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Review: Beautifully Hand Drawn Astria Ascending Sets Itself Apart

Screenshot: Astria Ascending

I haven’t played many Japanese style role-playing games lately (JRPGs), but it’s a genre I dabbled in extensively when I was much younger. That’s not to say I haven’t played any JRPGs lately, but it’s not a genre I jump into, mostly because JRPGs tend to be enormously full of content, with Astria Ascending following that pattern.

Astria Ascending is a 2D JRPG with gorgeous hand drawn art. In fact, its art is undoubtedly the first thing you’ll notice about Astria Ascending. It’s also a big game, chock full of adventures for your party of Demigods to partake in. While Astria Ascending promises a “mature story” (according to its store page) I’d say that Astria Ascending has a story that is mostly on-par with other JRPGs, but what makes Astria Ascending’s story stand out is its bleakness: under the beautiful art, is a struggle that will bring your doomed party to meet their fate.

Screenshot: Astria Ascending

The world of Astria Ascending is a rich one, made by developers with a long history of love for classic JRPGS. Don’t expect a game like the remake of Final Fantasy VII, instead, you’ll get something closer to its original with Astria Ascending taking cues from that game, as well as games like Xenogears, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger.

In Astria  Ascending, you take control of a group of Demigods—eight protectors who are duty bound to protect their realm. Your crew of eight each has their own detailed story, but you’ll also be able to explore five cities and dozens of dungeons—Astria Ascending is a chonky game that can take over thirty hours to complete. Each of the eight characters can specialize into a few subclasses each, giving you a huge variety of potential playstyles in combat. Outside of combat there are environmental puzzles and simple platforming sections to overcome, as well as a card/tile game called J-Ster you can challenge NPCs to. There’s even shoot ‘em up sections, but they aren’t the main draw of the gameplay—that’s Astria Ascending’s turn-based combat.

Screenshot: Astria Ascending

I have to admit that the rest of Astria Ascending hasn’t grabbed me as much as its combat—which is some of the most fun I’ve had in a JRPG in some time. Astria Ascending gives you a whole lot of options when approaching combat, and even adds in a novel system called “Focus Points” that help characters shine where they normally wouldn’t—or make those who are good, even better.  Enemies, of course, have weaknesses that must be exploited if they are to be soundly defeated. Even if you don’t immediately have an upper hand, there are lots of tricks at your disposal including abilities that create weaknesses, powerful summons, and devastating elemental spells.

When you fight in turn-based combat, you will have four of your eight Demigods available to fight. You can swap them out before encounters, or even during, to change up strategies if your current isn’t working. This gives an insane amount of flexibility in combat, and is therefore one of the true joys in Astria Ascending. Some JRPGs have very grindy combat, and while Astria Ascending isn’t exactly innocent of having a grindy aspect, I found myself seeking out combat encounters just for the fun of it.

One of the systems that makes Astria Ascending stand out from other similar games is its use of Focus Points. While the concept of an expendable currency that makes your attacks more powerful isn’t unique, Focus Points are implemented well into the combat of Astria Ascending—it keeps things interesting. Focus Points can be spend to increase damage output, or enable summoned creatures to perform powerful attacks. Characters that may not be useful in a current fight can have their attacks amplified, or they can choose to give up their turn to add to the team’s focus pool.

If you like side quests and extra content, there is a ton to sink your teeth into with Astria Ascending. Talking to NPCs can yield extra tasks, but there are also Guilds which give you quests to hunt powerful monsters.  These monsters can be a real test to your team, and are a fun diversion to its main storyline. Of course, you can always explore the semi-open world of Astria Ascending to find secrets and fight extra foes.

I’m not a huge fan of exploration in Astria Ascending. Most of the overland gameplay consists of moving along in a 2D platformer, which just isn’t that great feeling to play. There are puzzles to solve, while a highlight, don’t make travel and exploration any more fun. The maps of these areas are useful, but convey everything as a series of layers which, in a way, destroys the feeling of having an open world. Exploration does yield fruit, however, so it’s an activity I did mostly for promise of gear or items to find more so than enjoyment of the activity.

Despite its gorgeous art, some of the character models in Astria Ascending really suffer from the “big bouncy boob” syndrome so prevalent in JRPGs. That’s okay, if you like the style of it, but I couldn’t help but notice how unnecessarily floppy some character’s body parts were. I’m not just talking about boobs, either—sometimes the excessive jiggling strangely translated over to things that should not be moving around, like faces. I don’t think this is exactly intentional, rather, it’s probably a result of the animation style they’re using, but it’s so unsettling its more baffling than uncanny valley.

Screenshot: Astria Ascending

Astria Ascending is a solid JRPG. It was easy to get lost in its world, characters and lore thanks to its art style. It does a few things to help it stand out from the pack, namely its art and fun combat that is amplified by its Focus System. I really enjoyed my time in Astria Ascending, and if you’re looking for a meaty JRPG to dive into, you can easily lose hours to this one.

Astria Ascending is available September 30 for PC via Steam and on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series S|X, Xbox One and Game Pass as well as for Nintendo Switch.

 

 

 

A Steam key was provided to us for this review.

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