There are two true things that I’m currently trying to balance: I love JRPGs and my heart has an accelerated expiration date.
Sometime in the last few years, I had a “widowmaker” heart attack. Hell of a name, right? I never felt it, it just happened, and eventually the damage it left behind caught up to me. My body compensated as best it could, opening up its own arterial version of I-295, but the Philadelphia of my heart is a dead city.
I have a series of medications to keep things stable for the rest of my heart for as long as possible. My doctors implanted a defibrillator in a pocket just above my left breast for the day the medications aren’t enough and something goes wrong. It has a battery readout of 16.9 years remaining as of my last checkup. If my heart makes it that long, it’ll have to get replaced, and I’ll get a new timer.
Because my heart is irreparably damaged, my longevity is going to be truncated from what it could have been. But no one can really say. I have to balance a couple timelines in my head. One is the old statistical model where most acute heart failure patients die within one year. If I make it to January, I’ve beaten those odds. But who can say?
The eight heroes of Astria Ascending know—three months. The Demigods are heros who are chosen to be warrior-celebrities and then have their tickets ceremoniously punched in a ritual called Transcendence. Think of it like Logan’s Run by way of The Boys. Except these characters are slightly less pieces of shit and it’s less a tepid commentary on the bankrupting power of capitalism and celebrity. The Demigods are chosen to save the world and then die. It’s a fate that seems begrudgingly accepted from the outset, but this is a JRPG ass JRPG, so obviously this is going to go sideways. The Celebrity to Dead pipeline obviously sucks.
It’s a tired joke about anime tropes at this point, but if there’s any hallmark of JRPGs, it’s realizing that Destiny or Fate or God or Some Kind of Overreaching Organizing Authority is bullshit and punching it in the dick in the most melodramatic fashion possible.
As a child, I appreciated the anti-authoritarian theatrics of the genre because I hated my parents, teachers, etc. As an adult woman with heart failure, I appreciate the idea of raining fire down on whatever manifestation of an inflexible, unalterable organizing force a game wants to throw at me.
Punching god in the dick is cathartic.
Or at least it can be, but it all depends on how the aesthetic and mechanical layers fall into place.
Astria Ascending is pretty enough. There’s a children’s storybook quality to the breathy watercolors and stately gouaches. Lineart is fine and delicate at times, sketchy in others, and frequently dips into bold comic book inks. The world of Orcanon is plenty vivacious with a masterful use of color and luminosity. It never feels quite unique enough though, because this is a well-trod aesthetic now. Coupled with the painterly, exaggerated physique bunraku-like character models, Astria is simply too Vanillaware-looking to be uniquely beautiful. It’s certainly attractive, though, and you could look at a lot worse for 40+ hours.
The preview I’m working off of is about 1/10th of the total game (per the press guide)—I spent a little over four and a half hours during my time battling Noises with the Demigods in Orcanon. It was a very full couple of hours. Right up front is a litany of proper nouns and relationships to learn and keep track of alongside the eight main characters who are all introduced simultaneously (this isn’t a game about picking up narrative strays). And the Demigods all have sprawling character customization options. Each job has a dress sphere-like constellation to fill up. And each character can have a Main Job, Sub Job and Support Job in addition to their Base Job. It’s a lot. Honestly, it’s too much. I’ve been spending my time lately bouncing between the Etrian Odyssey games and eight characters with more than one extra class per character just feels like way too much.
Within the first hour, I was honestly overwhelmed. I could see the vastness of the game spreading out before me. The first dungeon introduced the light puzzle/platforming and questing the game would build upon in subsequent ones. The combat riffs on the elemental weakness systems in games like Megami Tensei, Pokemon, and Etrian Odyssey. It’s purely additive, not just the standard of resistant, neutral, and weak. Nailing the right element does more damage and grants focus points, while getting it wrong can mean healing the enemy and giving up focus points. Focus points are an in-combat currency used to boost abilities and attacks. At least in my playthrough, this was more of a complication than a strategic possibility. Persona’s knockdown and group attack systems are a simpler and more engaging way of rewarding weakness memorization. At no point did I feel particularly challenged enough by encounters to really utilize focus points. And for most of the combat, I found myself wishing for an auto-battle, fast forward, or Earthbound’s skip system—just to speed things up.
It was shortly after the first dungeon that the game introduced its version of Triple Triad, J-Ster (pronounced like ‘jester,’ not the brutally extorting academic repository). And like combat and character development, it was additive, building out to add complexity, but not necessarily depth. Instead of four sided cards, J-Ster operates on collectable tokens with six, rotatable sides. The goal is the same as Final Fantasy VIII’s Triple Triad or IX’s Tetra Master—make sure your token’s edges beat your opponent’s, flip the cards to your side.
Almost immediately after introducing the card game, Astria Ascending introduced it’s version of notorious monster hunts. It’s honestly one of the only borrowed aspects that the game doesn’t build out. It’s expansive enough just by existing.
Expansive is a good term for Astria Ascending. Everything about it screams more, and for people with unlimited time and a lust for spreadsheeting out RPG characters to a razor margin of min-max capability, this might be the right game for them. It’s certainly set up to scratch those kinds of collector/theorycrafter impulses. There are over 250 achievements. I guess the one impressive thing is that this wasn’t developed or pivoted into being a mobile gacha game. The pieces are there, as is the commitment to a near endless expanse of spending points and sprite-based combat.
Which is a bummer, because I’m not going to say I didn’t feel some small connection to these potentially doomed characters as someone with a looming counter that I can’t quite shake. The writing feels juvenile and the English voice acting is a mess. But those are things I’ve pushed past before. For the right game.
A few months ago, I was thinking about loading up my PlayStation Vita with every PS1 JRPG and playing through them in chronological order of release. A friend told me, “You could do that, but you’d spend the rest of your life doing it.” At the time, it seemed like a worthwhile endeavor. There were plenty of localized games I missed, and fresh fan-translations of never released games.
I spent half an hour revisiting Beyond the Beyond before I gave up. Life is short and precious to begin with, and while I don’t know when the timer will run out on my heart, being hit with the prospect of my own mortality has left me with little interest in or patience for games that aren’t 100% worth it, or can’t be jettisoned at a moment’s notice.
Astria Ascending isn’t 100% worth it, not yet in this rough pre-release state. And I’m not sure that polishing it will make it worth it. The core issues are with its bloatedness, not its rough edges. But if you have world enough and time, there are certainly worse JRPGs to occupy yourself with.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.