Artisan Studio is a French and Canadian developer specializing in 2D RPG games. The studio’s first project was Super Neptunia RPG, a 2D entry in the Neptunia franchise. Now it’s back with a new adventure, Astria Ascending.
On the surface, I was fascinated by Astria Ascending with his wonderful hand-drawn art style. At a time when more and more games, especially Japanese RPGs, are coming out in 3D, a different look can help make a game stand out from the crowd. The 2D graphics awaken familiarity with vanillaware titles such as Odin Sphere or Dragon’s Crown. The colors are crisp and the backgrounds look sharp. Unfortunately, an addicting art style can’t save what a sluggish gaming experience the game is.
What’s going on in Orcanon?
Astria Ascending takes place in Orcanon, where a group of eight select people named Demi-Gods Harmony protect what is a kind of racial peace agreement at play. In order to maintain the peace pact, Orcanons races eat harmelons, which suppress certain abilities. The demigods gain immense power and ability to fight antagonistic beings called Noise, but in return they only have three more years to live before another group shows up and does the same.
There are some interesting concepts and subjects like rebellion and free will, but the story ends up incredibly boring. The game throws so many proper names at the players like “harmony” and “chaos” and “dissonance”; it’s all too much at once and implemented like it was from a generic JRPG 101 textbook.
Racism is also a big issue in the game, but it doesn’t deal with it very well. One of the demigods, Eko, is a member of a race of fish-like people called the Peyskas. At the start of the game, the Peyskas encounter an unfortunate event and Eko is rightly upset about it. But even the main characters are strangely racist to one another. Some of them even make fun of Eko, ideas like spreading peyskas are stupid or untrustworthy.
And I’m supposed to believe that these eight chosen demigods are supposed to save the world? There’s no real sense of camaraderie between them, and they’re all introduced in some sort of rapid-fire speed dating style at the start of the game. There are plenty of side quests and backstories that help expand the world building and story from the main characters to demigods, which is appreciated. But that doesn’t change the fact that the characters are so unsympathetic.
What makes matters worse is that the English voice overs is among the most painful averages I’ve heard in a very long time. All lines in the badly dry font are delivered flat. Cutscenes are awkward because it feels like none of the characters are actually “talking” to each other – the conversations don’t flow well. The Japanese language track, on the other hand, sounds pretty decent in comparison. English dubbing has improved a lot over the past decade, and it was incredibly harrowing to hear how bad it was here.
It’s a shame because the English voice for Astria Ascending has a lot of new talents and names that I don’t know. They are not the typical voice actors you would hear on most of the JRPGs these days. You can definitely notice the amateurish quality of the voice acting, however, and it seems that this game is likely to be the first notable appearance for many actors.
Take a page out of the classics
Astria Ascending takes a lot of inspiration from classic JRPGs, and that is most reflected in its combat system. It’s a simple turn-based proposition. The twist here is that you can gain Focus Points, or FP, when you hit an enemy’s elemental weakness. It works similarly to Bravely Default’s BP mechanics. Except in this game, BP is used to allow a unit to take consecutive actions in a given turn.
Here, by spending FP, you can increase the effectiveness of a single movement, e.g. B. Increase the damage of a spell. You can also skip a group member’s turn to increase the available FP supply, but with the restriction that one FP unit disappears when that member makes the next move. It’s a nice feature that adds some nuance to the combat system, but it doesn’t necessarily make the fights much smoother than something like Persona’s One More mechanics.
The combat system also has a huge amount of status effects. There are positive ones like Regen (HP restoration every turn), Courage (increase in attack strength) and Spirit (increase in magic strength). There are also negatives like poison, numbness and confusion. Between various elements and weaknesses, as well as status effects and debuffs, it can be quite overwhelming to keep track of things.
When you win battles, you also earn Skill Points, or SP, which you can spend on helping your party members learn new skills and abilities, or improving their stats. The Ascension Trees, with the nodes arranged in a constellation like stars, are quite extensive. Each of your group members has a basic job, such as a soldier or a scholar. You can then apply main jobs like Guardian or Black Mage to them for even more customizability. Each member also gets part-time jobs in which they cannot learn any skills of the chosen class, but can only earn the associated stat boosts.
Whether or not players find these systems “fun” depends entirely on the type of player they are. They appeal to the kind of meticulous stat min maxers who enjoy tweaking group members. Because of the incredibly simple nature of the game’s turn-based combat, many of these mechanics add a lot of complexity rather than depth.
As the game progresses, you will come across various elemental rings that give powers to solve dungeon puzzles. For example, the fire ring can burn obstacles and the air ring push objects. The puzzles are not very difficult, but just challenging enough that you get some satisfaction after solving them. It’s a bit refreshing to see puzzles in a JRPG after many larger ones essentially gave them up in favor of corridors and large open spaces with endless combat encounters.
One aspect that I liked about Astria Ascending was the soundtrack, composed by Hitoshi Sakamoto, who also worked on Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy Tactics. The main hub, Harmonia Town, in particular, has a very soothing angel theme that plays in the background. The battle theme will also make you beat the noise.
With so many other incredible JRPGs released in 2021, it’s hard to recommend Astria Ascending. It has a very pretty art style that will attract most of the players initially. The combat system and customization options can be fun to tinker with, but the lackluster storyline and awkward characters really slow the whole experience down.
Disclaimer: Tested on PC, with a copy of the game provided by the publisher. Also available for Xbox One, Series X | S, PS4, PS5 and PC. Also part of the Xbox Game Pass from release.