With plenty of major RPGs under their belts, writer Kazushige Nojima and composer Hitoshi Sakimoto are helping build a whimsical, yet mature, hand-drawn world.
Your first impression of Astria Ascending will probably be that it's a fantastical side-scrolling turn-based RPG that borrows several cues from the likes of Final Fantasy. The character designs, the music, and even the game's logo all lead you to believe that the seminal RPG series is a core influence. You'd be right, and there's a reason for that.
Kazushige Nojima, who has been with the franchise as a scenario writer since the original Final Fantasy 7, is currently working on the wave of new stories in that universe with Remake, Ever Crisis, and First Soldier. He's also the scenario writer for Astria Ascending. Hitoshi Sakimoto, who helped compose the music for Final Fantasy XII and Tactics, is lead composer on this new game as well, lending his talents to building a whimsical world through music. (And you also may recognize the distinct character designs of Akihiko Yoshida, who's done artwork for much of Final Fantasy and Nier).
But what is Astria Ascending? It's important to note that its core development is in the hands of Artisan Studios, a French-Canadian team that focuses on 2D RPGs. Artisan's first game was Super Neptunia RPG, and you can definitely see where Astria Ascending's presentation style comes from. But this new game's story is said to be a mature one, where adult heroes take on the responsibility of protecting an illustrious world called Orcanon. Director Julien Bourgeois says that the goal was "to explore how people cope in extraordinary times," and that "each hero has their own perspective, but it’s the relationships they form with one another that truly bring the story to life." With this collaboration between Artisan and a few big names in the JRPG space, you can imagine there's more prestige expected in Astria Ascending.
I was able to correspond with both Nojima-san and Sakimoto-san about Astria Ascending to dig into what it is about this new game in particular that's going to carve out a unique place among the big-name RPGs they've worked on. And I get the feeling that this is a sort of clean slate, without the pressures of a major franchise, where they can try something new.
Storytelling From The Perspective Of Kazushige Nojima
When asked about what makes Astria Ascending stand out, Nojima told me, "I would say it's the age of our heroes. They may be older than the typical party of heroes." That can be a tricky thing to reflect in a story, so I asked him about how he designed characters well into adulthood. "Regardless of the in-game world's design, if a character's age is close to your own, you must be careful so that they don't reflect your personal habits and behaviors; it will diminish the feeling of stepping into a fantasy world and your players will notice that," Nojima stated. He continued, "So, this time I paid special attention to creating a fantasy world with a strong consciousness [of that]."
Characters are, of course, always key to telling a meaningful story, and their backgrounds seem to be important to understanding the stakes of Astria Ascending. "We establish the elements required for each character and the game world--their individual techniques, how to obtain them, where they are needed, then [their place in the world] itself). Then we mixed them into the settings and scenarios to make that world real," Nojima explained. Although we've yet to see how these ideas manifest in the actual game, the expectation is that we'll see cohesion between narrative and gameplay.
Nojima explained that this story--said to be a grand tale of sorts--is contained within a few weeks' time in that world, but several complementary and heavy plot threads could lead your imagination in filling out the world. "Players will have some room to interpret and think about those details and elements. Allowing players to contemplate and consider these details is part of the game's spirit," Nojima said.
Although quite vague in specifics, he attributes this as "part of the reason why Astria Ascending can be thought of as a mature experience."
Saving the world can be more complicated than beating the big bad evildoer or attacking and dethroning god, and it seems Astria Ascending is taking note of that. When discussing themes and motifs found within its story, Nojima responded by throwing some questions back. "What is the true nature of a world living in harmony? What does a status of global harmony mean and require? Is achieving something like that our ultimate goal? Do we really even need such a thing? These are some of the questions posed by the game; I think there is always value in thinking about open-ended questions like this."
Despite its influences and connections to them, Astria Ascending flexes a unique style, too. And from the side-scrolling perspective with hand-drawn art, I wondered if these features impacted the way Nojima created its story. "I like to take a different approach each time," he said. "The mechanics, gameplay systems, and method of expression ultimately decide whether one of my scenarios fits the game I'm writing for. However, I don't focus on being eccentric or consciously try to choose a different style to approach new projects with."
