Astria Ascending 1

Astria Ascending Review

Infuriating and tedious

Astria Ascending is one of the most infuriating games I have played in a long time. Not because it’s broken, morally corrupt or any other reason worth the amount of emotional heartache this title from Final Fantasy alumni Kazushige Nojima has given me. Astria Ascending, for all the quirks that would put a lot of players off but draw a JRPG masochist like me in, commits the worst sin of all: it’s just not fun to engage with. 

In Astria Ascending, you take control of the 333rd Demi-Gods of Orcanon. This prismatic crew of characters from the various nations of Orcanon are tasked with ensuring the continued protection of harmony—which is an actual theological belief, not a turn of phrase. To do this they must explore the depths of the nation, destroying “noises” through turn-based combat all whilst foiling the plot of a nefarious bad guy. So far, so good. 

The story is as convoluted as you would expect from a new JRPG, with the introduction throwing enough lore at you to make the first 100 pages of Fellowship Of The Ring feel like a post-apocalyptic young adult novel. Yet it remains interesting enough. The art style, a hand-painted 2D side-scrolling affair, is absolutely stunning. Each enemy, landscape and Demi-God has its own unique aesthetic that makes Astria Ascending feel distinct within the ever-expanding JRPG landscape. The score, from another Final Fantasy veteran Hitoshi Sakimoto, is breathtaking, as it captures the soundscape of this diverse land majestically. But no matter how good this game looks and sounds, it’s the moment you engage with it that this veneer of intrigue starts to chip.

Unintentionally comedic 

I’ll begin with my favourite but flawed aspect of the game: the voice acting. If you want to take Astria Ascending seriously, play the game in Japanese. The Japanese delivery is good and it certainly makes some of the more ludicrous story beats feel more compelling. However, the English performances are just bizarre. There’s definitely a sense that COVID restrictions hindered the recording process for this game, with each line of dialogue flowing from one to the other with the grace of an elephant on stilts. But the delivery of said lines is awful—original Resident Evil awful. There is a certain charm to it all, however. The absurdity of what they’re saying—and how they’re saying it—often brings a smile to my face, though I am sure this wasn’t the actors’ intention. 

Another issue with Astria Ascending is when you have to play the game. The game sets itself up to be as approachable as possible. You can fine-tune settings to make the game as easy or difficult as you would like. You can chop and change your party mid-battle and even teleport out of dungeons with very little penalties. But these dungeons are an absolute slog to get through. 

Confusing navigation

These issues can be split into two: combat and exploration.

The very best turn-based JRPGs will make win conditions obvious. In Persona for instance, if you sneak up on an enemy, you will always get the initiative for that combat encounter. In Astria Ascending, this combat initiative feels random. I could freeze an enemy in place, hop over them and then initiate combat and they would still get to go first. This would be fine if the enemies didn’t have so many status effect moves in their arsenal. 

In one notoriously infuriating combat encounter, the enemies would constantly inflict the whole party with “confuse”—locking me out of doing anything within that turn whilst my Demi-Gods attacked each other and healed the enemy. The enemy AI, even on the lower difficulties, will do everything in its power to make your life difficult. Not in a fun, problem-solving way, but by wrestling control away from you. At points, I might as well have been playing an idle game as I watched for two or three minutes, whilst my stunned and confused Demi-Gods ripped themselves apart until it was game over. The worst thing a turn-based game can do is make you feel powerless, and often, that’s how I felt. 

Exploration of Astria Ascending’s sprawling world is its most pressing issue yet. The major downside to the game’s gorgeous 2D art style is that working out where you’re heading is a challenge. The best 2D platformers or Metroidvanias make their foregrounds and backgrounds as distinct as possible to ensure the player knows exactly what can be interacted with, while subtly controlling the flow of the game. When I spoke with Chris McEntee, then project lead at Moon Studios on Ori & The Will Of The Wisps, he broke this process down extensively

But Astria Ascending has none of this. Working out where you’re supposed to go is a nightmare, not helped by possibly one of gaming’s worst dungeon map screens: a bafflingly sparse paper card design that offers little to no hints to your next destinations. It’s pure guesswork, which meant that every time I ended up where I started I just wanted to throw myself out of the window. 

Overall, Astria Ascending feels like a missed opportunity. Despite these issues, the game does right by its art direction and world-building, but the fundamental gameplay drags the whole experience down towards mundanity. Having to wait for the seven enemies in front of you to status lock you to death isn’t challenging and engaging combat; it’s tedious. Jumping through dungeons hoping to find a doorway that leads to the next area isn’t interesting trial-and-error exploration; it’s dreadful. In the JRPG marketplace that’s filled with all sorts of storytelling quirks and eccentricities, tedium is simply no longer acceptable.