Astria Ascending is gorgeous to behold, with vibrant colors shining through its hand-drawn visuals that make it look like a moving painting. It’s not only eye-catching because of its visuals but because of the people behind it, helmed by Kazushige Nojima, the scenario writer behind Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and X, along with music composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, best known for the scores behind Final Fantasy XII and the 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.
After playing the first seven hours of Astria Ascending, I’ve found myself appreciating it much like one would a painting: it’s beautiful to look at, particularly when you’re given time to admire it. But, once it starts moving, it feels off.
Astria Ascending takes place in the world of Orcanon, where Noises and other ancient beasts of chaos dwell. Rather than fighting to save the world, as is typical in most RPGs, you’re fighting against your own predetermined destiny to save it. You still need to save the world, of course, as the job falls to you. You play as a crew known as the Demigods, soldiers chosen for greatness. They receive three years of glory before dying, leaving their families respected and well-compensated in their wake. It’s seen as a fair bargain considering they serve to protect the most important thing of all: Harmony.
You’ll recognize plenty if you played the mobile RPG Zodiac: Orcanon Odyssey, which was released to middling reviews and never received its planned console ports. This is essentially a revival of that game, one with a rewritten story that is touted as more mature and dense.
When it’s on pause, Astria Ascending preserves its potential. Take a screenshot at any moment and you’ll marvel at its saturated colors, sharpness, and beauty. Its menu screens are slick and elegant. Its lovely soundtrack is best appreciated when you stop and listen to it with no distractions. Its UI is clean and visually appealing while managing to deliver plenty of information in battle. Access each individual party member’s Ascension Tree, which functions like character growth systems such as the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X or the Crystarium in Final Fantasy XIII, and it’s hard not to take a moment just to appreciate how pretty each one is.
While much of the action happens during Astria Ascending’s battles, I see them as paused moments as well. They let you breathe, formulate strategies to win, and offer reprieves from the story’s progression. It’s here where I like the game most, for battles are fun and can get dicey even on an easier difficulty. Every character belongs to a particular class, some being more unique and useful than others. However, Astria Ascending’s Focus Point system, which has been created with the purpose of making every party member’s turn count, is excellent at mitigating dull moments.
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It functions so that, if a character doesn’t have an efficient ability to use, they can dedicate their turn to contributing a Focus Point, which can then be used by a following character to strengthen their ability. I tried having a party of all female characters, which didn’t last long because Kaydin wasn’t suited for as many battles as the rest. However, having her contribute to the party’s Focus Points ensured that someone else’s healing move or attack that exploits an enemy’s weakness was multiplied in power. In between fights, you’re able to pause, teleport out of a dungeon, and wait in town for a bit as your stats are automatically restored. Once you’ve taken the breather, you’re free to teleport back where you left off. This, and myriad other little features, make Astria Ascending feel like an accessible RPG.
As Astria Ascending progresses, however, I like it far less. During my seven hours with it, I could see the potential in its premise and extensive world building as I moved forward in the story. You inhabit a world full of different races, each with their own distinct politics, customs, and way of life. However, this potential is marred by stilted dialogue and voice performances that range from fine to incredibly stiff. (I would really appreciate it if Ulan, the main protagonist, didn’t constantly repeat, “don’t like the look of this place” in dungeons.)
You can’t manually progress dialogue in this game, which leads to awkward pauses between awkwardly-delivered, awkwardly-written lines. The pronunciation of things unique to this universe doesn’t always line up, as well. You progress through these initial story beats, but don’t get a clear picture of many of the characters. If I’ve gotten anything substantial from these characters, it’s that I’m finding little depth to them so far, as Astria Ascending’s foundation is dedicated to building its world before its characters.
Moving through dungeons is far less enticing than the fights within them, since they’re very simple rooms in which you mostly move from one side of the screen to the other. Your characters will soon move far enough into their skill levels that they will suddenly gain access to other main jobs — something that happens in Fire Emblem: Three Houses after dozens of hours but here after merely four. Choosing between which job to take up out of all the options, and who would use the limited item that is necessary for them to be able to have another job, was overwhelming, especially since I had barely filled out Ascension Trees.
Astria Ascending is a clearly ambitious RPG that aims to tell a story with scope — both in terms of its world and the size of its cast. It’s a splendid-looking game that I’ve been anticipating for a few months now. While it’s fun to play and has an intriguing premise and visually memorable character designs, it did little else for me throughout my first few hours with it. I’ll need to hear good things about it after release to give it another shot.
Astria Ascending will be released on September 30 for PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Game Pass.