Over the years, I’ve come to have certain expectations when I play a title developed by Platinum Games. The company’s brand carries a certain amount of pedigree in my mind for making some of the most polished and frenetic beat-em-up titles on the market. For their newest concept, Astral Chain, the big P put together the dream team of Nier: Automata’s Takahisa Taura as director and Bayonetta creator Hideki Kamiya in an ambitious attempt to get the best of both worlds. But, are the two halves greater when put together? Our review.
When worlds collide
Astral Chain takes in a world where humanity is on the brink of extinction after Earth is invaded by interdimensional creatures known as the Chimera. With most of the population essentially dragged into the Chimera’s astral plane, those few left have been surviving on a mobile floating city called The Ark. For several years, humanity was able to live outside the reach of the Chimera, but things changed and now mankind must fight back or die.
Fortunately, a covert government group known as Neuron has been working on technology that allows certain people the ability to assert dominance and control over Chimera and turns them into Legion. Only a handful of Legion have been paired up with special police officers when the game opens, and your character’s adopted father happens to be one of them. Players will take on the role of one of two twin siblings, choosing to play as a male or a female, before the story really gets going. Both twins have followed in their dad’s footsteps and joined the Ark’s police force. While both are still rookies they soon find themselves smack-dab in a battle to save the world.
The plot seems to take its cues from several classic animes, most notably Evangelion seems to have been a pretty heavy influence on how much of the early story plays out. That’s not to say it doesn’t take its own twist and turns, but this definitely feels like your playing an anime at times, especially since there seems to be such an emphasis on world-building. So much of the world is nuanced and everything is exploding with personality including the sassy vending machines. And while there’s a serious tone to the overall plot, there's a lot of fun to be had doing things like rescuing stray cats and helping out Lappy, the precinct’s furry mascot. Astral Chain also offers up some fun color customizations and unlockable accessories to help really make your character your own.
Make sure you’re connected
The game is level-based, or more accurately case file-based. Each file will take players to a different section of The Ark that range from neon-drenched mall districts all the way to the astral plane itself. When players arrive on the scene of each case, they’ll usually have some investigating to do to figure out what’s going on, which means looking for clues, finding evidence, and interrogating witnesses. Fortunately, Legions are invisible to the human eye, so they can do things like eavesdrop on a conversation or hack into a local security cam to attain evidence to help solve each case. Once players have gathered enough evidence to make a case, they’ll meet with their crew to go over the details to form a tangible theory of what’s going on before getting to the more combat-focused part of the case. Bear in mind, not every level follows this formula though.
While I’m used to levels in Platinum games being full of hidden areas, including ones that beg for a replay to be reachable, Astral Chain really takes things to a new level. Each area is sort of like a hub world unto itself chock full of side quests like helping citizens in need, rescuing cats, and finding toilet paper for the magical fairy that lives in the Police HQ bathroom. There is a whole hell of a lot to do and a lot of little details that make it fun to explore, for example as an officer if people see you do something destructive like knocking a trash can over, you’ll be docked points towards your next promotion. Honestly, at times it can seem daunting having so many tasks to do in order to reach that completionists high, but there’s enough variety to keep it from getting too monotonous.
Level design, for the most part, is solid and intriguing and there’s enough to be done and come back to that Astral Chain has a lot of replay value, but it does have a glaring flaw when it comes to some of the game’s platforming aspects. Basically, you can have your Legion float to a platform and then pull you over to it. If there’s anything in between the two of you, you don’t hit the angle just right, or there’s something kind of blocking you even superficially, you’re probably going to fall and lose a decent amount of life. I probably used more health items from drops than combat overall.
Gotta catch them all
At the core of Astal Chain’s combat is the relationship between the player and the handful of Legions they’ll be able to partner with during the game. While Legions function fairly autonomously, players will be able to equip and activate special moves for each creature such as a spinning blade attack for the Sword Legion, or the disorienting howl of dog-like Hunter Legion. Each Legion also has a unique skill that will help players access new areas outside of combat by doing things like having the Gauntlet Legion pick up and throw an object out of the way.
As players collect genetic materials from fallen Chimera they’ll be able to open up level nodes for each Legion to make them more powerful, boost their defense, unlock new moves, and add more artifact slots. The artifacts themselves are essentially augments that do things like buff stats or increase drop rates.
The amount of customization is light enough to keep it from being overly-meticulous or time-consuming. The one pain about Legion upkeep is that you’ve essentially got to wash all of the astral plane’s residue off of them in between each case. It’s a tedious little mini-game in a world full of much more entertaining things to do and experience that’s only aggravated by the fact that the Legions do not sit still for their scrubbings.
While the concept of learning to utilize each Legion properly in order to navigate and explore works great outside of crossing ravines, I feel like it hits a few rough patches when it comes to the combat. While the Legion function fine on their own, to really utilize them properly you’ll have to take command to do things like wrap an enemy in a chain or use the Archer Legion’s slow-mo arrow shot. That’s where things seem to fall apart for Astral Chain. A lot of the brawling is what you’d expect from a Devil May Cry hack-and-slasher, but sometimes you just can’t pay attention to your character and your pet. And good luck not getting disoriented if you have to move at the same time in opposite directions. At times the camera seems unsure if it wants to follow the player or the Legion as well, which only adds further to the chaos.
You’re only as strong as your weakest link
I find it ironic that the combat in any Platinum title would be its worst aspect, but that is exactly the case when it comes to Astral Chain. That’s not to say this isn’t a fine, fine game, but it is hardly flawless. You will still enjoy every aspect of this game if you’re a fan of the genre or the publisher, but you’re going to need some time to really wrap your head around the intricate control commands and working with an AI partner chained to your wrist. ortunately, Platinum had the insight to include an easier casual mode as well as a mode called “Unchained” that automatically handles the combat and lets players experience the story in all its glory without fear of having their butt handed to them over and over.
I really recommend new players g with casual mode first. I started on the opposite end of the spectrum with Platinum mode and it is for people who want to be graded and shamed. I also feel like it ramped up my learning curve way too quick and I’ve played a lot of Platinum’s catalog.
One thing I just cannot forgive in Astral Chain though is the reuse of my least favorite feature from Metal Gear: Revengeance: the slow-mo blade attack where you have to align the sword swipe at the right angle to either unlock a pathway or destroy a barrier. It wasn’t fun then and it’s even less fun when you’re trying to do it with the analog stick on a Joy-Con.
With all that said though, I am insanely impressed with the world that Platinum has built-in Astral Chain overall. It is gorgeous, the plot is intriguing and it feels like something new when it comes to the investigations and police work. While the combat mechanics might need cleaning up it’s cool that the dev team at least had the foresight to realize that might be a point of contention but there was still a lot left to offer, hence casual and unchained mode. And you really can’t fault a game for making contingencies for all types of players.
This review is based on a code provided by the publisher. Astral Chain is available on August 30 for Nintendo Switch.
- Great Anime-style visual
- Casual and Unchained modes for novice players
- An intriguing plot
- Doing detective work
- Each level feels lke its own hub-world
- Character customization
- Saving stray cats
- Lappy the dog
- Bad camera angles
- Falling off cliffs too much
- Getting the right angle with the blade slash