Review – Astria Ascending
Having grown up when turn-based combat was the norm, my excitement for Astria Ascending was immense. Not only is it beautiful, but I’m a nostalgia whale, and whenever I can reminisce, I’m there. From the many trailers that led up to release, there was a lot of promise. There were a variety of races that seemed to indicate vast and rich lore. And yes, while the former is true, the latter tussles with coherence. Now, I wasn’t exactly expecting a masterpiece, but there was, at least, some hope for a comprehensive story. What ended up happening, however, was a mixed bag. I did find humour in how the narrative references the divide in our reality, though. Enough chit-chat because what matters now is if this is a JRPG worth playing or if one can skip it.
A significant drawback in Astria Ascending is the writing. There’s no other way to describe it other than being frank – it’s terrible. The entire narrative is disjointed, with pacing that bounced around like a kid on sugar. Conversations were oddly structured, and there’s, at times, even a slight delay between bubble transitions. That’s an immersion killer, and it constantly reminded me that this is a video game. Look, each genre has certain aspects that I seek out when approaching it to review.
A JRPG begs for decent enough writing to carry it to its conclusion. It doesn’t need to be fantastic, but a little charm goes a long way. Astria Ascending fails to nail that by repeatedly denying me any ounce of escapism. It’s the awkwardness of, well, everything to do with the literary side that’s at the forefront of half the issues in this game.
The character development is another thorn to this title’s metaphorical side. There are tiny glimmers of it sprinkled throughout, but it’s minute in the grand scheme. I do appreciate the tries at humour, but I never chuckled, feeling indifferent. Furthermore, any emotional impact that tragic in-game events strove for was nonexistent. A key contributing factor is that not even the characters themselves react to what occurs. It’s, much like myself, met with indifference. The saddest part is that even the introduced mystery did nothing for me; there was no intrigue. I know I’m a sack of redundancy for always claiming a game has potential, but, goddammit, this had potential. While shallow, it’s evident that thought went into everything, from races to lore. Yet, for whatever reason, Astria Ascending chooses to soak in mediocrity.
Again, it’s indisputable that a considerable amount of effort went towards world-building. Artisan Studios put forth a sizable effort to assure that it, at the very least, came across as lived-in. That’s what I want, but when dialogue feels heavily robotic and unreal, it’s a fast track to ensure that the player doesn’t care. It lacks nuance, and despite villages being dense in population, there was no soul. I’m the type that eats up cheesy nonsense, so long as the narrative is tangible. The seeds have been planted, but there’s an innate refusal to water them so they can blossom. For years, people have said “so close, but so far away” to describe almost achieving a goal. Well, Astria Ascending is, without a shadow of a doubt, the very definition of that.
Before I delve into gameplay, I make sure to display weaknesses during battle. Since there’s a slew of monsters, combat gets tedious as hell if not done. See, in a mechanic that’s lifted straight out of Octopath Traveler, by exploiting a creature’s shortcomings, you gain Focus Points. These grant the ability to bolster your next attack by a percentage. Of course, enemies benefit from this, too, instilling strategy in how one approaches a fight. Will you target vulnerabilities to unleash a super attack or be on the defensive? The reason it’s vital to turn this option on is some also have resistances. By hitting those, it negatively impacts Focus Points, putting you at a disadvantage. Not only that but some techniques are outright nullified. Without any of this visible, it was a trial and error mess of frustration, so, again, do yourself this favour.
Everyone wonders about grinding in a JRPG, and yes, Astria Ascending has it. Yet another big gripe unveils itself here. Levelling isn’t the issue, though, because that happens quickly. Experience distribution is rather generous, with upwards to ten grand being given at times. The culprit is SP Points, as these are used to fill Ascension Trees. In other words, skill trees, and by allocating points to the nodes, you unlock stat boosts and abilities. The thing is, there’s a discrepancy between what’s earned and the cost of upgrades. Some require an obnoxious amount, and that translates to a hefty, and I do mean hefty, lot of encounters. What’s more, the allotment of SP seems random, with fights in the early game giving more than those found after twenty hours. Balancing is a major problem, and it infects even further into other avenues.
Combat can be fun, but I’d be lying if I claimed it couldn’t be so damn irritating too. See, most of us are familiar with the difference between surprise and preemptive attack. It usually means either yourself or the enemy strikes first. Since most battles aren’t random, there’s an exact way of gaining the upper hand. There are, however, a few scenarios that always go the course of the opponent. First, unlike other games, getting either unique circumstance allows everyone to attack twice. So, like, with a group of four, the opposing team must weather eight strikes. Now compound that with the existence of spells that can hand you a custom weakness, and it becomes rage-inducing quickly. Hell, some bosses inflict a ridiculous amount of damage by default. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but the balance is atrocious and needs tweaking.
