September 10, 2019

Review: Astral Chain

Platinum Games are one of those developers whose consistent quality is obvious, but whose games have not always grabbed me as intently as I wish they would. The studio’s bread and butter is challenging character action games where the aim is to really master a set of complex combat mechanics, replay the game for better rankings and on harder difficulties, and experience over the top dramatic narratives that place value on absurdity occasionally over coherence. From Bayonetta to Neir Automata, Platinum excel at creating games where the fun is learning how to really manage the intricacies of the moment to moment gameplay, and feeling like a huge toolbox is eventually comfortably at your fingertips.

Over the past few years, Platinum Games has had an interesting relationship with Nintendo, a games company not traditionally associated with games focused on challenge. After Platinum’s hit game Bayonetta found its sequel without funding or a publisher, Nintendo stepped in to publish Bayonetta 2 as an exclusive, with the upcoming Bayonetta 3 also due to be a Nintendo console exclusive. While that deal allowed Nintendo goodwill in the form of keeping an already beloved franchise alive, and Wii U exclusive Wonderful 101 provided a family friendly and colourful entry point to Nintendo exclusive character action, Astral Chain is uncharted water for the pair of companies.

Astral Chain is a new IP from Platinum Games, dark in tone and more traditional in its take on character action mechanics, funded and published as an exclusive title for Nintendo Switch. That’s an exciting prospect, and thankfully the execution follows through on that idea.

So, what is Astral Chain? Well, the game is set in a not too distant future earth, where around 95% of the planet has become uninhabitable due to the appearance of interdimensional gates. Through these gates travel Chimeras, beasts which corrupt the land they touch, attack humans, sometimes capture and drag away humans, and even transform humans into non human creatures themselves. To make things worse, many of the stronger beasts which come through these dimensional gates are invisible, making them near impossible for humanity to fight off.

The solution humanity finds to this situation is the Legions. Basically, a scientist works out how to chain these chimeras to human operators, causing them to attack other chimeras rather than humans, and allowing their operators to see the attacking creatures. This allows a small group to fight back against the ongoing interdimensional assault, and try to fend of the impending end of the world.

In terms of plot, Astral Chain borrows heavily and liberally from many of the most interesting aspects of well known anime. There’s heavy Evangellion inspirations, nods to Stands from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Kamen Rider, Power Rangers, Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokémon, and a bunch of other series. It can at times feel a little fanservice-y in its execution, but if you’re someone like me who grew up on the above mentioned series there’s a lot to love. They don’t in any way try to shy away from being an over the top homage to these inspirations, and the skill with which they pull off their use of anime tropes is superb. They may be doing things others have done before, but when you string them together this stylishly it’s hard not to get sucked into the spectacle of it all.

Astral Chain allows you to design your own custom character, complete with customisable outfit, hairstyle, hair colour, and skin tone. While I really appreciated getting to basically play such a mechanically polished character action game as a self insert character, it did make me feel pretty badass, it does come with some downsides. The player character has a twin brother or sister, whose appearance remains largely default beside sharing a matching skin tone with you. That character is named Akira, and they get to have voice acted dialogue, where as you the player do not. You’re a voiceless, nameless self insert character, and basically cutscene conversations happen around you, largely aimed at your sibling, or with them answering for you. As much as I loved having visual customisation options and gender selection, I wish we had a canon name and were voice acted. Let me be a defined character who just happens to have custom looks Platinum.

In terms of the combat, Astral Chain plays pretty differently to most other Character Action games. Throughout the game, you will have access to five different legions, each of which have their own unique abilities and attacks. A few examples include the Beast Legion, which can be used to automatically dodge attacks in exchange for meter, the Sword Legion, which can parry attacks as they are incoming, the Axe, which can generate defensive shields, and the Arrow, which unsurprisingly gives you ranged options as a player.

At the start of the game, combat seems fairly simple; You as a player have a series of weapons which you can attack with doing basic combos, with the ability to dodge offset mid combo and keep your combo going. If you summon a legion, they will attack automatically, much like the Blade’s in Xenoblade 2. You can manually move your Legion around the battlefield, using the chain that tethers you as a way to bounce back charging enemies, to tie up enemies you encircle, and later use it to pull yourself towards your legion, helping you reach airborne enemies to start aerial combos. However, the real depth in the combat comes as you upgrade your skill trees for each legion, unlocking the ability to do syncronised attacks by timing button presses, to summon your legion at the right moment for a counter attack, do special attacks by perfectly timing your dodges, and using custom attack sets to do things like unchain your legion for a combo, summon in a new legion to attack at the second time, and then switch back into your combo.

Initially, the combat in Astral Chain can feel a little bit simple and button mash-y, particularly on lower difficulties. It’s a fair criticism to make that the combat takes a few hours to really start to shine, but by the end of the game there is easily as much depth to the combat as any other Platinum game. They have created another combat system which feels polished, refined, and distinct from any other game out there. I can’t really find anything to fault the game’s combat on other than how long it takes to get into the swing of its best content. I get it, it’s a weird combat system and dumping everything on the player at once might have been a bit overwhelming, but I hope if we ever get a sequel that it will be a bit faster getting to the good stuff.

If you’ve played previous Platinum developed games, you’ll know most of them very much rush from combat counter to combat encounter, with occasional small puzzles to solve in linear corridors, before getting back to the fighting. Astral Chain is a pretty big departure in this regard, as it features large open world areas to explore, non combat sidequests, and investigation content to explore at the start of most missions.

