STAFF REVIEW of Astria Ascending (Xbox One)

Monday, October 18, 2021.
by Adam Dileva

Astria Ascending Box art It’s been a good year for JPG’s, and given that it’s my favorite genre I’ve been quite a happy lad lately. While I find it very difficult to fit in a lengthy 50+ hour JRPG with my ever-growing backlog, I’ll dedicate the chunk of time to do so if the experience is worth it. Having just finished one amazing JRPG for review, Astria Ascending released shortly after and was my next undertaking, one I was quite excited for given the pedigree of some of the creators behind it.

A classic JRPG with beautiful hand drawn visuals, I was immediately excited for Astria Ascending once it was announced. More than the visuals though, there are some seriously big names attached that made me take notice and had me hyped. Names such as Kazushige Nojima (FFVII Remake, FFX, FFVII) who helped shape the narrative, Hitoshi Sakimoto (FFXII, Vagrant Story) who composed the fantastic soundtrack, and graphic designers Hideo Minaba (FFVI, FFIX, FFXII) and Akihiko Yoshida (FFXII, Nier: Automata). These names are big deals if you know your JRPG’s, so my expectations were through the roof.

The visuals are very impressive and full of style, the backdrops are all varied and beautiful to take in and the soundtrack is a delight to listen to on repeat. The credits rolled after about 30 hours or so and by the end I was hoping to want to restart all over again, but sadly I was glad it was over. Not that I hated my time with it, as there are some great parts about Astria Ascending that I did quite enjoy, and it’s hard to fault a team of less than 20 people that developed the game in just a few short years, but I think I let my expectations get the better of me, as it never reached the plateaus of greatness I was hoping for.

Set in the vast and gorgeous world of Orcanon, you’ll fly to many different lands, each with their own biomes and enemy types. You play as a group of eight greatly different and unique characters, demi-gods to be exact, but this choosing of status is a blessing and a curse. Once you’re chosen and given mass amounts of power as a demi-god you’re tasked with defeating any evils within the world, but are only given three years left to live. Where we come into this story is when the group only has three months left to live, and of course this when there’s an ever growing evil that’s starting to approach the main cities doorsteps.

A tale of sacrifice for the greater good, having a cast of eight characters from the opening moments is something that surprised me, as normally you start with just a single character or two and meet the rest along the way, but alas, we start this journey in near the end of their duty. Tasked with bringing peace to the world, they must fight 'Noises', creatures that are appearing mysteriously out of nowhere, unsure of their origin. These monsters are dangerous, so the band of demi-gods must not only defeat any that they find along the way, but must figure out where they are coming from, as they’ve never come this close to city walls before.

I initially expected a grand tale with many twists and turns, even more so with eight unique characters, all of which do get their brief moment in the spotlight to reveal their backstory, but there’s a slog of dialogue to get through, and worse, a cast of characters, most of whom I didn’t enjoy at all for multiple reasons. I’ll admit, I think the writing is a big culprit in my distaste for many of the core characters, as many of them don’t get the same amount of dedicated screen time to flesh out their personalities, but the voice acting is another reason I couldn’t stand having to sit through some of the dialogue.

You’d think for a band of eight characters that only have a short time left to live to fulfil their holy duties that they would work as a cohesive unit to succeed in their adventure. Instead, you get characters that don’t necessarily fight with one another, but have some serious issues that make them come across like jerks, even with some racist undertones given that each character comes from a different background or alien race. There are attempts to have you care about each character by revealing their lives before being a demi-god or the reason that they fight for, but other than one or two of the characters it makes you question about living in harmony with one another.

With such big names behind many facets of its design, especially with Kazushige Nojima working on the narrative, I was expecting a grand adventure that’ve we’ve come to expect in the top-tier JRPG’s, and while it has some potential, it never feels fully cohesive for a few different reasons. Lastly, the ending kind of just happens quickly, not completely out of nowhere, but I was surprised when I saw the credits roll thinking “That’s it?” and didn’t feel satisfied at all.

As you traverse the world across a handful of different bustling cities and more than a dozen dungeons, you’ll become enamored with how gorgeous the artwork is and how addictive the turn based combat performs. While I had the credits roll after about thirty hours or so, there’s easily double that amount if you want to explore every corner of the dungeons and collect all of J-Ster cards that are a mini-game very reminiscent of Triple Triad from Final Fantasy 8. Later on there are even some flying levels as you travel from one major continent to another, changing up the pacing but feeling a little out of place. And while there are some great quality of life convenience options I really appreciated, like multiple difficulties and being able to completely replenish your health and mana in cities, there’s also a laundry list of inconveniences that frustrated me from its opening moments until the credits rolled.

Having a cast of eight unique characters from the opening moments means you’ll need to determine what types of classes you want in your party, as only four can go into combat at one time. Each character is technically meant for a specific role, having base stats that are more suited for being a caster, damage dealer, tank or healer. You’re not exactly shoehorned into forcing each character to play a specific way once you unlock sub and support jobs, but they won’t be near anywhere as efficient as others.

Each of the eight characters starts out with a base class, eventually unlocking a main one from a choice of three, so it pays to do some research before locking in your decisions. The job system is quite expansive, reminiscent of the grid system from Final Fantasy X, though there are multiple grids per character to spend your points on, so if you want to min/max it’s going to be an arduous grind. Your character’s main clothing will also change based on their chosen roll which was a cool detail, as does your weapons based on which is equipped. Speaking of which, each town you get to will have new weapons, armor and gear to purchase, though there’s no option to quickly ‘Buy and Equip’, so it’s a bit of a hassle to purchase, go into menus, put on each gear after scrolling through each of the characters, then going back to the shop to sell unwanted gear to recover some of the cost.

