Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Astria Ascending has the looks – just one glance at the visuals can tell you that much. It also has the pedigree, with former contributors to various Final Fantasy titles. The real question is whether or not this JRPG can deliver substance to go with its style, and by and large, it delivers despite a few caveats.
The story behind Astria Ascending is actually one of its strongest selling points for me. It’s rather dense at times, and like many of the Final Fantasy games, there is a significant amount of world-building that takes place here as you learn your way around the characters, locations, history and other themes. However, I enjoyed the narrative components a great deal, and would absolutely like to see more about this world in future game installments or other types of media.
The story kicks off with the 333rd demi-god brigade, which seems like a bit of a mouthful. Also, that is a high number, that was the first thing I thought of, but then you come to understand that once someone achieves the lofty demi-god status, they only get to live for three years. Those incredible powers that come with ascending to these heights come with a significant cost, and your party – like the other brigades – is quickly reaching the end of its time, with only a few months of life remaining. This premise certainly puts a lot of pressure on the character right out of the gates. It also sets up some rather unique team dynamics. That there are eight primary characters that make up your team, that creates a bit of a learning curve right out of the gates.
One thing that is a bit different compared to many JRPGs, is that your team is already assembled. They know one another, they’ve worked together before and they have history with one another. That being said, they are not one great big harmonious unit – in fact they have plenty of conflicts and differing opinions despite (or maybe in part because of) their time spent together. It’s a bit different than the dynamic you often see in the JRPG genre where you have a person who meets new people and their story originates from that point.
Here we have more history and while it took about a dozen hours or so into the narrative for all of these points to really start firing for me, the investment was worth it. The flip side to this however, is that the characters themselves are pretty well baked. You don’t have any coming of age stories, or other overplayed tropes of the genre, but the majority of characters really don’t develop in many meaningful ways either by the time the game ends. The journey is still a worthwhile one, but if you’re looking for characters who possess a great deal of introspection and personal growth? You might come away slightly disappointed on that front.
In terms of the actual gameplay, things tend to be pretty typical for the genre here. Given the high stakes story and beautiful presentation, I sort of felt like a few more chances could have been taken on this front. It’s all about discovering and taking advantage of elemental weaknesses, with the sort of tactical turn-based combat we’ve seen from the JRPG genre for decades now. There is a bit of an odd tug-of-war with he focus / weakness system that could make it so you have limited members of your party really capable of impacting the battle. This is the key to combat, and if you try to just cruise through without paying attention, you can get your tail handed to you. This is often due to the attacks enemies can use that frequently smack your entire time at once, stunning them and leaving you to play catch-up once you gain control of your units again and often made the combat feel just a bit too slow for my liking.
Thankfully the job system here is pretty varied and character progression presents numerous options that allow you to tweak how you want your party to be set up. Your options for building out characters are plentiful and that flexibility is greatly appreciated. I spent a good deal of time looking through skill tries and trying to figure out how to best develop the characters. This particular gameplay loop is a solid one that I enjoyed, even if it’s pretty standard fare – just well-executed.
While the combat itself is pretty much standard fare for the genre, the way that dungeon exploration is handled is unique. It has a sort of 2D / Metroidvania style of progression involving a combination of platforming and lightweight problem-solving. There is a bit of platforming in the overworld as well, which feels a bit clumsy there also. The platforming element was probably my least favorite aspect of the game.
Firstly – I’m just not a big platforming fan. I’ve played hundreds of them over the years and can appreciate one that’s done well, but that’s not this team’s strong suit and there were certainly moments where it just felt inconsistent and somewhat frustrating at times. There is plenty to explore and encounter however, and coming into contact with the monsters triggers the aforementioned combat system. For those who find random encounters an archaic thing of the JRPG past? You’ll be happy to know that you can see your opponents before engaging with them, and while some of the battles are unavoidable, most can be circumvented if you don’t feel like fighting at that particular time.
Despite the decidedly old-school flavor of the various systems, I have to say that I appreciated the some of the more modernized practices like the combat nodes mentioned above. Additional quality of life features include things like autosaving, the option to save anywhere (not just at checkpoints), fallen party members being revived after combat (though they don’t get to collect experience from the battle, so keep an eye on that), options that let you see enemy weaknesses automagically or maps that provide useful icons, adjustable difficulty and more provide plenty of options to play with in Astria Ascending.
The overall presentation is a solid one. I really enjoyed the colorful art style of the characters, monsters and environments – though the dungeons themselves did not hold up as well for me over time. Early on they looked good, but as I spent more time in them, I began to see where assets were regularly just being reused and it took some of the shine off for me. Especially when weighed against the highly detailed, hand-drawn monsters and characters.
Outside of the primary quest, there are enough side quests and the J-Ster mini-game that incorporates token monsters and challenging people along the way that gave me plenty to do. This combined with the deep job system gave me a lot to do, and generally speaking I enjoyed spending my time this way. That said, it can be a big grindy, which I know not everyone appreciates. I’m a bit of an old-school grinder in JRPG and strategy/RPG games, so it did not bother me generally (though a brisker combat system would have alleviated some of the pacing concerns that come with grinding). You can exit dungeons at any time, but coming back the enemies respawn, meaning you have a lot of familiar battles coming up again.
Astria Ascending is a beautiful game to look at, and the various systems provide plenty to do while soaking the aesthetic in. There’s a deep, interesting world here that took a bit of time for me to sink my teeth into, but once I got into the groove I really enjoyed peeling back the layers. That said, there are concerns around the pacing at times and the platforming elements fell a bit flat for me as well. Astria Ascending is a good JRPG overall that fans of the genre will likely want to give a try.Score: 7.5 / 10