Appropriately timed for my descending into madness.
Astria Ascending got a lot of pre-launch attention for its development and art teams which claimed representation from veterans of Bravely Default, Final Fantasy (which one was not specified) and Nier Automata. And much to my disappointment, it turned out to not live up to the pedigree; it might appeal to completionists, but I can’t remember the last game I actively tried to avoid playing.
The world of Astria Ascending is a world in which every three years for a millennium, a group of people end up becoming “demi-gods”, or temporarily immortal beings who serve to keep the world in harmony; after they serve a three year term, they die. In the case of Astria Ascending, the entire party of eight is dumped on you right at the start of the game with no backstory and told to go out and protect the land of Orcanon. Although elements of their background become clear as the story progresses, there’s a reason why most parties build from something small instead of throwing every character at you at once. I would have to boot the game to tell you any of their names; I ended up just thinking of them as job classes a la Final Fantasy V. The party leader is a knight, while other classes present include: thief, multiple mages, summoner, magic swordswoman, and what amounts to a Freelancer. There was an option to skip cutscenes, and in retrospect I probably should have made more use of it.
Exploring Orcanon is done in a 2D perspective, with basic controls including jumping and elemental manipulation by way of unlockable rings. The enemies are in the environment, and it’s possible to stun them (the first ring power does this) either as a method of avoidance or setting up combat when ready. The combat itself is turn-based faire with move order decided by Speed stats, but both the enemies and your party eventually will end up with abilities that can alter the turn order or even stop the enemies from moving altogether. One particularly irritating sequence about halfway through the playthrough involved finding one of the area’s enemies had an “omni-stun” attack; “omni” is the game’s term for multi-targeting moves. At this point in the game, the one character I could afford anti-stun protection for was the party’s healer who had the “heal all statuses” skill. And he was kidnapped, thus out of the party. And part of the chase sequence involved hunting down the thief in a bunch of pots where guessing wrong meant a “surprise attack” encounter, with a bunch of enemies where I had exactly one party member who could move before their second turn. After missing for the sixth time and getting stunlocked to death, I nearly snapped my Switch in half. Dungeon exploration is tricky as hit points regenerate at the end of battle, while magic / ability points do not. There’s a storyline excuse for this, but if you’re going to make random encounters difficult as a way of making the player buy magic-restoring items it’s not appreciated.
The characters have their base job, and can use skill points to unlock additional creation sets all the way down to a “tertiary” job. The “skill points” earned can unlock stat boosts as well, but these also require an item called a “stat orb” to fully unlock. And if you’re fighting a boss with a stealing technique, these stat orbs CAN be stolen from you mid-battle with no recourse (aside from getting really lucky with your own Thief on a counter-steal). For reasons that I’m almost afraid to ask what they are, the experience in this game has a theoretical maximum of one less than one trillion points; if you’re into seeing numbers go up, Astria Ascending is for you. Party members can gain experience and skill points in the view, with the option of lowering it if desired or seeking a challenge. The default is 100%, so maybe don’t change the option, and it doesn’t apply when someone’s not in the party such as when the healer got kidnapped.
A lot of attention was paid to the graphics of Astria Ascending pre-launch, and being able to try the game on the Switch OLED made it look even better. There’s little details that were lost in handheld mode on a 2nd-rev Switch that the larger screen size made clear, such as the character lip flaps when they speak. The backgrounds are gorgeous too, and some of the later battle techniques also look cool. The cost is loading: there’s about a 30 second initial load even when playing docked, and a 10-15 second delay between entering a new area and being able to move. There also seemed to be some menu lag, particularly when shopping: I would hit B to switch from buying to selling and it would take a few seconds, where I hit B again and it ended the transaction entirely. I also had one lockup, but couldn’t recreate it; there is a somewhat generous autosave present. The music is a typical series of fantasy tunes that won’t stand out too much.
I didn’t really click with Astria Ascending, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s an inability to relate to characters that are functionally immortal, or the hackneyed story, or losing about 60 turns of combat in one dungeon thanks to Omni-Stun. But I found myself fighting to actually boot the game up, which is something I haven’t had from a review in a while. If you’re ready to go all-in on Astria Ascending… well, you probably already have. If not, there’s plenty of fish in the RPG sea on Switch and some more marlins coming before the year’s out. You’ll be able to get your fill.