Astonishia Story, the latest PSP role-playing game from Ubisoft, is a simplistic and generic blend of clichés and conventions. Despite its utter lack of distinction, the game is still a somewhat satisfying experience because it's built on time-tested mechanics that make it extremely easy to pick up and play. The rudimentary design of Astonishia Story isn't surprising, given that it's a no-frills remake of a 1994 PC game. However, that doesn't excuse the very apparent lack of story, character, and depth in Astonishia Story.
Despite the title, Astonishia Story doesn't tell much of a story at all. It all starts with a young knight named Lloyd, who is charged with escorting a royal staff from one town to another. Along the way, Lloyd and his fellow knights are ambushed, and the staff is stolen. Lloyd manages to survive the struggle and immediately heads off in search of the staff. In his search, Lloyd discovers that there's trouble afoot in the world, and that an evil elven queen is using divine power to achieve everlasting youth. Unfortunately, she's doing so at the expense of everyone in her kingdom and the world beyond. It may sound interesting, but the story just moves you from one town to another, and from one boss fight to the next. There are attempts at humor, but they're usually too self-referential and out-of-place to be funny, like, for example, characters who admonish you for pirating software and attempting to purchase warez from illegitimate vendors.
Even if you don't pay any attention to the story you'll know exactly where you need to go, because there's usually only one other option at any given time. If you can't find the next event trigger in the town you happen to be in, you can just take a walk to the only other town in the area and you're guaranteed to find what you're looking for. This is nice because it keeps the game moving at all times, but it also makes the game feel very limited in scope since you're always just moving from point A to point B with no room for deviation.
The battle system in Astonishia Story mixes random encounters with a simplified version of the turn-based strategy combat found in games like Fire Emblem and Shining Force. When you're outside of a town you'll see creatures walking around on the field. If you make contact you'll be drawn into a fight with anywhere from three to six enemies. The fights take place on a large battlefield that is divided into squares. Each character takes a turn based on initiative, and in that turn he or she can move a certain number of squares before performing an action. The actions include using items, magic, skills, and running from battle. There are around eight different characters that will join your party at one point or another, but you'll never have more than seven in any battle. Each character has specific skills and traits, and you have no control over the development of the characters in your party. That doesn't leave much room for flexibility, but you'll usually have a fairly balanced party of the usual suspects, including wizards, fighters, archers, and so on. The biggest fault of an otherwise solid, if simplistic, battle system is the fact that it can take five or 10 minutes or more to complete each battle. This can be frustrating when you're just trying to get from one town to another and you get stuck fighting half a dozen battles along the way.
When you aren't battling enemies in the fields and forests, you'll have to take part in a bit of dungeon-crawling. The dungeon battles are more difficult than the field battles; among other things, in a dungeon, you can't see your enemies before you're drawn into battle. The dungeons aren't very involved, though, and they usually don't have more than three small floors to explore. There are fewer than a handful of dungeons in the entire game, so while they do provide a bit more of a challenge than the usual overworld meanderings, the experience is short-lived. There are also quite a few boss fights in the game, but with the exception of the final boss they're all laughably easy. In fact, many of the bosses actually seem weaker than the average enemies you'll find in dungeons or on the field.
While the bare-bones game design feels antiquated, the fairly dated 2D visuals are much easier to excuse. The colorful environments and sprites are nicely detailed, but Astonishia Story still has the look of a Game Boy Advance game that has been converted to widescreen. Still, the graphics are functional and pleasant enough to look at. The sound is just as dated, and even sounds a bit distorted at times. The music is nothing that will get stuck in your head, but it's acceptably inoffensive as it loops in the background.
On your first play-through, you should be able to finish Astonishia Story in about 15 hours. You can take more time if you want to level up your characters, but there's really no need to do so. So while 15 hours is a decent chunk of time for a portable game, it feels stilted for a role-playing game. But the biggest problem isn't so much the time it takes to finish the game, it's the fact that the game just doesn't do anything or go anywhere in that time.
Astonishia Story is the equivalent of a cheap novel you might pick up in an airport gift shop. It's a light, easy way to burn some time, but isn't substantial enough to sustain interest for very long. It certainly isn't a game you'll want to go too far out of your way to play, but if you're starved for a role-playing game on the PSP, Astonishia Story will provide some temporary satisfaction.