Artisan Studios may not be the most recognizable name. But the names Kazushige Nojima (writer of Final Fantasy VII, VIII, X, Kingdom Hearts) and Hitoshi Sakimoto (composer for FF Tactics, FFXII, Vagrant Story, everything Ivalice) should make any classic JRPG fan’s ears should perk up. In Astria Ascending, two RPG legends have tried something a little different, working with a newer, smaller studio. But does their magic rub off on this new adventure?
Nojima loves to write characters who are destined to sacrifice themselves for the sake of saving the world. Well, Astria Ascending has eight of them. On the continent of Orcanon, the Demi-gods are the heroes chosen to protect the central city of Harmonia and Goddess Yuno from the Noises threatening to drag the city down into chaos. Because no good deed may go unpunished, the Demi-gods are “rewarded” with a three-year countdown to death or “ascension.” As this story begins, the heroes’ estimated time to departure is down to three months.
There are many odd choices in Astria Ascending, the most immediate being the story structure. If you’ve ever wondered why it is in JRPGs that you usually start with one hero or a few and pick up more along the way, Astria Ascending has your answer. Reversing the typical narrative of traditional JRPGs, this game drops eight characters on you at the outset. After the briefest of introductions for the Demi-gods, the story then delves into the characters’ backstories, taking them to each’s homeland in an impromptu farewell tour. The entire crew entering the story at once robs them of the opportunity to be established as individuals, and as a result, none of them ever stand out.
But a narrative with an unusual structure can work if told the right way. Unfortunately, after the glorious introductory cinematic, one of the first things I noticed was the heavily on-the-nose dialogue. One exchange between two characters in your party, for example, goes like this:
“Things are getting serious.”
“When were they not?”
Awkward lines like these are the norm in Astria Ascending. Sometimes in important moments, the writing rises to the level of the storytelling, but mostly, it weakens any drama or personality the story or characters might have had. For some characters with personalities that are generally more serious (Dagmar, the beefy Arktan sorcerer) or glib (Kaydin, one of the harpy-like Awisis), the dialogue actually works alright. But there’s little other writing or narration besides the dialogue, so that’s all you get for moving the story along. This game made me appreciate the art of localization more, as it’s something you often only notice when it has problems. It was a risk for Nojima to go with a smaller developer instead of relying on the vast resources of Square Enix. But I’ll be interested to see what reviewers think of the game in Japan or France, the homes of Nojima and Artisan Studios, respectively, in their native languages.
It’s disappointing that the writing doesn’t hold up because Astria Ascending’s story itself is not bad. The game delves into some heavy subject matter, taking on issues like the complexities of racial divides, getting one’s affairs in order as death looms, and a whole lot of regret about the past. The way personal issues bleed into societal issues, and vice versa, is a masterful effort that would make Paul Thomas Anderson reconsider his calling as a movie director; the societal butterfly effect is weaved into the story more succinctly (as far as video games go) than the vaunted Anderson would do in his films. One story involves parents whose son has joined essentially a violent extremist cult that opposes Harmonia’s diversity—the city’s most cherished achievement—which his Demi-god parents don’t particularly appreciate. This story thread echoes the increasingly divisive atmosphere of our world. It’s a bold move to confront that subject the way this story does, not offering easy answers or satisfying outcomes. Just as in real life, sometimes people don’t come around, and sometimes stories come to an abrupt end. Though the words often fail the narrative, Dagmar reaching out a quivering hand to a dying loved one is among the images that will stay with me. There are glimpses of that Nojima magic—obscured though they are—that stick in your mind and heart.
But the story doesn’t always hit. The systems of Astria Ascending’s world seem as though they’re made to be challenged, but no one ever challenges them in any substantial way. Only the antagonists raise opposing views over Harmonia’s tendency to allow certain people to fall through society’s cracks, and those characters aren’t given much credibility. But the Demi-gods themselves never question the system that’s literally about to kill them. There’s a bit about citizens needing to eat fruit called Harmelons to maintain their own harmony. The villains purposely stop eating the Harmelons and instead
drink the Haterade give into the Dissonance. Surely, we’re meant to question something with a name as trite as Harmelons, but no hero ever does. Despite their looming fate, the Demi-gods don’t express any emotional response to it, beyond muttering “just three more months” occasionally. I get writers wanting to leave stories open to audience interpretation, but they needed to give players a little more direction here. Despite the story’s high points, it’s uneven overall.
The features in Astria Ascending reads like a JRPG greatest hits list. There are sidequests, a job system, skill trees, limit breaks (or Cosmo Breaks), summons, monster hunts, a collectible token game, and minigames. Instead of an airship for travel, the Demi-gods ride Fedorah, a cat-like winged beast. The traditional turn-based combat is solid enough, if somewhat too familiar; the Focus Point system riffs on ideas from Octopath Traveler and the Shin Megami Tensei series. Here, if you hit an enemy’s elemental weakness, you gain FP, which you can then use to boost your attacks and spells. But if you hit an enemy with an attack it’s strong against, you lose FP. The system encourages using characters to support one another (in harmony, if you will), and it’s rewarding when you’re able to string a few big attacks together to keep the FP flowing. But your strategy is often little more than finding your opponents’ weak point and hammering on it. Cosmo Breaks are mostly elemental-based, and most aren’t as useful as Final Fantasy’s Limit Breaks. Your characters quickly become stronger than the summons; utilizing them can give your characters a break in combat, but they don’t come in as an all-powerful destructive force, unlike in other games.
