Typically, hearing that a western game development team is aiming to make a Japanese RPG would make you furrow your brows – by definition, that wouldn’t really be a Japanese RPG, would it? There’s a certain creative DNA to JRPGs separate that goes beyond just being made in Japan, though, and playing Astria Ascending makes it clear that the team at Artisan Studio is well aware of that DNA. There are some rough edges to Astria Ascending, but at it’s core, this is a sprawling, narratively dense turn-based adventure that definitely isn’t lacking in passion.
While Artisan Studio is based out of Canada and France, there is some notable Japanese talent taking part in crafting Astria Ascending. The game features a massive world full of multiple races, kingdoms, and characters, and it was all written by Square Enix veteran Kazushige Nojima.
The Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy 7 Remake writer has put together a huge world for this game; the kingdom of Harmony is a conglomerate of cities and smaller kingdoms housing various fantasy races, but they’re all constantly under the threat of monsters known as Noise. To fend off the noise, eight heroes are chosen to become extremely powerful champions known as Demi-Gods. That power comes with a price, as Demi-Gods “ascend” and die after three years, at which point a new set of Demi-Gods are chosen. The game follows the 333rd crew of Demi-Gods who, just a few months away from their ascension, face a Noise invasion on a scale that has never been seen before.
With so many made-up races and regions and terms thrown at you from the get-go, it can be a little hard to immediately get invested in the story of Astria Ascending. It’s especially hard to get into the story when the eight Demi-God protagonists are hardly given any natural introductions. You’re tossed into the deep end and have all eight party members in your crew right away, rather than slowly meeting and recruiting them. It’s a little overwhelming, but it’s made up for by the strength of the dialogue in the game. These characters are painfully aware of their mortality, and the way they are grappling with impending death melds with the incoming Noise invasion leads to some pretty interesting character moments.
To solve the Noise crisis, you’ll be traveling to different regions and various dungeons in order to defeat the Noise and track down the source of this sudden explosion of activity. Dungeons are basic, if slightly clunky, sidescrolling affairs. There is some light puzzle solving, some floaty platforming, and enemies floating around on the screen that you can either stun and jump over to avoid or attack in the field to trigger battles.
Battles are pretty straightforward turn-based scenarios. Four of your crew face off against enemies, and you can swap Demi-Gods around at will if you need to bring in a healer or use different elemental abilities. The one unique element of combat is the Focus system. When you land an attack, you’ll earn or lose Focus points depending on if the enemy was weak or resistant to that attack.
You can activate up to four of your Focus points on a Demi-God’s turn to significantly boost the effectiveness of their attacks – a normal lightning attack on a boss weak to that element might deal about 900 damage, but with 4 Focus points the effectiveness is boosted 200% to deal over 2000 damage. It’s an interesting system that rewards you for maintaining elemental effectiveness.
Astria Ascending has some promising ideas, but from our time with the game so far, it isn’t without faults. Having so many party members tossed at you at once can be overwhelming, especially once you have to manage and upgrade all of their skill trees. Some animation and gameplay clunkiness hamper the game, as well. Still, the story has some really engaging dialogue, and the world is full of gorgeous, painterly art that I can’t get enough of. There are some interesting elements at play that, playing through the full game, could come together to really nail the JRPG vibe that it’s going for.
Astria Ascending is out this week on 30th September, coming to PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC.