts, and a popular game within Orchanon called J-Ster. Hunts are expeditions of stronger versions of previously defeated monsters with greater bounty for harder foes.
J-Ster can be challenged with many NPCs. The difficulty and terms, such as rewards and losses, are shown before a player accepts. Hence if you are dissatisfied with the conditions, you can decline instead. Using 5 monster tokens which can be obtained by monster drops or using the ‘Steal’ ability in battles, the objective is to have your colour dominate the board.
Starting at random, the centre number is used to attack/defend against the opponent’s adjacent token while being mindful of other modifiers (weaknesses, no effect etc). The victorious token flips adjacent tokens to the player’s colours. I found this a fun minigame that encourages monster collections and a sliver of strategy, but also with a bit of luck thrown in!
A Promising Title
Astria Ascending begins slowly and can be difficult to follow with the small texts and mediocre scenes that you can skip but can’t fast-forward. Tips were also casually explained in your exploration rather than always on a need-to-know basis. One example includes how to display your main quest; a helpful feature when the next objective is unclear following an Orchanon-heavy exposition. Thankfully, whenever a tip is revealed, they can be accessed again in the Journal.
Despite the average storytelling, the drawings and unique battle system are excellent and sustained my interest in the game. The expected main storyline completion is 25-35 hours (70+ hours for side quests), but I experienced a bug after almost 9 hours and cannot advance in the game. However, my short time frame has given me enough insight to understand the premise of Astria Ascending, and I look forward to unravelling the mystery of Noises and delve into further character specialisation once a patch is released.
So, why should you play it?
Gorgeous, detailed hand-drawn presentation
Interesting battle system that requires strategy and team synergy
Customisation of the demi-gods’ abilities and class to suit your liking
Ability to modify difficulties in game
But why shouldn’t you play it?
Small texts can be tedious to read
World exposition is slow
Characters have forgettable personalities
Some features explained later in the game rather than at time of discovery
A review code was provided for the purpose of this review.
Tiffany is an aspiring writer with particular interest in dystopias and angsty romances. She often finds herself immersed in games that are brought to life by their rich narratives and lavish landscapes. In her spare time, Tiffany enjoys long walks in the wilderness and relaxes with a book under the glow of a scented candle.