A Demi-god can eventually have up to four jobs, each with its own skill tree similar to FFX’s. The first job is unique to the character, and you choose which other jobs they take. The unique jobs mostly fall into standard archetypes; some optional jobs are more interesting than others. Favorites of mine were the Dark Knight (not the Batman movie), which lets you play with sacrificing characters to do a large amount of damage (fitting for the story), and the Hunter, which gives enemies new weaknesses and features a physical attack that can hit up to 10 times. But because of how turns work in battle, the Chronomancer’s time-altering abilities, like Haste, aren’t as cool as the job’s name sounds. You end up using all eight characters at different points for different purposes, and the roles they fill in your party are likely to change as they take on new jobs. But somehow, all the layers of the combat systems never feel fully cohesive.
Odd choices abound in Astria Ascending’s gameplay. In a case of trying to fix something that wasn’t broken, in Temples (dungeons), you fight the boss first before entering and exploring. It feels incomplete to get to the end of a Temple and not have to fight anything. Also strange, the standard encounters during exploration tend to be more lengthy and difficult than bosses. Whereas in a Final Fantasy game, random battles can often be over in under a minute, in Astria, it’s not uncommon for standard fights to take more like five minutes. The game throws many spongy enemies at you, which take time to whittle down. It’s not a problem per se, but the systems aren’t so interesting that longer fights feel necessary. Thus, there’s never a comfortable combat-exploration balance. Thankfully, each battle gives you tons of experience points, making grinding less critical. But there aren’t enough nuances in the combat to forge a unique identity for the game.
Astria Ascending is a side-scrolling game, and as such, there’s some light platforming that gets heavier later on. In dungeons, enemies appear as floating spheres, which trigger battle when you touch them but are usually avoidable if you’re not in the mood. Later dungeons involve bigger, multi-screen puzzles, some of which are fun to work through. As with any platformer, there are instant-death pits like in a Mario game. But, in another strange design choice for Astria Ascending, if you fall into a hole, you respawn at the edge with no penalty. Sometimes, the platforming segments feel like they belong in a different game.
The visuals are gorgeous and give Astria Ascending a unique look, especially as a JRPG. The lively opening animated cinematic feels like a concept for a Studio Ghibli film that was never completed, but, unfortunately, it’s the only one. Much of the background art, especially in cities, is otherworldly and looks like it belongs on the cover of a classic pulpy sci-fi/fantasy novel. The characters bear some resemblance to those of an Ivalice game, and the less-humanoid races have intriguing appearances. Unfortunately, while the characters are attractive and intricately animated, the camera is usually fixed at a distant view to capture the whole group. Occasionally, conversations between characters get a close-up shot, which I would have liked to see more of because they look excellent up close.
We knew the sound would be in good hands with Sakimoto, and as expected, he delivers a beautiful soundtrack. The battle themes especially stand out, as the composer comes up with rousing pieces that don’t sound like any of his Final Fantasy battle music, helping set a different tone for Astria Ascending. Especially in a game with evil represented as Noises and Dissonance, some dissonant tracks effectively conveyed a feeling of dread in big boss fights. I mostly played the game with the English voices, though I liked the Japanese, too. The English actors do their best with the material, though it sounds like they’re unsure about how to deliver the too-straightforward lines. The deep bass of Lenval Brown as Dagmar and the sophisticated tone of Tegan Hitchens as Kress were my favorites of the bunch.
Of course, I can’t neglect J-Ster, the token-laying game played on a hexagonal grid that spurs memories of Final Fantasy card games past. Collecting the tokens by defeating enemies is a decent spin on the typical card-collection minigame. The game involves trying to flip enemy tokens to your color to have the most tokens by the time all of them are laid down. But challenges between tokens involve a convoluted points system that I never got the hang of, putting it closer to Tetra Master than Triple Triad. The writers couldn’t help throwing in a silly, not-at-all subtle reference to those earlier games. There’s also a simple Gradius-style side-scrolling shooter minigame featuring Fedorah, but the less said about it, the better. It doesn’t appear until later, but it’s irritating when you must complete a level of the shooter to advance to some areas of the map.
Ultimately, Astria Ascending is as flawed as it is fascinating. It has its moments, but the story is uneven, the dialogue is rough, and the combat is fine, but it doesn’t do enough to stand out in a crowded genre. It hurts to say that, as at some points, the story feels like one that needs to be heard, and there are some parts that I won’t soon forget. As the satellite falls to Earth, it mostly burns up on re-entry, but there is a painful beauty to it all while it lasts.