The JRPG has been seeing a massive resurgence. As a genre that almost grew too large to support itself, more and more studios are taking a few steps back and providing slightly smaller adventures while keeping the feel of the older classics intact. On one hand, there are games like Octopath Traveler, in which storied studios hew closely to the old ways while experimenting with new mechanics and graphical styles. On the other, there are titles like CrossCode, where young developers artfully place JRPG elements into other types of games. Astria Ascending falls somewhere in the middle, made at Canadian and French indie developer Artisan Studios with help from Japanese industry veterans, combining classic styles with new flair. The folks from Dear Villagers, the game’s publisher, allowed us to preview a PC demo for Astria Ascending, so let’s dive in.
Introducing Astria Ascending
Astria Ascending opens with a beautiful anime intro that explains the premise of the world. The various fantasy races live in capital H Harmony thanks to a fruit called the Harmelon. Most folks are happy with this, and a team of superhero Demi-gods is appointed every three years to protect world peace. These individuals are granted amazing power with which to do their jobs, but at the cost of their lives. It’s seen as a blessing and a curse, and they’re treated as celebrities wherever they go.
Longtime JRPG fans will notice some familiar names in the opening credits, with Kazuhige Nojima working on the script, Hitoshi Sakimoto composing music, and concept art by CyDesignation, a team led by Hideo Minaba and Akihiko Yoshida. All of these folks worked on Final Fantasy games, and their influence is felt throughout the whole experience.
The game begins with Ulan, the human leader of the Demi-gods, chiding the merfolk Eko for repairing his water helmet on the floor. He’s doing this because another human in the group, Arpajo, is hogging the workbench. They bicker for a bit until the team gets an alert that there are Noise monsters threatening the Harmony of the merfolk neighborhood in the capital. They quell the insurrection but have to investigate the cause of the incursion. Along the way, we learn more about the world, the team, and how things aren’t as harmonious as they seem.
Astria Ascending is a JRPG played out through 2D sidescrolling platforming. It’s an interesting choice, but I found that the switch from top-down or 3D adventuring didn’t change much. There are some pits for the sake of having pits, but falling into one just puts you right back at the ledge.
Coming into contact with a Noise sphere triggers a turn-based battle. You’ve got your standard array of attack, special technique, defend, item, and flee. There’s an option to switch out as many of the vanguard as you like with the backup, which opens up some strategic depth. There’s also a focus option, which allows a character to temporarily add a focus point for the team. This is one of Astria Ascending’s main mechanics. The party shares a focus meter that can be used to power up attacks and abilities. Landing attacks that hit an enemy’s weakness raises the meter, while hitting their resistance lowers it. It’s a bit on the simpler side but works well. Likewise, there are eight different kinds of elemental attack, but unless you toggle the weakness/resistance display on, it’s not particularly intuitive.
Rounding out the JRPG checklist is the job system. Each character has a base job, which can be supplemented by other jobs, and every job has its own skill tree. There’s a lot of customization for each character, but it never felt overwhelming. Astria Ascending also has a minigame called J-Ster. It’s quick, addictive, and plays very similarly to Triple Triad from Final Fantasy VIII. I liked it a lot.
The complicated highs and lows of the story
The story is a lot more mature than I’m used to from this type of game. Half of your crew are racist jerks and openly mock those they consider inferior, even on their own team. There was one particular scene where the merfolk is justifiably upset upon discovering the destruction of his hometown. Three of his teammates mock the fish people for being stupid fish people, going so far as to suggest they brought disaster upon themselves. This is a recurring theme in the game, and the real conflict starts to come to light when you meet characters who reject the Harmony and intentionally stop eating the Harmelons. As it turns out, these fruits act like “handicaps” straight out of Harrison Bergeron. The outlaws from the minotaur and harpy races become much more powerful and even pose a threat to the Demi-gods.
A story like this requires a delicate touch, especially when trying to appeal to an international audience. Astria Ascending doesn’t always get it right, but there’s a lot of potential for a deep exploration of race, class, and what it means to be a real hero. I hope the script is cleaned up for the final release, though. There are times when the dialogue isn’t consistent, which is a huge strike against it, especially when introducing dozens of new concepts at once. For example, in one scene, Eko refers to the merfolk neighborhood in the capital city as his hometown. In the very next scene he talks about how the monsters came from his home country, half the world away. There were many errors like this in the demo, which wasn’t helped by the voice actors not getting the lines right.
Gorgeous environments, some questionable character designs
Astria Ascending looks gorgeous. The backgrounds, environments, and characters are hand-drawn with an amazing level of detail. Special effects are used sparingly but effectively. In particular I appreciated how the presence of Noise makes the screen a little blurry. I do have a few complaints about the visuals, though. The NPCs tend to blend in a little too well, and it’s often difficult to see whom you can talk to and what you can interact with if you’re running by. Also, the character models are made of different parts, and when they move it gives the impression that you’re playing with paper dolls.
That being said, there are two things which may be deal-breakers for some players. First, many of the female characters are designed to essentially resemble the Amazon or Sorceress from Dragon’s Crown. This applies mostly to the scantily clad minotaur women, but even the busty human main character and the flat-chested harpies have jiggle physics. It can feel a bit fetishy.
Then there’s the Mygmy race. They are small imp-like people who tend to be farmers, messengers, and servants. They can’t talk in complete sentences, have black faces and bright red lips, and are treated with derision by many people. Even Ulan, the voice of reason in the party, looks down upon them, as nice as she is to them. I’m not sure if their name or appearance was meant to refer to the Pygmy peoples of the Congo Basin, but it comes uncomfortably close, at least for me.
Astria Ascending has challenging ideas
“Harmony is an ideal, not a reality.” These are the words spoken by the minotaur Dagmar to his wayward son, whose crime was wanting to date someone from a different background. Astria Ascending is trying to tell a story about a world living in forced Harmony. About friction between races, and how resentment can fester when people feel their freedom has been taken away by unjust equality. Your team of Demi-gods fights to protect that Harmony without truly believing in it or in each other.
There are aspects of this game that I truly enjoyed — and others that I felt were handled poorly. It has a fun battle system, a relatively uncommon method of exploration, and beautiful graphics. It also has messy dialogue, sloppy voice acting, and some concerning character designs. It has a solid pedigree of Japanese Square Enix veterans working with Canadian-French indie developers. Astria Ascending is about contrast and contradictions, and at the very least, it’s an interesting idea with tons of potential.
Thank you to the folks at Dear Villagers and Artisan Studios for allowing us to preview Astria Ascending. It releases on September 30 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 & 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Steam.