There's a supreme lack of quality modern handheld RPGs available at the present time. Though a handful exist, there's no single example that smacks of being an essential purchase for RPG fans who like to travel. Titles with supreme potential have been and gone of course. The likes of the tedious Tales of Eternia, and the poor Lost Magic, have arrived with little fanfare, and then disappeared into the bargain bins with little more than a whimper.
But Ubisoft, again, seem intent to change this puzzling situation we find ourselves in, with a brand new PSP RPG by the name of Astonishia Story. Now, Astonishia Story itself isn't a brand new title, freshly created with the needs of the modern gamer in mind. Nope, it had its first airing way back in 1994, and a port even appeared on the GP32.
With this initial birthing in mind, it's understandable that the visuals lack the astonishing detail we've all been gorging ourselves with during this 3D age. However, as any RPG fanatic will tell you, 1994 is a year when Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy VI ruled the RPG roost, and both still stand as two of the very best examples of the genre. So it's not too surprising when the 16-bit esque 2D visuals prove to be one of Astonishia Story's most pleasing aspects. Though the backdrops lack any real kind of colour, and the characters themselves aren't overly detailed, they do possess a certain charm that captures the essence of those 16-bit classics with shocking aplomb.
But this simplistic nature unfortunately continues through to the actual gameplay itself. One of the major plus points for any modern RPG is a wildly in-depth story, combined with a barrage of time consuming side quests to attain the mystical sword of habana. Unfortunately, Astonishia Story falls flat on its face on both counts. For starters, you'd be hard pressed to take any longer than 15 hours to play through the entire title, and there's little to no deviation from that set time either - you simply can't deviate from the main story. There are no lengthy side quests tinged with humour a la Final Fantasy VII, nor any chance to explore the territory and landscape.
Length isn't everything of course, and if those 15 hours proved to be filled to the brim with realistic tones, and a gripping storyline, then all would be forgiven. Unfortunately that's far from the case. It all begins with a young chap by the name of Lloyd, a man who just happens to be charged with the task of escorting a royal staff from one village to another. Along the way you and your squad are ambushed. The staff is stolen and you're left as the sole survivor. Of course, poor Lloyd makes the decision to immediately set out in search of the aforementioned staff, and ultimately discovers the evil forces that live in the world etc... It's all very appealing in text form, but the major plus point of the medium of gaming is the simple fact that our actions can shape the world on screen. But instead you're set a stupidly narrow course to simply follow through to its conclusion. And to make things worse, with the lack of choices to be made, the whole sense of challenge that could have been attached to Astonishia Story has been almost entirely drained.
The battle system again reminds of the old 16-bit days, and essentially works in much the same way as the Mega Drive Shining Force games. Upon encountering various nasties out in the field, the screen is split up into a huge grid. Each character you have under your possession (up to seven allowed during battle) can then either use their available turns to move around the field of battle or to attack an opponent. It's astonishingly simple, and in essence works remarkably well. However, the lack of variety in battles, combined with the fact that you'll be faced with a number of them even when travelling short distances, means that it's a system that can begin to grate long before the fifteen hours of game time are up.
As an RPG to play on the move it actually does a few things very well. Firstly, load times aren't bad at all, and a far cry from what we've come to expect from games on the PSP. Secondly, and most importantly, you can save the game at any point. This is something that would seem essential in a portable gaming experience, but it really isn't as commonplace as it ought to be. So, a few pats of the back for catering to the needs of PSP owners, but the game simply doesn't hold much appeal.
It's difficult to imagine who would find Astonishia Story an enjoyable title to play. Though RPG fans will happily devour another game from their favourite genre, especially on a platform starved of top class role playing titles, all outside the hardcore will tire of its charm long before the closing credits begin to role. Our long wait for an essential PSP RPG continues.