Since its inception in 2008, PlatinumGames has had a strong knack for consistently producing beloved new IP. From MadWorld to The Wonderful 101, new worlds and franchises seem to be the company’s strong suit, and thankfully Astral Chain continues that tradition, not only providing an action game with a plethora of unique ideas, but a title that firmly stands toe-to-toe with some of the strongest action games on the market.
A lot of Astral Chain’s identity stems from the fact that players control a police officer who is a part of a special task force named Neuron. While many action games cast the main character as somewhat of a lone wolf whose only objective or concern is destroying escalating threats, Astral Chain instead leans into the idea of working in a team as a police officer, both in its story and in its gameplay.
Throughout the game you’ll be sent on various cases, and while they do include their fair share of hacking and slashing they also add some slower-paced objectives into the mix. Most of these main objectives focus on investigations, where players will have to observe various parts of a specific area for clues as well as talk to locals to piece together a story. However, there are also side objectives during these case files as well, which is where a lot of the typical PlatinumGames charm comes to the spotlight.
These side objectives are usually quirky sub-stories or mini-games that last for just a couple of minutes, and they can range from collecting a little girl’s balloon out of a tree, to balancing an absurdly tall stack of boxes for delivery. It’s this kind of tongue-in-cheek humour that makes the beautiful and inspired neon-lit city of Astral Chain come to life even more, but unfortunately this is one of the few areas where the main narrative misses the mark.
Astral Chain’s plot setup is relatively straight forward; an alien race named Chimeras are trying to take over the world, and it’s Neuron’s job to stop them. There’s nothing wrong with an easy to grasp plotline, especially in an action game. However, Astral Chain has larger ambitions, trying to tie a large cast into a story that has numerous curve balls and layers of reveals. The issue is that a few of these plot twists end up leaving an impact, instead muddying the waters of a game that could’ve had a story worth caring about. This is mainly due to the core cast. While there are some likeable characters, many of them have their story arcs cut short before the game barrels towards its expectedly bombastic finale, leaving behind a lot of story potential to just focus on the main players. What’s even worse is that a lot of these main players aren’t particularly interesting or enjoyable in their own right.
At the start of the game, you’re tasked with picking between either a male or a female twin, with the one that you don’t pick acting as a main player in the events of the story. Despite the two twins being the centre of the events, neither of them are compelling in the slightest. The player character is a customisable self-insert, meaning that he/she is a complete blank slate with no real chemistry or connection with the rest of the cast, while the other twin lacks any kind of charisma or charm, instead coming off as rather annoying. Pair them with a villain who fails to make much of an impression, trading any nuance for typical over-the-top evil misguided antics, and the story as a whole is somewhat of a dud. It feels lacking in the kind of campy self-awareness that other action games often indulge in, diving head first with the melodrama into a story that’s not particularly strong.
Thankfully, it’s the gameplay that’s the main draw in an action game, and from that perspective Astral Chain is a huge success. Astral Chain’s combat is split into two parts (both literally and figuratively) with the main player character fighting in tandem with a captured Chimera called a Legion. It’s the interaction between the player and the Legion, as well as each Legion’s specific utility, that really sets the game apart from its contemporaries mechanically.
While the player can perform some basic combos with three different weapons (a blaster, a baton and a heavier baton), the player can also control a Legion simultaneously, by either letting it auto attack certain enemies or by controlling it directly by holding down the ZL button and moving the right stick. From there, players can create combos with a Legion by hitting the ZL button at the right moments to continue a streak of attacks, use the Legion to chain up enemies leaving them immobilised for a brief period, catapult a charging enemy backwards, and use specific skills that are set on a cooldown timer. When you factor in the fact that there are five different types of Legion, as well as an individual skill tree for each one there’s quite a bit of depth to dig into.
Each of the five Legions have different properties both in and out of battles. For example, the Arrow Legion attacks enemies from a range with fast firing arrows, while the Axe Legion gets in close, with slow heavy hitting attacks and the ability to shield the player from damage. Out of battle, abilities can range from the Beast Legion which can track down and dig up buried treasure, to the Arm Legion which is mainly used for lifting heavy objects. Between these Legions and the three main weapons there’s a lot of variety in both combat and exploration, making the game feel constantly engaging, with no abilities going to waste.
The key to success in Astral Chain’s combat is to constantly change between weapons and Legions judging on the opponents you’re facing. Combat is as kinetic and fluid as PlatinumGames’ usual action titles, and the layers of depth and strategy that can be explored with all of Astral Chain’s possibilities easily makes this game as compelling as their best titles from a mechanical standpoint. In a lot of ways, it somewhat feels like a culmination of Platinum’s past works, taking elements from several of its past games – such as Witch Time from Bayonetta and controlling numerous characters at once from The Wonderful 101 - and moulding them into something new and refreshing. When considering how inspired and robust the gameplay is, it’s hard to say that playing Astral Chain feels anything less than amazing to play.
The intense and frantic gameplay is further exemplified by the absolutely fantastic soundtrack, which seems to effortlessly fit the constant mood and tone of the game while also creating some downright memorable tracks that can be enjoyed separately. It’s astonishing how the soundtrack can effortlessly swing between energetic J-Pop, lowkey synth tracks and operatic metal, without any of it feeling jarring or out of place. This is one of the strongest soundtracks in a videogame from the past few years, and in some ways, it almost feels like the star of the show, elevating strong moments into smile-inducing set pieces.
While the narrative of Astral Chain doesn’t come close to reaching its ambitions, it’s still hard not to be impressed with this new world that PlatinumGames has crafted. From the inspired setting to the brilliantly inventive gameplay, there’s a lot to love in this new IP, with a more refined sequel having the chance to become a standout of a generation. As it is now, Astral Chain is a great action game with a few blemishes. It might not be perfect, but it should be a high priority for any Switch owners, and fans of the action genre as a whole.
Astral Chain (Reviewed on Nintendo Switch)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
As it is now, Astral Chain is a great action game with a few blemishes. It might not be perfect, but it should be a high priority for any Switch owners, and fans of the action genre as a whole.