Astria Ascending is a beautiful hand-drawn RPG set in a vibrant world with a twisted narrative full of sacrifice and betrayal. It was definitely influenced by classic Japanese role-playing games, which is no surprise considering that some of its developers have already worked on the Final Fantasy franchise. While clearly having old school roots, the gameplay has some much-needed quality of life improvements, although unfortunately those are not enough to keep the game from feeling a bit too boring at times.
The game is set in the world of Orcanon, a diverse place with many different races who can live together peacefully thanks to the power of Harmony. Every three years a number of people are chosen to be demigods and given great power to defend the world. While it’s a great honor to be selected, it’s also a bit bittersweet. The power they get is limited to just three years and when it’s gone they pass this world on.
The current group of eight demigods only has three months left in office, and some of them are doing better than others. Although they’ve worked together for the past few years, they don’t seem to like each other very much. Hearing them make derogatory remarks about each other’s race doesn’t exactly make them popular and make you question this supposedly harmonious world.
They would hope that the demigods can resolve their differences and pull together when the capital is attacked by monsters. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. As you travel around the world, you can learn more about their background, but many of the things that are revealed aren’t particularly interesting, and many of the twists and turns of the story are pretty predictable. There doesn’t seem to be much character development either, which means that by the end of the credits you’ll be wondering what the point of it all was.
While the story falls a little flat, the gameplay is picking up a bit of speed. Much of your time will be spent exploring the many dungeons where you have to move through 2D fields by jumping over platforms and solving puzzles with your elemental powers. Neither of these sections are particularly tricky, but they add a fun dynamic to the dungeons and help resolve the many battles you will encounter.
In fact, the dungeons are teeming with enemies and as soon as you touch one, you’ll be whisked off to a battlefield for turn-based combat. Monsters can beat you up pretty easily if you don’t watch out for the focus system. When you hit an enemy’s weakness it will give you a focus point that you can save to massively reinforce your next attack. Of course, enemies can do the same to you too, which is why it’s important to pay attention to each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.
Some fights can feel a little unfair as enemies have the ability to cast spells that can stun your entire party for a series of rounds. Sitting around and watching the bad guys cut away large chunks of your health can be very frustrating. It’s pretty easy to feel overwhelmed with every new dungeon you enter, so you will end up working hard to make sure you are strong enough to survive every encounter.
Each demigod has a branching skill tree where you can unlock new skills and higher stats by using points gained in battle. Since there are different paths, it feels like you can customize each character as you see fit. There are a staggering number of ways to create any character, especially as you unlock 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 add a more retro feel to the game, you have the option of only having characters participating in the battle gain experience. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a leaner adventure, you can turn on the options that will allow you to spot weaknesses without scanning every enemy, or view treasure chests and quest icons on the in-game map. The ability to save anywhere is also a very welcome feature.
There are also plenty of optional activities that you can take on if you want a break from the main story. These range from typical side quests to hunting monsters, arena battles and a mini-game in which you can collect tokens and use them to fight other players in the game. These activities definitely differ in quality. Having dungeons already explored to find an item or a monster makes it feel like a way to extend the game time instead of adding something valuable to the experience.
In terms of performance, we ran into quite a few bugs during our time with the game. Most of these were pretty insignificant, but they seemed to increase in frequency the further we got into the game. It was quite annoying not being able to start fights preemptively, as the ability to meet enemies before a fight would randomly decide it didn’t work. There was also a very strange case where the game froze and after reloading a dungeon puzzle somehow got solved by itself. Again, none of these mistakes were groundbreaking, but they were common and annoying.
Astria Ascending is a beautifully hand-drawn game with an old school JRPG feel to it. It tries to keep the experience modern with some much-needed quality of life improvements, but annoying mistakes are holding it back. It’s a bit of a shame the story is pretty much forgotten, but the fun battle system helps to alleviate this to some extent. With a very detailed job system and lots of optional side content to immerse yourself in, there’s entertainment here if you don’t mind – but as a general RPG adventure, Astria Ascending has clear shortcomings.