I’m always game for something unique. It’s part of the reason why the independent game scene (usually called “indie games”) intrigues me. Typically having a low-fi feel, they tend to do traditional tropes of gaming in unusual ways. During one of my previous visits to my local game store, I found Astonishia Story for the PSP. It seemed interesting, so I gave it a whirl. Sadly, it is rather unforgettable. But it is a good starter role-playing game.
Astonishia follows Lloyd, a high-ranking knight who is recently commissioned, along with a legion of knights, to protect an uber-important staff. If this staff falls into the wrong hands, it could potentially bring about the end of the world ...
Astonishia Story is nothing that we all haven’t seen or interacted with before. Characters are not really too memorable and, I found, tended to bleed together. And the orange light in the back of my head lit up as I played: “I’ve been here before. I’ve seen this all before.” The mental checklist of traditional items that make up RPGs these days was marked off. Temples with a kung fu vibe, snow-peaked mountains and caves are all waiting to be explored. Monsters are not seen during dungeons but are available on the main map. There are some pretty weird and humorous plot moments that pop up from time to time. And the game is referential to other modern things. This gives Astonishia Story an indie vibe.
The gameplay emphasizes this as well. Instead of going for some over-the-top battle system, the developers stripped it all down and simplified it. They were not too far off base when they said it used a “one-button system.” One button inputs a command, and another backs up. In reality, that’s all one needs for any RPG. Maps, shortcuts to different parts of the menu and inventory are all one really needs for a basic RPG. All other elements, when done well, are icing. Combat is just as simple as well. Battles take place on a different map, and you tell them where to go on their turn. Spells, abilities, items, movement and attack commands are all intuitively laid out. You can see who is next in turn, but you’ll never know who comes next for the first few rounds. This is because it is showed one at a time. In a way, this simplicity is downright refreshing. It’s nice not to have confusing commands and memorize the meanings of oddly spelled names. Parsimony is something all games strive for but not always succeed in doing.
And at the same time, Astonishia Story can be downright brutal. Monsters hit hard, and magic (or “skills,” if you prefer) tends to take too much MP (magic points). Money is difficult to come by because the monsters drop so little of it. This makes upgrading equipment and obtaining those ultra handy healing items difficult. In a way, this is balanced by the fact that the game rewards your best fighter with extra experience. However, I find that this tends to backfire. In my attempt to help my weaker characters grow, I used my stronger fighters to weaken the monsters. However, they tended to destroy the enemy, or my weaker characters got knocked out. Thus, my strongest character tended to become stronger and weak characters stayed weak.
Graphically, Astonishia Story looks like something from the early 1990s. It is retro in style. It isn’t highly stylized on any level. It looks like something from one of my old game consoles. This is not a bad thing. The game has a fair amount of charm: The atmosphere is mostly bright and cheery. Character portraits pop up (but never emote) when talking to other characters. Blood splashes out whenever you walk over a mouse. Pathways are clearly seen. Spells are flashy, and characters swipe their weapons at the enemy. At the same time, Astonishia Story looks indie. This is not something I would expect to see on the PSP. The whole 16-bit vibe is highly old-school and rarely seen on consoles past 2000. I’ve seen similar things from indie developers. I am a big believer in gameplay over graphics. However, there is nothing wrong with making things nice and shiny when there is the space for it. And I believe there is the space available.
Musically, Astonishia Story is mostly vanilla. There isn’t much that catches the ear. Most of it is just everyday fantasy sounds and melodies. It isn’t bad. It’s just forgettable — save for one tune: the shopkeeper tune. And it is the most annoying with its odd staccato rhythm in a synth sound that grates on my nerves. It is also the only tune that doesn’t fit. At least there’s no annoying voice acting. That’s because there is no voice acting.
In conclusion, Astonishia Story is a forgettable game. Everything it does has been done before. Some games do it much better, and some do