Astral Chain Review: Platinum Excellence
I didn't get the appeal at first. The Legion tied to my arm needed only one measly command to push forward and attack my enemies. Most of the time, my attacks were useless anyway. They were simple, and I was barely able to defend myself. But as I progressed, combat opened in dozens of ways.
Now, hours later, I feel like my Legions and I have become one, syncing attacks in mid-air and performing a spectacle of movements whenever I encounter a group of enemies. Controlling multiple characters at once in video games doesn't always go as intended.
After dozens of hours in Astral Chain, it feels like second nature.
Cops, Chains, Chaos
Platinum Games, the studio responsible for hack n' slash games such as Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and NieR: Automata, has for years set a very high bar. Licensed games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aside, they have always exceeded expectations of games in the genre, even their own.
Astral Chain is no exception.
The game's premise introduces you as an officer from the "Neuron" special police task force, a squad in charge of protecting the citizens of The Ark. You pick between two characters, one male and one female, who happen to be twins, as well as the squad commander's children.
As civilians start to report disappearances, the presence of ghosts, and many otherworldly events throughout the city, the task force launches into action.
All of this is related to the mysterious Astral Plane, a place that can only be accessed through rifts in our reality. As you quickly start to find out, this place is swallowing the human world piece by piece. And the ghosts? They're called Chimeras, creatures that can't be seen by the regular eye, but can otherwise hurt and kidnap the unwary.
As with the rest of the game, Astral Chain's first hour is a lot to take in. However, it's an exciting kick-off for a completely new IP that does some unique things to set itself apart, such as fully voicing the character you don't initially choose and allowing them to follow you through the story to aid you in combat.
You Chain Me Right Round, Baby
Legions play a big part in Astral Chain. Essentially, they are familiars that fight alongside you by following commands. They are, by far, one of the most engaging aspects in Astral Chain.
Initially, their actions are limited: you can only summon them to auto-attack an enemy before they disappear. Thankfully, this usually only takes a couple of seconds, but it can be the difference between life and death in the most intense battles. Keep progressing through the game, though, and an array of possibilities will open for you and your group of companions.
Sync Attacks are the first of these additional abilities. They allow you to perform special movements with your Legion if you press a trigger button right when a distinct light appears on your arm. It's a small addition that adds a lot to combat, even if it's one extra attack at a time.
Further wrinkling the game's combat mechanics, the main character uses a police baton that can reshape itself into three different weapons: a small and agile sword, a slow but devastating long blade, and a pistol. Depending on which one you're using during a Sync Attack, the result will differ drastically.
And then you can upgrade both your baton and your chain by boosting their stats, making each encounter far more interesting as the game slowly becomes harder.
If all of this doesn't sound like enough, there's also a skill tree for each of the five Legions available in Astral Chain, which unlock not only better stats, but also slots where you can assign skills to perform in combat alongside passive abilities, which can toggle some actions automatically, like healing yourself when health drops below 30% or increasing your movement speed.
What impressed me the most, however, is how seamless movement for each character feels when you're using them simultaneously.
Along with giving commands to the Legion, you can also move them freely by using the left analog stick. This is best suited for exploration when jumping across gaps and getting to hard-to-reach places (more on this later), but if you circle around an enemy in combat, it will perform a special action in which they are trapped by chains, unable to move, letting you relentlessly attack them.
It might sound like there is a lot to consider and pay attention to during battles, and you wouldn't be wrong. But once it clicks, each encounter in Astral Chain become special.
A (Contained) World of Possibilities
The police HQ is your base of operations throughout the game. It's divided into different floors that can be accessed either through elevators or by a shortcut you unlock further into the story. It's filled with NPCs to talk to but also houses helpful facilities and rooms. This is where you customize your character with different clothes and accessories, maintain on your Legions, take part of training sessions, and more.
Once you're deployed to a mission, the possibilities for exploration open further, though you won't find a huge map here, which is expected of a developer that mostly makes linear experiences.
Most of the missions, also called Cases, in Astral Chain involve gathering clues by writing down keywords from people you talk to, trying to come up with a conclusion, and looking for suspects as you inevitably end up inside the Astral Plane kicking Chimera ass. These sections are a welcoming change of pace, but they're greatly balanced by side missions.
Often fairly short and hilarious, side missions offer great variety in Astral Chain's gameplay. Jumping from the seriousness of helping a civilian in danger to investigating the appearance of a ghost in an alley and buying a kid ice cream, there's a lot to do here. And that doesn't even take into account the hordes of loot and crafting materials you can collect along the way.
While platforming can be troublesome at times, Legions are extremely helpful outside of combat, too, each with their own signature action that can help reach out-of-the-way places or scavenge holes in the ground to find items and collectibles.
By far, the ones I enjoyed the most were the Arm Legion (which you can wear as armor, becoming a mech of sorts) and the Beast Legion (which can be used as a mount and, thankfully, pet).
- A new and exciting combat system
- Side missions that don't feel like a chore
- Great performance on Switch
- Vibrant and stylish user interface
- Legions, both inside and outside combat
- Platforming sections can be annoying due to imprecise movements
- The world is far more interesting than the story
Astral Chain presents an experience that might be familiar those familiar with Platinum Games, but there's enough to keep you engaged and excited.
Your performance during missions is always ranked, and a new difficulty gets unlocked once you finish an act. Take into consideration all of the game's collectibles and items often hidden away or that require a certain Legion to find, and the game is highly replayable.
But even if you're just looking for a new, fairly linear story to dive into, or dying to get your hands on a game whose combat actually involves new ideas and executes them well, then this is the game for you. It's vibrant and stylish art style will lure you in instantly, and while the main conflict isn't one you'll remember for years to come, the world's originality is certainly worth treasuring.
[Note: A copy of Astral Chain was provided by Nintendo for the purpose of this review.]