As you explore the dungeons you’ll see these blue orbs, which are the “Noises” containing monsters, opening a turn based battle when you attack or touch them. Given how much money and experience you’ll need to beef up your characters I suggest not skipping many battles, as there are some serious random difficulty spikes now and then and you don’t want to have to grind for a few hours just to progress.

Turned-based combat is Astria Ascending feels great... most of the time. With plenty of different monsters to fight, there’s a few interesting mechanics that you’ll need to fully understand if you want success in the later dungeons and bosses. You’ll need to learn how to utilize Cosmo Breaks for massive damage, summoning beasts to help in combat, how to utilize enemy weaknesses and a Focus Point system that is somewhat like Bravely Default’s combat system of enhancing your attacks.

As mentioned above, there are multiple difficulty options you can choose from, not just from Very Easy to Hard, but many choices for random battles such as if stored characters earn XP and more. If you decide you want to simply sit back and enjoy the story you can essentially one-shot bosses on Very Easy, or crank up the difficulty if you’re a fan of grinding. I really appreciated these options that are able to be toggled on the fly, allowing me to earn more rewards quicker so I didn’t have to arbitrarily grind to progress.

The Focus Point (FP) system is something that is only briefly explained, but can be quite powerful when utilized properly. Every time you exploit an enemies’ weakness you’ll earn FP points which can be used to bolster one of your characters action up to 4X/200%. This doesn’t mean you’ll attack or cast four times, but instead it will be that much more potent and its success rate increased. The idea behind this given that many enemies have resistances and weaknesses is that if you have a character that can only cast ‘Fire’ and they Nullify or Absorb fire damage, then at least they can contribute in a way to the party other than simply defending or passing their turn. You’re also able to swap any character in and out of battle freely, though doing so utilizes their turn.

What frustrated me the most with combat was that there’s no way to speed up battles. This means you’ll need to sit through some excruciatingly long battles with no way to do anything about it other than sit and wait. Even worse is that sometimes enemies can stun you for multiple turns and there’s nothing you can do but wait. Some bosses also go through double digit phases and form changes, so some battles can take quite a while, especially on the harder difficulties.

The worst offender though has to be the dungeon map. Instead of a grid or traditional style map that makes sense and is easily navigable, the map in Astria Ascending is borderline useless and frustrating. Every dungeon is separated into numerous singular rooms, of which the map will show you how many doors or exits to each room they have. The problem is that there’s no way to tell where you at in said room via the map. For example, say the room you’re in shows that there are three different doors to lead to other rooms. Great, expect you don’t know where you are in relation to those doors in the room. The only way to check which door it is, is to go through, check how that room attached to the new room with this blue string-like line and hope that it makes sense. You’ll need to check the map constantly and hope that you can understand it to figure out where you’ve previously been or need to go. The saving grace to this frustration is that you can freely teleport to any city or other dungeon teleport location once found without any restrictions or resource needed.

Without a doubt, the artistic style and aesthetic is what sets Astria Ascending apart from the competition. It has such a unique and gorgeous hand drawn style, not without its issues, but is simply gorgeous to look at no matter what’s on the screen. Each character is uniquely designed and each area and background is wonderfully done. There’s a surprising amount of detail in almost everything on screen, though I’d argue that some of the characters features are a little too exaggerated and sexualized. This of course means that every female has a huge chest and thighs that put Chun-Li to shame, which some will enjoy of course, but it felt a little too audacious when things start ‘bouncing’.

The soundtrack is absolutely amazing, something I’d expect from an expansive JRPG that has an epic orchestral score. I have absolutely nothing bad to say about the music and soundtrack composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, the voice acting on the other hand is a whole other story. I don’t usually choose Japanese voice overs with subtitles when given the option of English voices, but I’d highly suggestion doing so here.

Some of the characters are voiced decently at best, but a good amount of the others are dreadful, to the point of being completely distracting. There’s also a small weird gap between when one character finishes their line and the next starts to reply or talk, throwing off the whole pacing. Couple this with being unable to fast forward or skip dialogue without skipping the whole scene and you’re going to simply have to deal with some generally unbearable voice acting.

I generally don’t like to focus on the negatives as much, but this is one of those situations where it was unavoidable and a huge distraction that took me out of the immersion. Not helping this fact was also the numerous crashes and bugs I had along the way. I’ve had hard crashes, characters not load into a map, soft locks and more, to the point that I stopped keeping count. I’ve had to do a few console hard resets to fix one bug as well, so thankfully you’re able to manually save at any point, something I do religiously anyways, so I never lost much progress when something did cause a crash.

Normally for a game to keep my attention for 30 or more hours it has to be pretty entertaining, and while I did enjoy certain aspects, I don’t honestly know if I would have seen it to completion if it wasn’t for this review. It’s not that Astria Ascending is “bad” per-se, but the pacing is way off, difficulty spikes cause forced grinding if not playing on Very Easy mode, atrocious voice acting that is incredibly distracting and there’s a lack of numerous quality of life improvements that would make it a better overall experience. Spending dozens of hours with characters you don’t relate to or even simply enjoy is a bit of a slog and not all that fun overall.

For a small studio, it’s impressive what was created in a few short years given how expansive Astria Ascending can be. I think a large part of my disappointment simply came from seeing the legendary creators that were involved and the overall experience not living up to my expectation, so part of that is on me. That said, if you want to enjoy some beautiful hand drawn artwork and an addictive combat system, Astria Ascending is also on Game Pass, so there’s little no barrier of entry without much commitment.

**Astria Ascending was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 6.8 / 10
Gameplay: 6.5 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 5.0 / 10


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