A good example of what to expect from Astral Chain is an early game mission, where a bridge has collapsed and you’re tasked with investigating what happened. You use a computer based eye implant to survey the scene, witnessing CCTV footage to watch holograms fleeing the scene, and lead you towards clues. You can track a giant handprint to follow a beast’s route away from the scene, use your legion to eavesdrop on beat cops from a distance to overhear what they know about the case, before being quizzed by another officer about why the best is there, and what we know about it before chasing it.

While I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy the non combat segments of a game made by people who specialise in non stop combat, there was a real charm to feeling like I was a part of a larger world outside of combat. Simple acts like rescuing lost cats from under dumpsters to look after, helping a lost kid find her mum, or picking up litter and throwing it away made me feel a lot more connected to the world, and as a result more invested in saving that world once the game reached it’s predictably dramatic conclusion. Seriously, I would do anything to make sure my room full of kittens has a room to stay safe in should a world ending event transpire.

In terms of games Platinum have released, these open world, non combat sections really change the feel and tone of the game in a positive way. Platinum have always made great character action games, but they have always felt like their games are limited by a shoestring budget. This is the first Platinum game I can think of that really feels like the developers had room to breath, and the budget to put in things outside of the core mechanics. i guess that’s what Nintendo money does for you, the studio finally seems to have the budget to flesh their projects out and wider their scope, feeling less like they are stretched for content.

It is worth noting, officially you’re playing as a cop in this game. I know cops are not always great, but I’ll note here that you can very early on strip your character of any police branding, and you’re totally able to ignore any crimes you don’t personally feel right getting involved in. I for example did not do any of the sidequests about arresting teens doing graffiti in an abandoned area. They’re hurting nobody and I don’t want to see young lives sent down the criminal justice path over some paint, so I just ignored those sidequests. Sure I missed out on a few in game rewards, but these sidequests are usually blue sidequests which do not impact your end of level ranking. It’s totally possible to play the game as basically an police sanctioned external vigilante, who arrests violent attackers but leaves kids doing minor crimes alone because I ain’t no nark.

Also, if it’s still a concern to you, I’ll just say the game isn’t 100% pro cop in the way it seems at the start.

In terms of the game’s visuals, Astral Chain runs at 30FPS, which is rare for Platinum who like to try and keep their games locked at a solid 60FPS. That 30FPS is pretty much rock solid, with a few occasional dips but nothing major. While I would have expected the drop to 30FPS to be more noticeable and detrimental, in practice the game still looks remarkably good thanks to really smart use of blur effects and dramatic visual flair on attacks. Sure, I would have preferred to play this game in 60FPS, but at 30FPS it’s certainly very playable, and thanks to some technical wizardry it’s often not something I remember to think about. The game’s fantastic look is also really helped by its beautiful cel shaded art style, and its creative creature, character, and future tech designs. Everything is just neon enough to really look stunning. The game may not look perfect in screenshots, but in action it really shines.

Additionally, in a smart move, many of the game’s fights featuring multiple large enemies attacking at once take place in a dimension made of floating red cubes. It has a visual appeal of its own, but it’s a smart way to disguise reducing environment complexity so that more enemies can be thrown at the player without compromising that solid 30FPS framerate.

Astral Chain takes around 30 hours to do a decently completionist first playthrough of on standard difficulty, but really wants to encourage replaying after that is over. Right from the game’s very first level, you’ll see intractable spots that lead to secret areas, and require abilities you do not yet have to access. Alongside frequent reminders of other difficulty modes, and collectables which you can’t collect the first time around and an achievements system to unlock more cosmetic options, Astral Chain does a better job than any other Platinum game of encouraging and getting you excited about returning to replay through existing content. The level select screen is also split up really nicely, making it really easy to skip past non combat sections of level if you’re just itching to get into some more fights post game.

My only other real complaint about Astral Chain is that, as great a game as it is, it really does stumble a little bit by not really giving satisfying conclusions to several of its own narrative threads it sets up. There’s one antagonist set up through much of the middle of the game who hints at a grand narrative that is never revealed. Really early in the game this interesting discussion is raised about your Legions clearly detesting being chained up, but nothing interesting is done with it. Characters who you spend hours bonding with and expect to come help you in the late game don’t. There’s a lot of really interesting plot ideas that are brought up early and made a big deal of, and simply never resolved. It feels like someone introduced Chekov’s Gun, then didn’t make use of it in the third act, and it was just a little disappointing.

If i had to guess, I think they may have left some of these things unsaid in the hopes of a sequel getting greenlit, but for the time being I just sort of left the story a little disappointed. It’s always a shame when you spend 30+ hours guessing how they will resolve a cool plot mystery, then they just don’t do anything with it.

However, my complaints about this game are all ultimately minor. Astral Chain is a fantastically fun and challenging character action game that does something new and unique with the genre. The non combat sections are oddly charming, the homages to anime tropes are executed with such stylish flair that I overlook the technical plot shortcomings, and I love getting to save the world as my lesbian biker vigilante who definitely not a cop, even if it sucks her brother has to sort of talk for her. I’m pretty deep into this game, and I’m itching already to do it all over again.

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. Good review! With regards to the midgame antagonist, I was kind of inferring from what the Homonculi were doing what her intentions were, but it would have been nice if it was explicit. Platinum do seem to want this to be a trilogy so hopefully they flesh things out as it goes on since it sold decently well!

    I wish I knew what the number passwords for those classified files were tho. They must be obvious but I have no idea where they were.

    Reply

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