After so many years being involved in crafting RPG stories, he's seen how the genre has evolved and has directly influenced it in many ways. "There are many definitions of RPG; it is a complicated genre to define," he told me before coming in with a little self-plug, saying, "But with that said, Final Fantasy 7 Remake is great."
But from his perspective, Bloodborne has been an influence and stand-out in narrative design. "I've recently replayed Bloodborne after a long time. I love its storytelling style; you know, players need to feel like they're really inside the game's world rather than just reading or hearing about it, and Bloodborne is excellent at achieving that," Nojima stated.
Looking at Astria Ascending in particular, Nojima feels as though he has something special, saying, "I'm proud that I was able to create a world without having an existing concept and story to build on top of. I designed this universe from a foundational, ground level as I studied Astria Ascending's gameplay systems and mechanics." With that approach, we should expect a synergy between what happens in the world of Orcanon and what you're asked to do in order to save it.
How Hitoshi Sakimoto Composes A Fitting Soundtrack
"Listening to music is partially studying and partly a hobby. My favorite songs make me feel refreshed, so I channel that energy into my works and aim to provide the same experience to my audience," Sakimoto said after telling me about his favorite genres of jazz and fusion. While those feelings have informed his approach to the Astria Ascending soundtrack, you can tell from just the initial trailer that he's going for a sound closer to a grand orchestra. And he's indicated as much, saying, "I added many classical layers and sounds, and supplement the overall worldview through sound."
But how does he know what he wants to create for a video game in particular? "For me, the interaction during the production process is the real thrill of creating music for video games, so I try to stay involved during that stage," Sakimoto said. "My general approach to a soundtrack is also dependent on the individual project itself, and from there I can focus on musical devices and each piece's performance. When it comes to stories and game systems, it's best to collaborate starting from the game's initial conception phase, and the team behind Astria Ascending has worked hard to achieve this."
In the same way I asked Nojima about what he's seen in the RPG genre over the years working within it, I wanted to know Sakimoto about how he's seen music and game soundtracks evolve. "I don't think there are any major technical changes other than the dynamic changes in the songs," he said. "But from the perspective of composition, the multiplicity of compositional direction has really improved my skills. However, it seems that a tidy, flawless sound has become more commonplace overall. Personally, I need more character, that rougher or irregular musical measures in my work."
With his name attached to so many renowned games, from Radiant Silvergun to Valkyria Chronicles to the aforementioned Final Fantasy games, I wanted to know what keeps him creative over a long career. "After reflecting on the drastic changes in video games over the past 30 to 40 years, I would have never been able to use the same processes I used during the start of my career as a routine approach," he said. I'm always facing unknown scenarios and learning through trial and error."
"I started my career back during my time as a student. At that point in time, I thought that when I grew up (even though I wasn't a child then), the job of composing music would be standardized and I'd be able to breeze through it," Sakimoto recalled. "I was surprised to find that the more experience I gained, the more things I realized I still didn't know. But as I got used to this situation, I've found comfort in it and have steadily proceeded."
He concluded his thoughts with a bit of a knowledge dart, saying, "There is no grand secret for my creative process and drive, but learning to willingly face the unknown is important."
Sakimoto also shares a sort of kinship with Nobuo Uematsu, the legendary composer who's best known for creating most Final Fantasy's greatest songs. As a friend and mentee of Uematsu, Sakimoto revealed, "I actually have rarely talked about composition with Mr. Uematsu, we usually just talk about our favorite music and small household affairs. It is a pity, but I still learned many things from him about how to live as a composer. Since I know very few senior composers, chatting with Mr. Uematsu is still a treasured opportunity to me. I view him as my loving teacher and we are definitely not on a similar level."
What's apparent from both Nojima and Sakimoto's answers is that the DNA of Final Fantasy is closely woven into prominent parts of Astria Ascending by virtue of its creators. Sakimoto said the best way to understand how music will influence and impact the experience of Astria Ascending is to experience it in the game, and that's also true of the way the work and influence of Sakimoto and Nojima will affect how the game's pieces will fall into place. You'll be able to do that sometime this year when Astria Ascending launches on PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and Series X|S (and Game Pass), PC, and Nintendo Switch.