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Ex Astris review: Gloriously fun and in-depth combat you’ll need a PhD for

Nous Wave Studio’s first release is a solid premium offering
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I’m quite sure that I’ve never uttered so many quiet “ohhhhs” and “ahhhs” to myself as in the last two weeks while I was playing Ex Astris on my phone. There were many moments of discovery and sudden realization to be had in this premium single-player JRPG developed by Nous Wave Studio and published by Hypergryph. This is mainly because of two things: There is a lot of interesting depth to the game’s combat system and lore, but both the tutorials and storytelling don’t exactly manage to get that across all the time. It feels like you need to study to get the most out of the experience – which isn’t a bad thing per se, but a bit surprising.

Many people will know Hypergryph as the company behind Arknights, the popular gacha game, so it’s worth noting that Ex Astris is not a title of the same category – it’s a one-time purchase JRPG without any in-game monetization. It’s a bold move for the company to go against the dominating trend and it’ll be interesting to see how it turns out commercially.

Ex Astris key art showing an anime-style character.

Ex Astris is not lacking in fun characters.

Ex Astris has two components to it: overworld exploration and combat. Imagine the first part as a mix of Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail – you explore limited areas, speak to NPCs, gather materials from the environment, and open treasure chests. There are sections where you jump between platforms, go down cliffs, or climb ladders, making movement feel quite free overall.

As someone not used to touchpad controls, things were difficult at the start, but its overall control scheme is quite simple and practical, making it easy to adapt to – but not flawless.

Some sections require fast movement, such as a scene in which you need to take cover from a giant creature’s attacks by ducking behind different pieces of rubble, running from one hiding spot to another as you close the distance to the monster. The somewhat imprecise nature of touchpad controls combined with the limitations of the game’s movement mechanics, such as impurities in the ground being just too high to walk over, but not being programmed to be jumpable, makes these movement-based passages feel a little awkward, as you keep running into invisible walls.

Combat, too, falls somewhere between the two famous HoYoverse games – it’s turn-based with some heavy real-time elements. When it’s your turn, you’ll have a certain number of actions that you can spend. You can decide to invest these all into one character’s attacks or split them up to give each of your three team members a chance to shine. Naturally, each character in the game comes with an extensive skill tree, allowing you to create parties with powerful combos.

Ex Astris artwork of Yan.

Yan is a young investigator sent to Allindo from Earth.

This is where the aforementioned depth comes into play. Some skills can manipulate enemies’ positions, such as throwing them into the air. Naturally, if you follow that attack up with ground-based moves, you’ll lose out on damage. It’s a system that allows you to pull off great synergies as well as sabotage your own efforts. Hence the required PhD in combat – you really have to study those skill descriptions, remember which slot each is assigned to, and then memorize the order in which you need to send everyone into battle.

At times, Ex Astris’ battles feel like playing a fighting game – especially as some of the available abilities include quick-time-events you need to tap, so you’ll end up mashing buttons. This is a very fun aspect of the title, providing some extra action and adrenaline. You need to both strategize and execute things well here – knowledge and control are equally important.

It’s the same on the enemies’ turn. You’re not doomed to simply stand there and watch as you take damage. Instead, Ex Astris includes a parry and counter system. You need to wait for a blinking light in the enemy’s attack animation and hit your parry button in time. This won’t simply prevent damage, but also grants you more action points in the next turn or allows you to initiate a counter immediately. Different enemy types require different counter types as well, so swapping the parrying character in time is quite satisfying. This is another element that makes the battles feel very dynamic and far from the usual turn-based fare. Impactful animations and visuals help pull it all together.

In general, Ex Astris has some great visuals – animations and landscapes all look great, though the performance suffers from it at points. Whenever I attack enemies in the overworld to initiate combat, there is a bit of lag.

Ex Astris artwork of V3.

V3 is the cheerful, helpful, and mysterious girl met on the train.

Layered between exploration and combat are subsystems like cooking, which allows you to make meals with several dishes to bolster specific stats, and equipment forging, which is a little puzzle game. You make pieces imbuing certain stats and then have to put them together to fit each character’s unique gear slots. These are all nice ideas and make what is basically just boosting your stats a bit more flavorful.

Flavor, however, is exactly what the storytelling is lacking for the most part. There are walls of text full of grand terms for the mysterious, confusing concepts and technologies of this world – which may have helped me immerse myself a bit more and better understand certain characters – but where the combat made me want to study up, put in the effort, and really dig into the mechanics to get a payoff, the story presentation failed to motivate me.

Sure, there is a meta aspect to this: Our main character is an investigator from Earth, who’s newly arrived on the world of Allindo and must try to piece together what’s going on, so while answering every little question immediately would be a step too far, the game may leave a few too many blanks to fill in for yourself. Though not exactly a point in favor of a role-playing game, it’s not a dealbreaker either – because the combat is the core of the entire experience anyway, and that’s where Ex Astris rewards you for the effort you invest into it. Thanks to great pacing, action is never far away.

That said, Ex Astris can’t compete on equal terms with the likes of Honkai: Star Rail in regards to overall production value and presentation – it’s funny how HoYoverse has completely thrown the traditional meanings of “premium” and “free-to-play” out of the window by combining the two.

Ex Astris is a very solid start for Nous Wave Studio and worth picking up for anyone willing to sink their teeth into a deep combat system on the go or wanting to experience a mobile JRPG without the gacha looming in the background.

Score: 7/10

Version tested: Mobile (Android).

Ex Astris is available for Android and iOS via Google Play and the App Store.