Astria Ascending is a beautiful hand-drawn RPG set in a vibrant world and has a twisting narrative filled with plenty of sacrifice and betrayal. It’s definitely been influenced by classic Japanese RPGs, which is not a surprise when you consider that some of its development team have previously worked on the Final Fantasy franchise. While it clearly has old school roots the gameplay has some much needed quality of life improvements, although these are sadly not enough to stop the game from feeling a little bit too grindy at times.
The game is set in the world of Orcanon, a diverse place filled with lots of different races who are all able to live together peacefully thanks to the power of Harmony. Every three years a number of people are selected to become demi-gods and are given great power in order to defend the world. While it’s a great honour to be chosen it’s also somewhat bittersweet. The power they get is limited to just three years and once it’s gone they pass on from this world.
The current group of eight demi-gods has just three months left of their term and some of them are handling this better than others. Despite having worked together for the last few years they don’t seem to particularly like each other. Hearing them make derogatory remarks about each other's race doesn’t exactly endear them to you and it does make you question this supposedly harmonious world.
You’d hope that with the main city coming under attack from monsters the demi-gods would be able to put aside their differences and pull together. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case. As you travel across the world you’ll find out more about everyone’s background, but many of the things that get revealed aren’t particularly interesting and a lot of the story twists are fairly predictable. There doesn’t seem to be much character development either, which means that by the time the end credits roll around you’ll wonder what the point of it all was.
While the story falls a little flat the gameplay is where things pick up a bit. Much of your time will be spent exploring the many dungeons where you’ll need to make your way through 2D fields by jumping across platforms and solving puzzles using your elemental powers. None of these sections are particularly tricky but they add a fun dynamic to the dungeons and help to break up the many fights you’ll encounter.
Indeed, the dungeons are absolutely teeming with enemies and as soon as you touch one you’ll be whisked away to a battlefield for some turn based combat. Monsters can quite easily thrash you if you don’t pay attention to the Focus system. Hitting an enemy’s weakness will give you a focus point which you can save up to massively boost your next attack. Of course, enemies can also do the same to you which is why it’s important to pay attention to everyone’s strengths and weaknesses.
Some fights can feel a little unfair, with enemies that have the ability to cast spells that can stun your whole party for a number of turns. Having to sit around and watch as the bad guys cut away large chunks of your health can be very frustrating. It‘s quite easy to feel overwhelmed in every new dungeon you enter, so you’ll end up grinding away to make sure you’re strong enough to survive each encounter.
Every demi-god has a branching skill tree where you’ll be able to unlock new abilities and higher stats by using points gained from battle. As there are different pathways to take it really feels like you can tailor each character in whatever way you think is best. There’s an almost dizzying number of ways to build each character especially when you start unlocking new job classes.
The game is pretty flexible, not just in how you level up your characters, but also in how you want to play. If you want to make the game feel more retro then you have the option to only have characters who participate in battle gain experience. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a more streamlined adventure then you can enable the options that let you see weaknesses without scanning every enemy, or see treasure chests and quest icons on the in-game map. Being able to save anywhere you want is also a very welcome feature.
There are also quite a lot of optional activities for you to take on if you decide you want a break from the main story. These range from typical side-quests, to hunting monsters, arena battles, as well as a mini-game where you can collect tokens and use them to battle against other in-game players. These activities definitely vary in quality. Having to backtrack through dungeons you’ve already explored to find an item or monster just feels like a way to stretch out the game’s length instead of adding anything of value to the experience.
Performance wise, we ran into quite a lot of bugs during our time with the game. Most of these were fairly minor but they seemed to increase in frequency the further through the game we got. It was pretty annoying to not be able to pre-emptively start battles as the ability to hit enemies before a fight would randomly decide not to work. There was also a very strange instance where the game froze and, once it had been reloaded, a dungeon puzzle had somehow managed to solve itself. Again, none of these bugs were game-breaking, but they were frequent and annoying.
Astria Ascending is a beautifully hand-drawn game with an old school JRPG feel. It tries to keep the experience modern with some much needed quality of life improvements, but annoying bugs hold it back. It’s a bit of a shame that the story is fairly forgettable but the fun combat system does help alleviate this to an extent. With a very detailed job system and plenty of optional side content to get involved with, there is entertainment to be found here if don’t mind the grind — but as an overall role-playing adventure, Astria Ascending has clear flaws.