Burn in Hellandiana.
Being well-rounded is supposed to be a good thing, which might explain Ubisoft’s decision to remake old-school Korean RPGs. They’ve certainly mastered squad-based shooters and stealth action, so why not move into the unexplored territory of obscure role-playing? Two reasons: Everyone else already has, and few have done it right.
And thanks to the new Astonishia Story, we can add Ubisoft to the long list of those who should have left sleeping games lie. Astonishia Story is poorly realized, overpriced, and easily forgettable, a real ARGH-PG.
Its story wanders down every standard RPG trail you could think of. There’s a heroic knight, an evil sorceress, incoming malevolent gods, wizards, dwarves, objects of world-ending power - you name it, it's probably in here. The plot centers around Lloyd, a knight who botches the transport of a holy staff and swears to find and return it. From there, Lloyd seems to do everything but find that stick. It’s mentioned every few hours and eventually comes to the forefront, but this strictly linear romp follows the uninspired town/dungeon/repeat pattern without fail.
That’s fine for most RPGs because the plot helps things roll along while keeping you interested. Alas, Astonishia Story’s dialogue and plot are both badly localized and blandly written. Character development is kept to a minimum. There is a degree of meta humor, like when Lloyd literally addresses you, the player, or when Mr. Sonnori starts ranting about software piracy, but it doesn’t make up for the overall lack of funny business. Even the game’s frequent bouts of self-deprecation are more sad and frustrating than funny. You don’t need to be told how lame this game is - if you're playing it, you already know.
Even worse is the combat, which is so elementary it feels like it was developed by Fisher Price. You take turns moving three types of units (fighters, archers, and mages) around a grid to vanquish foes drawn from the same 3 archetypes. You gain no advantage by attacking an enemy from the side or rear ala Fire Emblem, so you’re down to hitting, casting spells, and healing when necessary. There are quite a few spells, and every character can use a few thrown items, but you never really need to make tactical decisions.
This lack of strategic depth makes the game become tedious fast. There’s a glimmer of hope in the element system, which uses the attributes of characters and terrain to influence damage, but it’s never fully explained, not even in the manual. Astonishia Story is pretty easy to pick up and play, but it's also very easy to put right back down.
Even though the game is way too simple, it’s still frustratingly difficult. If you don’t spend lots of time grinding up to high enough levels, you’ll get nowhere because the enemies are just too powerful. Grinding is bad enough, but the battles themselves are long and repetitive. Any given fight will take you at least five minutes, and expect to fight constantly. While you can see enemies on the field map and avoid them if you wish, dungeons revert to mazes full of maddening random encounters. Why? “It’s too dark to see the monsters.” Right.
The graphical style is distinctly old-school, but sports a nice amount of detail for 2D sprites. You’d think the 2D style would lead to a nice, smooth play, but the battles are full of frustrating hiccups. There’s no reason for a 12-year old port to lock up for 2 seconds when loading every animation during every battle. It murders the flow of the game. Honestly, I’ve seen emulators run better on a PSP. I mean, on friends’ PSPs, Sony.
These strange, annoying load times don’t just try your patience on the battlefield, either. They pervade everything, from entering buildings to starting dialogues. If this game were a piece of music it would be molto retardando all the way through. The only thing it does quickly is bore you.
Things sound about as old as they look. The tunes are very 16-bit, and while not horrible, after a few hours you’ll either tune them out or turn them down. The sound effects fare a little better in the long run, but slashes and yells aren’t worthy of much praise.
If this were 1995, we might find more to like. But it’s 2006, and we don’t pay $40 for SNES remakes anymore, especially unimaginative ones that aren’t programmed well or translated properly like Astonishia Story. This is one quest that isn’t worth your pot of gold.