In late 2015, a new game came to iOS called Zodiac: Orcanon Odyssey, offering up a reasonably high-quality classic JRPG experience. Though it was originally slated to arrive in some form on the PlayStation consoles of the time, this console project never got off the ground and was subsequently cancelled. Now, that project has been revived by Super Neptunia RPG developer Artisan Studio and reimagined for modern consoles as Astria Ascending. This reworked version essentially deconstructs the original release and rebuilds it in a way that feels more in line with typical RPGs. Some may be wary of the mobile game origins here, but we’re happy to report that this feels like a quality, feature-complete JRPG that you should give a fair shot.
Astria Ascending takes place in the land of Orcanon, wherein you play as an ensemble cast of demigods called “The Fated Eight”. See, in Orcanon, the world is largely at peace because of a magical fruit called Harmelon that causes people to live in harmony with each other, but things naturally don’t always go according to plan, which is what the demigods are for. Each of them represents one of the eight main races that live in Orcanon, and being a demigod brings with it great power and prestige, but there’s a slight catch: after three years, all the demigods die and are replaced by another eight that make up the next class.
The world itself and the plot set within certainly seem interesting and original enough, but the main problem with Astria Ascending is that it doesn’t offer the player a very compelling way into this narrative. This entirely new world, complete with all kinds of races, rules, and Very Important Capitalized Words you aren’t privy to, is foisted upon you with hardly a word of exposition.
Furthermore, all eight of the demigods are immediately introduced together after having served in their roles for almost three years, and you’re just kind of expected to infer how everyone knows and feels about each other. This is clearly a dense world with all kinds of interesting potential, but it very much feels like Astria Ascending is the third or fourth entry in a long-running series. Eventually, you can start to piece things together and make sense of it all, but your experience with the story never feels like you organically got to know and care about these characters and the world they’re in.
For a JRPG, that can be a rather damning issue, and it doesn’t help that the writing itself falls rather flat. Characters feel shallow and most of them rarely contribute anything meaningful to whatever the current cutscene is about, which leads to lots of moments where this whole posse comes in to talk to one person and most of them just stand around looking tough or chime in with one or two comments that don’t add anything to the discussion.
In this respect, Astria Ascending is a good example of why most JRPGs will slowly introduce party members to you as the story goes on. Having all of them present from the beginning like this isn’t impossible to pull off, but it requires skilled writing to give every member of such a relatively large main cast a compelling reason to be there and to feel like the gang is more than just a collection of mannequins. It would’ve been better if Astria Ascending either trimmed the cast down to four or so, or structured the story around slowly introducing each of the members so you could better understand each character and how they relate to one another.
Your missions will take you all over the land of Orcanon, which is laid out in a fashion vaguely reminiscent of the world of Child of Light. All dungeons, towns, and environments are arranged on a strict 2D plane, which sounds restrictive at first, but proves to have some nice depth over time. For example, dungeons are typically laid out as a series of large rooms connected by doors, with each room featuring a decent amount of light environmental puzzling, hidden treasure chests, and roaming enemies to fight. Areas aren’t quite as meandering and maze-like as a typical Metroidvania map, but there’s plenty of room for exploration here, enough that it doesn’t feel too ‘A-to-B’ in its design.
Combat unfolds using standard turn-based rules, but there are some nice wrinkles to help make battles more interesting. The most notable example of this is the FP system, which is similar to the BP of Octopath Traveler. The party shares a gauge of up to ten FP at a time, and four points at a time can be drawn down to do things like buffing up the damage done by attacks or the amount of health you can restore. Enemies and party members have various elemental strengths and weaknesses, and if you hit an enemy’s weakness, you’ll gain 2 FP.
However, if you hit an enemy with something they’re resistant to, or if they hit one of your weaknesses, you’ll lose FP. We really appreciated the inclusion of this mechanic, as it makes battles (especially bosses) far more strategic and focused on planning. Going all-in all the time is sure to see you getting bodied, so you need to know ahead of time what each team member contributes to the team and how they can best be used to expedite a victory.
Once you’ve gotten the spoils from your battles, you can then invest any SP gained into each character’s skill grid, each of which features a different arrangement of stat gains and new abilities. Much like the Sphere Grid of Final Fantasy X, you’re started at one node and then given the option to fan out from there to various others, which means you have to put a bit more thought into how you want each character to develop. Things are complicated even further when you eventually unlock up to three new Jobs for each character, each bringing with them a brand-new skill grid for you to invest your preciously limited resources into. You can get by just fine with the base class grid and not even touch any of those other jobs, but they’re there for those of you who really like getting into the weeds of taking RPG characters to their maximum potential.
Those of you looking for an abundance of content will be pleased to know there’s quite a bit of meat to Astria Ascending, between about 25 and 75 hours depending on how much of a completionist you may be. The typical smattering of forgettable side quests are here and accounted for if you’re looking to grind up some extra resources as time goes on, but there’s an ongoing quest line in which you can take out contracts to hunt special monsters that adds quite a bit of interesting flavor to the main gameplay loop. These hunts usually are a little harder than a standard boss fight at your current level and require you to backtrack to previous areas, but they offer a thrilling challenge and some tasty rewards if you can manage to overcome them.
In addition to this, there’s a whole card battling minigame throughout which makes for a nice diversion. You can battle many of the NPCs you come across in your journey and bet cards over the winner, and there’s a fair amount of depth to it for a simple side game. The basic rub of the game—called J Ster—is that you each have a deck of six hexagonal cards that are played on a small board. Each card has a numerical value, while each of its six faces has different modifiers on it that will increase or decrease its value when played. Putting a card down on the board initiates a ‘fight’ between your card and any adjacent enemy cards, and you’ll flip the enemy cards to your color if you played right. After a few turns, the player with the most cards on the board wins the match, and usually wins a few of the opponents cards in the process. It can take some time to come to grips with it, but J Ster offers up a fun experience that meaningfully adds to Astria Ascending.
We’d be remiss to wrap the review without discussing the exceptional art direction. Every frame of this release, whether it’s a battle or somewhere in the overworld, looks like it’s been taken straight off the sketchpad of the concept artist in the best kind of way. Characters and monsters are drawn with an impressive level of detail, and it’s hard not to be wowed by the level of effort put into getting that perfect mix of form and function. Each portion of the world is visually distinct from the next and splashes out plenty of color, making for some absolutely gorgeous eye candy whether you’re playing in docked or handheld.
Additionally, the score by Hitoshi Sakimoto brings just the right amount of that Final Fantasy-esque magic. It’s not an especially memorable soundtrack, but it fits the gameplay and world like a glove and you’d be hard-pressed to ask for much better.
Astria Ascending may not be a flawless release but the solid combat system, spectacular visuals, deep character skill building, and wealth of content make for an experience that JRPG fans will feel right at home with. We’d give this one a recommendation to anybody looking for an original RPG to sink their teeth into; the writing and plot could have done with more development and attention, but there’s lots to love about Astria Ascending and we’re eagerly anticipating whatever Artisan Studios does next.
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