Review – Astral Chain

Platinum Games have, over the years, become one of my favourite developers of all time, thanks to their top-tier action, excellent gameplay and tendency to have insane stories and characters, from the balls-to-the wall insanity of Metal Gear Rising to the now legendary Nier Automata. Their latest game is their most ambitious to date, bringing in an entirely new type of gameplay to the action genre: Synergetic Action. Astral Chain is the result of Platinum’s experimentation, evolving their strengths and fixing their weaknesses.

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You can pet the dog!

Set in a dystopian future where an alien force known as the Chimera have wiped out most of humanity, humans have created the city of Ark to house what remains of them. Though the Chimera are still around, to combat this threat a special division of the Ark’s police force have developed weapons in the form of Legions: Chimera that can be controlled to fight others. Things have been relatively peaceful for a while, but a new threat emerges and the newly recruited Howard twins are humanity’s only hope for survival, fighting the chimeral threats throughout the Ark and the Astral Plains.

The second that you start the game, you get to select and customise one of the twins, either a male or a female. The character creator is fairly simple, mostly limited to hair style and colours, but expands much later on in the game. Whichever twin you pick becomes a silent protagonist, whilst the other one becomes a vital NPC throughout the game and acts as the main character of sorts. 

Whilst the main plot is fairly straight forward and predictable, there are some great moments and twists that genuinely surprised me. With a wide variety of colourful characters that give the world some depth and quirkiness, I was quickly drawn into the world of Astral Chain. The officers in the Neuron headquarters all have their own interesting stories. Where the story does fall apart is in its presentation, as the silent protagonist angle doesn’t quite work here. It ends up being awkward especially in the earlier sections. The twin dynamic could have been a lot more interesting and brought up in some emotional scenes but it just falls flat. Then we’ve got the main villain who shows some promise, but the lack of any character development or truly meaningful scenes just culminated in said character becoming a disappointment.

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The Ark is beautiful.

Admittedly, I was a bit worried with the opening sections due an overly long tutorial section that takes almost two hours to get through and a combat system that is deceptively simple. You have access to three main weapon types (Sword, Baton and Sidearm), you can dodge, attack and counter-attack by perfectly timing a dodge, similar to Bayonetta but without the depth. By hitting the left trigger you will send your Legion to attack the enemy. Hitting it again will call it back to you. Initially, the combat seems overly simple, but after a while everything clicks into place. If you hold the trigger instead, more actions will be presented to you. You can take direct control over your Legion while simultaneously controlling your main character, do special attacks or even launch yourself towards the Legion taking out anyone in your way. There’s much more to delve into with the combat systems that I won’t spoil here. I was impressed with how seamless and easy it is to control two characters at the same time. 

As you progress through the game you will encounter five new Legions to capture and add to your arsenal. Each one provides attacks and uses inside and outside of combat. Your starting Legion, the sword one, is great in combat and can be used to cure civilians of Redshift. You can ride the Beast Legion for faster travel, as well tracking people and digging up items. Each of the Legions have their own skill trees and abilities you can equip with a system similar to Nier Automata‘s chips.

Split across 11 files, each chapter ramps the intensity more than the last, as more outlandish set pieces and crazy bosses gets introduced. The last 4 chapters in particular had moments where I was in absolute awe with what was happening onscreen. This is Platinum at its most insane and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The combat as a whole is stylish, fluid and incredibly addictive. I couldn’t put the game down mid-file and always needed to get to the end of it. I highly recommend playing on the game’s Standard difficulty for a challenging gameplay experience that isn’t overwhelming.

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Enemy designs are awesome.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is how enjoyable Astral Chain is outside of combat. This is something that Platinum have often struggled with and they seem to have finally fixed it. Between the action packed main missions you will be exploring small hub worlds, from the police HQ to the city streets and slums, each of which are densely packed with things to do, citizens to help, crime to stop, puzzles to solve and portals to the Astral Plain to close. Platinum have even managed to make mundane things interesting, from simply cleaning up the streets to getting ice cream thanks to its smart usage of the Legions outside of combat.

Few games can entice me to do everything in a single playthrough, but in Astral Chain I felt the need to go and do as much as I possibly could. It’s also worth noting that not every mission is listed on the map or your IRIS sensors, and you will have to explore the world by yourself in order to find them all. Completing the main story and the vast amount of side quests took me around 25 hours, but there is still a ton to do afterwards, with lots of post-game challenges. I’ll be playing Astral Chain for a while. I want to go back and find every cat, toilet (yes, that’s a collectable) and clean up every level of the red matter that is scattered throughout the world.

However it’s not always good outside of combat. During sections where you need to do some light platforming by using your legion, controls can be a bit awkward. I fell off ledges more than I would like to admit due to the chain jump being a little bit inconsistent, especially around corners. Thankfully the punishment isn’t too harsh and you only end up losing a bit of your HP.

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Lappy the mascot!

The world of the Ark is beautifully rendered. The areas you explore are rather small but they packed with plenty of detail and things to do. Character models are all great, especially the Chimera and late game bosses. Set-pieces are always incredible to look at, with great particle effects but, it’s never overwhelming to the point that it looks like a visual mess. Best of all, it manages to keep a solid frame rate with only a few rare drops when the action kicks off, even though it’s locked at 30fps, and not Platinum’s usual 60. The lack of anti-aliasing in hand-held mode can be a bit distracting at times, and the visual design of the Astral Plains can get a bit boring after a couple of journeys through it, though. 

The voice acting won’t be to everyone’s tastes as it is a bit cheesy and clearly not the focal point, but it manages to add a certain charm to the world and the overall plot. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is excellent, from the opening’s anime-inspired J-Pop tune to the heavier boss themes that reminded me of Metal Gear Rising. Platinum Games seem to know how to get their soundtracks just right.

Astral Chain is one of Platinum’s finest games to date, with a strong and unique combat system, a great cast of characters and a world that’s very fun to explore. However, the way the story is presented does bring the experience down a little.

 

Graphics: 9.0

Astral Chain looks great both on docked and portable modes. The framerate, while not as high as other Platinum games, is completely stable.

Gameplay: 10

A perfect balance between fast-paced combat and off-battle exploration.

Sound: 10

The soundtrack is pure perfection, while the cast of characters give the world its charm.

Fun Factor: 9.5

Slow opening and silent protagonist aside, Astral Chain is brilliant in every other way.

Final Verdict: 9.5

Astral Chain is available now on Switch.

Reviewed on Switch.