So, I wanted to rant about ascended Astarion a bit. I think a lot of people try to look at it and maybe only see some of his dialogue, and decide that because his decision was to ascend, then this is the best one for him, or for the romance. This is specifically for a romance perspective. Btw, ascend him away, do it, I am not saying it is a bad choice, I am saying that it is an interesting one that should be seen clearly because it is written so so well.
First of all, I want to say that the core of this path, in my opinion, is confirming his fear. The world is NOT kind. The world is cruel, and the only thing that can protects him is power.
The note on him wanting more vengeance is that he is scared, deep down. He will also refuse to say Cazador's name, something that spawn Astarion can and will discuss with player character.
By letting him ascend, you did not see him. You did not see the moments of guilt and hesitation that he showed to you in his journey through the palace, or through the game in general. You did not see that he could be something else or that he did not need power to feel safe. I know some people do not like the "persuasion" choice, but the sentence is so short, it is just a moment, where the MC will show him that he CAN be something different. It is not easy returning to a place of such horribly long abuse, be surrounded by such violence, and remember that just a few seconds before... well, he was admitting that he saw himself in the spawns in the cells, as something pathetic that needs to be destroyed.
Something interesting in the vampire ascended route is how much you can talk about love. Two of the options in particular are at the first night, if you can ask him what he learnt from this experience.
If you select that you hoped he would learn to love you, then this is his answer, which makes it seem like the game almost calls out the player: Is this not enough? Then this is not the route for you.
He is offering you this eternity and power and that is love for him. Later, he will also tell you "I love you, isn't this what you want to hear?". He knows what you want, and he is giving it to you, but how much of this is what he wants?
Differently from spawn Astarion there is no way to ask him here, no way to complete his arc with the third and last "What do you want?" question.
The other is related to love, you can tell him that you hoped he would learn that sex and relationships are not about power, to which he angrily replies that EVERYTHING is about power. By letting him ascend, you confirmed to him that this is true. Power is what he needed to be safe, power is what he needed to escape. Power over others is the only thing that can work and basically... exists. So even sex and relationships are about power.
In the talk just after you let him ascend, you get something similar, where he looks at you and says that you, like all the lowly creatures who desire to serve, are also awaiting his command. He sees everything as a power struggle, now.
The third mention of love is actually after you break up with him. You can see it here in this video. He pronounce the word "love" with disgust, and says that that is the game he knows, so he will play it, but that he respects you for not allowing him to destroy your love.
As I said at the start, this choice of letting him ascend is based in reinforcing the idea that the world is dangerous, sex and relationships are power struggles (and he WILL turn yours into one too), and that there is no kindness, that he should be scared.
There is also a deep level of self hatred and disgust. He wants to cut ties completely with his old self, so much that if you tell him you miss his former self he will be shocked. The dialogue in screenshots is not enough to convey the emotion so I'd recommend checking a video:
Instead of embracing the journey and continuing, the cuts himself from his past self completely. This is quite heartbreakingly realistic.
Another thing that is easy to notice is the transactional feel of this relationship. After he expresses surprise that you let him kill all those people, he asks you what he can do for you, what you desire. One of the options is "I want your body", to which he answers "You earned it."
This is the character who had gone through a whole arc about how sex used to be transactional (he offers you his body in exchange for the bite, if you get him to proposition before the party, he seduces you for protection), and had to ask to the player to go slow, because he never really knew what intimacy really was without sex as something transactional being involved.
Here, he is offering you his body as something you earned, as a reward.
Regarding the sex scene... seeing both this and the spawn one with the free camera mod, I could see that the movements are the same - the difference is that ascended continues to show sex, and they are naked... and spawn is more hesitant. You can see it in the way he hesitates after he pushes Tav down.
You can compare the videos (ascended here, THEY ARE NAKED use caution, and spawn here). The scenes are like NIGHT AND DAY.
Ascended Astarion does not push you, he does not crawl over you, he does not even seem to make much eye contact (images of ascended is from the video I posted the link of).
Look at the eye contact in spawn Astarion.
The whole scene is completely different.
"How is being beholded to one another too different from being enslaved"
This is one of the things ascended Astarion tells the player if you break up with him, after a couple of nights. He will reveal that he would have used your trust and love until you were nothing. There are many MANY ways Astarion expresses ownership over you.
