Astria Ascending gives off the vibe of indie game developers shooting their dream shot: It's a Japanese-style RPG being made by a French studio, in collaboration with some of their JRPG heroes. Artisan Studios, located in Quebec and Montepllier, France, has teamed up with FF12 composer Hitoshi Sakamoto, FF7 writer Kazushige Nojima, and other Japanese game dev veterans to make a turn-based RPG about eight "demigods" saving the world.
What they're saving the world from, I'm not quite sure—but based on the video commentary from Nojima above, it sure seems like the big threat in Astria Ascending is drugs. Well, a fruit, technically, that affects the behavior of those who eat it. So: Drug fruit. (Fruit drugs?)
The fruit 'Harmelon' "suppresses people's instincts," explains Nojima, which I assume means it stops them from killing each other. Astria Ascending's world is full of your usual spread of fantasy races: Fish people, lizard people, bird people, etc., and while eating Harmelon helps them keep the peace, it comes with downsides for each race. The bird folks, for example, can't fly as well anymore. "That's the theme I want to discuss in this game," Nojima says. "What is our 'Harmelon' in real life?"
I'm skeptical of a game about drug melons having any deep insight into human race relations, but it seems like Astria's bigger focus is on its eight main characters, who are pulled into service as demigods in this fantasy world's version of an army draft. They may not all be reluctant heroes, but it seems like they'll have personal issues to work through while living up to their roles as heroes.
"The theme is 'the nature of justice,'" Nojima explained to me over email. "Ulan and the other demigods have been empowered to fulfill justice; that’s their daily life and they do it well. But they all have personal problems—mainly family matters. The demigods know that they and their families heavily influence the incidents they confront, but they still stand for justice. But is there any justice in turning against their own families?"
However the story turns out, I have to say Astria Ascending is a very pretty game, at least in still images. The style looks like concept art was plopped right into the game and made playable. It's fixed on a 2D plane, which strikes me as a smart way to make each screen in an indie RPG shine while still keeping the budget reasonable. To compensate for the limited perspective, game director Julien Bourgeois told me the levels have some verticality to them, and you'll get environmental abilities over time to open up new paths in old areas. The developers promise there's a lot to explore across five cities and 25 dungeons.
What I really want to know more about is the turn-based battle system—I'm used to JRPGs going heavy on the tropes and settings that confuse proper nouns for nuance, but the combat is the thing that'll make me stick around. I tried to get some details out of Bourgeois, who wouldn't divulge too much. "All I can say for now is that we are introducing an innovative system called 'Focus Points' that allow characters to maximize their efficiency in battle," he said. One other tidbit: You'll be able to easily swap characters out in battle to make use of all eight demigods.
Astria Ascending doesn't have a set release date yet, beyond sometime in 2021. It's hitting consoles and PC, and will also be on Xbox Game Pass. I've got my fingers crossed for a sound test mode, because any new Hitoshi Sakimoto soundtrack is, for sure, getting put on loop.