Astria Ascending is a turn-based RPG developed by Artisan Studios and published by Dear Villagers. With the help of the Goddess Yuno, the world knows harmony. By eating the fruit harmelon, the people of the world can live in peace. And should something threaten that peace, Yuno’s eight chosen champions, the Demi-Gods, will fight any threat to protect that peace. Gathered from across the lands, the Demi-Gods represent every race of people on the planet. Gifted with great powers, the title of Demi-God also comes with a great curse. After becoming a Demi-God, an individual has only three years to live.
As one of the oldest genres, tracing its earliest entries all the way back to the NES, the turn-based RPG scene is arguably one of the toughest for a new series to break into. To break in, a game has to present players with something truly unique. Some twist on the tried and true formula of back and forth combat that will have players coming back for more. It’s a tough trick to pull off. However, the devs over at Artisan Studios have accomplished this admirably with Astria Ascending.
There are several elements Artisan Studios’s devs utilize to make this game’s combat stand out among the crowd. Some occur in combat, but just as important to that, is how the game manages the characters out of combat. Let’s start our look at what happens in between the battles.
The way the player travels through Astria Ascending is presented in a two-dimensional style, that has players run and jump through dungeons as they explore the world. Enemies appear on the screen and can oftentimes be avoided. Though a fight dodged is experience and skill points unearned.
There are two areas where combat can occur in Astria Ascending. One is in dungeons and the other is in the heart of cities. When the party of eight playable characters are in a city their health and magic points both quickly refill between battles. When in a dungeon, only their health regenerates. This difference may sound small, but it greatly alters the approach the player takes to combat depending on what type of location they are battling in.
In dungeons, I quickly found myself mathing out whether or not I needed to heal that party member or cast that magic spell, or if just spamming basic attacks would do the job, thus saving my valuable resources. The game is even generous enough to auto revive characters once a battle is complete, but characters KOed at the end of a battle receive no experience or skill points. So, I recommend you avoid this situation as much as possible.
The game does permit the player to escape from a dungeon at any time to return to a city and replenish themselves, but dungeons can only be entered at certain teleportation points. So if you must flee before reaching the next point, the enemies will repopulate. Sometimes requiring the player to fight enemies again where they cannot be avoided.
While Astria Ascending‘s approach to managing your health and mana gives some unique balance to the game, it is in the battles themselves where this balance becomes more nuanced thanks to the focus points system the game elegantly utilizes to add another layer of strategy to its gameplay.
Every attack in Astria Ascending has a damage type. Whether it is physical, one of several elements or neutral damage can alter how the attack will impact the battle. This is because enemies will be either weak, resistant, nullify, absorb or be neutral to the attack depending on its type. Beyond the obvious effect on the quantity of damage done to the target, the player will also gain or lose a number of focus points depending on the interaction between the damage type and the target. When a player exploits an enemy’s weakness they gain two focus points. When a player makes an attack or casts a spell they may spend up to four focus points to increase the potency of the action. Getting the other results will take focus points away from the player, even driving the number potentially into the negatives.
Along with exploiting an enemy’s weakness to gain these points, players can also have their characters take an action to generate a temporary focus point that lasts till the end of the round. This is a useful option if a character’s actions are limited due to a conflict in attack types. However, this option is disabled if the player’s focus points are negative.
This added give and take to combat gives players another factor to consider when managing their resources. Is spending the mana to exploit an opponent’s weakness necessary? The extra damage and added force points will speed along combat, but will that precious mana run out before the next teleport point is reached?
Further adding depth to Astria Ascending‘s innovative combat system is its extremely versatile leveling mechanics. Much like its combat, rather than try to build something entirely new, the game takes familiar things and adds twists to them to give the player more options. Though the options here present a peril if not trodden carefully.
At the beginning of the game, each of the eight party members has a job that determines which skill can be learned and what stat bonuses will be purchasable for them with the skill points gained through combat. These abilities and bonuses are arranged on a grid that the player purchases their way through. Each grid features several branch points, so the player has options with how to progress. But that is only the beginning of the options available to the player to sculpt their characters’ growth.
Every stat bonus that the player purchases on the chosen grid come with options. Whether you increase hit points or mana points, or if you want to raise the character’s strength, magic or one of their defenses is up to you. This allows the player to sculpt their character to a degree I’ve rarely experienced in games. But, since the devs have opted not to hold your hand with how you design your character, it also means you can find yourself coming up short in some areas if you are not careful. While it’s tempting to push your mana points constantly higher to enable more powerful attacks, not having enough hit points will mean constantly bringing your characters back from KO.
And in case you thought that was the end of the customization available to you, I have to tell you about one more thing. Astria Ascending allows the player to eventually unlock multiple grids to purchase abilities from for each character. This grows the number of options for each of the eight characters exponentially. Especially since previously acquired grids remain available to buy from. A player could easily play through the game multiple times with a vastly different gameplay experience based on the builds the player chooses to go with.
Now that I’ve spent roughly 1,000 words praising the game’s combat and leveling mechanics we need to talk about the two aspects of the game that are not quite so strong. The game’s visuals and story. Let’s start with the visuals.
Astria Ascending‘s world is gorgeous. Each region has its look and is strikingly different than any other you will travel to. However, the characters that occupy the world are not so appealing. There are some choices in character design where body proportions are concerned that, to my eyes, are just unpleasant to look at. This is, of course, a matter completely subject to the player’s preferences. Even with the designs, I didn’t care for there is no lack of detail or effort. I just felt it fell a bit short of being appealing.
But while the visuals are a mixed bag, there is little I can say good about the story or the dialogue that delivers it. The plot feels far too busy to ever manage to be cohesive. Determined to run the party to every corner of the world and draw each character in for a distinctly personal reason, the story introduces so many elements that it is just as hard to keep track of them as it is for the story to make any of them feel particularly impactful.
The writing of the story doesn’t help this struggle any. Social issues between the races are handled in such a ham-fisted way that it does little but make the player’s eye roll at the heavy-handed delivery. Luckily, the player spends far more time engaging with Astria Ascending‘s brilliant gameplay than its character’s personalities.
So, if you are a turn-based RPG fan looking for a new experience that brings fresh twists on classic elements of the genre, I cannot recommend Astria Ascending enough, just so long as you don’t need an overly engaging plot to pull you along.
Astria Ascending is available on September 30th for PC, Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4/5, the Xbox One, and the Xbox Series S/X.
If you are a turn-based RPG fan looking for a new experience that brings fresh twists on classic elements of the genre, I cannot recommend Astria Ascending enough, just so long as you don’t need an overly engaging plot to pull you along.