One example comes from meeting Araj:
Here he is referring to the fact that Araj thought him your slave, but now it is you who belongs to Astarion.
Another small moment is when you can ask him "Are you going to compel me like Cazador did with you?" He doesn't even reassure you, or deny it, he tells you "Why would I need you, you are going to be obedient." The key word here is obedient.
This is reminiscent of one of Cazador's rules "Thou shalt obey me in all things".
Coincidentially, a few lines after, Astarion even tells you his version of Cazador's third rule "thou shalt not leave my side":
And "Thou art mine":
Notice that you can ask him in game "you made me a spawn, what will happen to him" and he won't reply, he will just correct you on the word, saying that consort is so much better. There is another two occasions where he will talk about his desires to what will happen with you. One time he mentions that he wishes he could sequester you in his palace, but that will have to wait, and in another occasion you can remark (after break up) that he would have treated you like furniture and he does not deny. If you play as Durge and you choose Bhaal, he will laugh about you sitting naked in his lap, while he gives order to his horde, from HIS palace.
There is an ownership in the whole dialogue choices of this path that is really hard to miss.
BREAKING UP... 4 days later
Another interesting thing is that if you choose the harshest break up options he will say "There you are, the real you shows himself at last." And yet, indipendently from it, any kind of break up will end up in an aftermath scene.
This scene will trigger three nights (or two?) after, and Astarion will say some very interesting thing. I posted the whole scene here, but basically... he will reveal that he respects you for breaking up with him, he did not think you had it in him.
The difference with the wisdom check is glaring:
Keep in mind that Ascended Astarion (pre-sex) has SO MANY options to break up with him. Almost 4/5 options are confrontational. While for spawn Astarion you have no option at all to break up with him at least not until after the final scene (while Ascended Astarion has both).
I already talked about how Astarion's words kind of betray the start of his intentions to almost adopt (maybe unconsciously) Cazador's rules. This is not surprising given that the game explicitly calls his story a cycle of abuse and power, and like Cazador's got his rules from his previous master, Astarion did from Cazador. I also noticed in other moments that Astarion uses similar words to Cazador's.
Pet. One of the things Astarion will often call the player is pet. This is something similar to using "pup" in act 1, during the party, but as far as I remember never repeated (Cazador also calls Astarion a "disobedient pup"). The important thing is that you can call him out on it "I am not your pet". He says he is just joking, life is a joke!
Little wretch, cattle, stupid. There are all things that Cazador called him or used in general. I will need to dig deeper to find them all, but the most interesting one was for me "pet". I might be wrong, but I think this is something Astarion uses only post ascenscion.
I don't want to talk too much about Karlach because I did not play as her yet, but I know that she has a whole new path for this... and it is not a good one. Astarion's first sex night with her has him horribly aggressive and nasty, because of his own insecurities (confirmed by the devnotes). And Astarion's sex night when he ascend is even worse.
He will be so overcome by his new power to believe that he can bite her anyway, even with her engine. He will end up hurting himself and immediately accusing her of being broken, not normal, of reuining everything. Even after Karlach tries to tell him that it is not her fault.
Absolutely horrible. Given Karlach is the player character, the same would have happened to any Tav is something had prevented Astarion from biting them.
You can see the video here.
WHAT DO YOU WANT?
To conclude, Astarion's character goes through a complete arc of finding out what he wants and being seen as spawn Astarion, while ascended Astarion goes through a complete arc of finding out that power is the one thing that can save him and protect him, and obtaining it, so much that he basically owns you too.
It is two completely journey, and I think both with a satisfying conclusion.
One follows the trails of asking Astarion "What do you want?" and the other follows the trail of Astarion asking you what you want and telling you this is what you might want.
In the case of ascended Astarion, the final "what do you want" (after act 1, where he deflects, and act 2 where he says he doesn't know, he never tried it before) is "You, this", this being the safety you offered, being seen. He remarks about being seen, in particular.
For ascended Astarion, there is no option to ask him "what do you want" again, but the character still concludes the arc by using the same words he used in act 1. "This is what you want, isn't it?", where he offers the player this fantasy and the player just has to accept, and say yes.