Illustration: Dear villagers
Astria Ascending is a turn-based JRPG with gameplay that pays homage to Bravely Default and Octopath Traveler. I enjoyed the combat in both of these titles, but Astria Ascending’s colorful art style felt like an upgrade to the dark color palette of those games. It also gives an interesting twist to the story line “brave adventurers-save the world”, although I’m not entirely convinced the execution has landed.
Astria was created by French-Canadian developer Artisan Studios, but some of the developers behind the game are veterans of the Final Fantasy series, NieR: Automata and Bravely Default. The game also includes voiceovers in Japanese and English. So even though the game isn’t from Japan, it looks like a JRPG in terms of aesthetics. Astria promises a 50-hour campaign, eight sturdy characters, and a more mature narrative than other games in the genre.
The influences of Final Fantasy carry over into the fantasy art style. Astria has some of the most distinct and eye-catching character designs I’ve seen in a Western RPG. All the backgrounds of her two-dimensional environments are lovingly hand painted. Sometimes I would go back to old places for sightseeing. And somehow every time I find a fascinating new detail in the background. If you asked me to describe Astria’s art in a nutshell, I would say that the game is a ‘storybook’.
And maybe this aesthetic style is meant to soften the way its serious plot lands. The twist is revealed at the very start of the game: Astria’s heroes are dying. Literally. After gaining special powers as one of the continent’s “demigods”, the hero will die in three short years. At the start of the story, all of our heroes only have three months to live. And despite the jokes about their impending doom, not everyone takes it well.
Screenshot: Dear Villagers / Kotaku
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Most JRPG heroes can have their disagreements, but ultimately they have to remain courteous to each other if they are to survive a perilous journey. This is not the case in Ascending Astria. Party members are in constant disagreement. Instead of camaraderie, the general mood of the party is filled with impatience, jealousy and prejudice. Every time I start a cutscene, I prepare for the heroes to start verbally attacking each other. Does solidarity matter when their doomed fates are inevitable? From what I saw from the first half, the demigods don’t think so. I hope they will solve their problem in the second half, but the adventure is quite atrocious in the meantime.
As part of Astria, world peace was achieved because each nation sent one of its inhabitants to become a doomed demigod. They also use emotion-regulating fruits called harmelon, which are believed to maintain coexistence between races. The central plot also asks the player if the coexistence between different groups of people is worth it if it comes at a high personal cost. It’s an interesting philosophical question, but it didn’t stuck with me.
In practical terms, coexistence between different groups requires sacrifice, but it is never a consideration of life and death. No one is forced to take medication to stop being prejudiced against people who are different from them. Stories are powerful when they rhyme with real life. Astria is so fantastic about the concept of coexistence that he gets confused about the relevance of her themes.
More importantly, the constant sniping and fanciful racism were uncomfortable to experience in practice. Maybe the game has something poignant to say about second half racism, but that doesn’t diminish how dread I am going to the next cutscene.
For the bitterness of the characters towards each other, the group fight feels very, very good. Astria Ascending is inspired by JRPGs like Octopath Traveler and Bravely Default in that you can store towers to use later. Normally, in a JRPG, the player has to consider their team makeup very carefully, as elemental weaknesses play a big role in the outcome of the battle. While these mechanics exist in Astria, it feels less punitive when I involve the “bad” characters in a battle. The ability to store one character’s turns to pass on to another alleviates some of the pressure associated with coordinating an optimal group for different fights.
However, the battles also seem chaotic as the game does not have a turn indicator. Although Astria has a speed mechanic present in many JRPGs, it was difficult for me to engage when I can’t remember who needs this boss. The lack of transparency of the turns also makes it very difficult to plan and coordinate my attacks.
Despite effective quality of life features like the ability to teleport around the map, the signage in this game is quite atrocious. I spent a lot of time trying to find the next major quest location. Sometimes the game is nice enough to tell you where to go next, but not how to get there. I often replayed cutscenes to figure out how to advance the plot, and I wish I had had a detailed quest log instead. It almost feels like Astria Ascending intends to let you lose yourself in its inspiring landscapes. Which is good, but I want to have the choice of prioritizing the main campaign.
The game has its independent charm and sincerity. It’s easy for me to forgive the narrative and mechanical errors in the game as Astria Ascending tackles artistic details and lore so hard. Even the character’s job classes are assigned to specific zodiac signs. While I don’t necessarily like all of the characters as people, it’s an impressive achievement that each of them feel so distinct. I’m also much more tolerant of feeling lost in the world of Astria when I feel compelled to admire the colorful brushstrokes along the way. Astria isn’t a perfect game, but I’m not even crazy about it.
If you liked Octopath Traveler as much as I did, then Astria Ascending is an obvious choice for your gaming backlog.