Let’s be upfront. If Astria Ascending were personified as a tightrope walker, it would fall flat on its face. There are so many examples of poor balance, with another being purchasable accessories. Some bolster stats, but the amount to which they do is embarrassing and negligible. It never justifies spending any money on them, and, well, I didn’t. I’d forego doing so in favour of those that give immunity to a status ailment. No doubt addressing all these balance faux-pas would elevate this game by a lot. There’s fun here, but weird decisions undermine it. I want to explore every nook and cranny of this world. Speaking of, I’m baffled by the map system. The only use is to know which door connects to where or if treasures are in a room. It’s pointless otherwise because it’s so damn minimal.
From reading this, you probably think I was not too fond of Astria Ascending, but I got obsessed with one feature. Like most, I have fond memories of ‘Triple Triad’ from Final Fantasy VIII. The collecting aspect appealed to me, as did the card game itself. J-Ster, pronounced jester, takes strong inspiration but uses Tokens instead. I sunk way too much time into this mini-game and don’t regret it. It’s addicting, and much like FF8, monsters can be turned into newer tokens. It provided a nice dose of strategy and kept me entertained. The thrill of winning a match and getting my prize was consistently satisfying to me. There were performance problems, but a recent patch solved all of them. Take solace in knowing Artisan Studios don’t seem willing to abandon this game, meaning other aspects can only improve.
Before the recent patch, there were a handful of technical hiccups within Astria Ascending. After it, some were scared off, but some persist, and arguably, are worse. See, games that lock up are never a good thing, and there’s no key capable of jimmying it back to functionality. That, unfortunately, is the reality here, and I had a few instances of being forced to reset. Strangely, there’s the ability to save just about anywhere, mitigating losing too much progression if you’re proactive – at least the poor optimization is recognized. There’s an autosave feature too, but it’s still possible to lose an hour after restarting, so maybe do it manually. I’ve had lock-ups during battles, transitioning out of cutscenes, or once after a J-Ster round. They, thankfully, aren’t common but do occur. There are also music stutters that, ironically, were more prevalent in cold areas. Points for immersion, I guess.
Because I suffer from permanent disabilities, accessibility is important to me. Astria Ascending, to its credit, has comfortability nailed when it comes to button placement. That, however, doesn’t mean there isn’t space for improvement. The UI, for starters, is grossly cluttered, and when playing on the TV, it was impossible to read. To add further, when purchasing equipment, the stat increases were barely legible, even when two inches from the screen. Straining my eyes did nothing to alleviate that either. Finally, and this reverts to the terrible map, but waypoints are missed. My memory makes a goldfish jealous, so it would’ve been nice to know where to go. There were times I’d wander, clueless of my destination. There is a journal to recap quests, but it’s so vague that it might as well not exist.
The music is orchestrated and, while not awe-inspiring, it’s serviceable. It did a great job to enrich the gameplay session and never got grating, as chiptune has a habit of doing. Astria Ascending, for all its great tracks, though, fails to utilize them to amplify emotion. Although, I wouldn’t put this solely on the OST because, realistically, a major contributing factor is the voice acting… it’s dreadful. Everyone sounds monotone, lacking any inflection and cadence. At times, it was hard to ignore that it sounded like they were reading straight from a script. I don’t think the actresses and actors were horrible because the voices themselves were great. It’s the lack of direction that resulted in a bogged down, uninteresting delivery. Hell, there’s no verbal reaction of sadness to death, killing all believability.
Astria Ascending has the ingredients to produce a delicious JRPG dish but fumbles doing so. A chief reason for this is the balancing, and if rectified, I have no doubt it would solve a lot of problems. For starters, grinding is a slog since unlocking a single skill node could take upwards of an hour. The minuscule returns of battles never felt rewarding, making the time I invested feel wasted instead of worthwhile. It’s obvious this is going through some growing pains and, through fixes, I do believe it can be a recommendation. In its current state, though, buy it at a deep discount.
While it can be blurry, the detail to characters is well done. Although, townspeople and monster designs tend to repeat after awhile, with the only difference being colour variation.
There’s fun to be had but there’s even more boredom. The main culprit is how unbalanced gaining SP Points and such is, making combat feel like a slog to muscle through.
The soundtrack is unexpected with its orchestrated arrangements. The absence of emotional driven music was missed but, at least, it never got grating.
Again, boredom was much more prevalent than fun, though, there was a bit of it to be had.
Final Verdict: 5.5
Astria Ascending is available now on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Switch and PC.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Astria Ascending was provided by the publisher.