It may not have been the tease that we were expecting, but when Astral Chain was first announced back in February, it was clear that PlatinumGames was bringing the big boys out to play. With signatures from the team that created NieR: Automata and Bayonetta written all over the trailer, we watched the exciting showcase of acrobatic action unfold across the screen. Since then, the game’s development was soon hyped up to become one of the most highly anticipated Nintendo Switch exclusives of the year. It’s actually hard to believe that the release date is just around the corner. Lucky for me, I’ve managed to bag myself the website’s review copy with the added benefit of giving our cherished readers a small taste of what to expect.
With a firm squeeze on both the ZL and ZR Buttons, we are thrown into witnessing the dramatic and somewhat violent conformation of a Chimera. Captured and tamed like a stubborn Pokemon, these feral outer-dimensional creatures are then bound to Neuron officers who rename them Legion. If you have been keeping up to date with the trailers and development blogs, then you will probably have a good idea of how important Legions are in aiding the special law enforcement agency. If not, just know for now that they are a vital and powerful extension of your character’s rather limited human abilities.
We are introduced to a pair of rookie officers who also happen to be twins. As you may have guessed, this brother and sister duo are whom we get to choose between in order to carry the player throughout the rest of the story. You can name your chosen lead, change their hairstyle, eye and skin color to suit your preference. Just don’t go in expecting to be able to configure the facial and body types for the character features, as these are set in stone. While this may possibly come as a mild disappointment to some, for me personally, the limit in full character customization is a godsend. Not only because I’m a bit lazy, I just generally prefer the developer to actually create the protagonist for me.
The first major thing that does strike out to me in Astral Chain is just how gorgeous the game looks on a bigger screen. Everything is so clean and sharp with bright and bold colors painted across a cel-shaded anime world. Speeding down a Neo Tokyo-style highway on a police bike – reflecting how Katsuhiro Otomo’s own iconic two-wheeler that he created for AKIRA – looks as badass as it sounds. Meanwhile, drones connected to emergency stretchers rushing out of helicopters provides a tiny insight into the technology of this dystopian Cyberpunk world. On the other hand, while the personality of the game is just as strong in Handheld mode, the presence of jagged edges do tend to become much more abundant – making docking the Nintendo Switch probably the best way to play.
The opening two hours of gameplay is mainly tailored to teach you how to use a Legion to fight and investigate Chimera activity. The developer has been careful enough not to gavage-feed the player with too much information while working to keep the flow of the narrative consistent. For example, the prologue will provide you with enough information to learn how to dodge, attack, and consume health. Whereas learning how to helm a Legion more efficiently is left until after the anime-infused opening credits roll.
Once we do finally learn the basics of Legion control and have had the chance to wander around the Headquarters for a bit, our chosen rookie tries their hand at investigating a crime scene within a restricted location of the city. At this point, I’ve only put in an hour and a half, but already it seems pretty clear that this is not an open-world game – or at least, not from what I’ve played. The story looks to span across many case files that hint towards a linear path even further, which, again, suits me down to the ground. Not because I dislike open-world games or anything, I just think the temptation of littering an open space with filler objectives in a game like this could potentially cheapen the experience.
Instead, what I did find was that the first investigation I played through was another way to ease my focus into different gameplay mechanics. In using a Batman: Arkham series-style detective mode called Iris, you must search for clues in the last few moments of a captured holographic recording. The Legion becomes especially handy in these moments, as they can listen in on conversations of people loitering around the crime scene – thanks to their invisibility to the untrained eye. This whole detective feature within itself may not be particularly new to gaming. However, I am looking forward to seeing how the mechanic may evolve as I adopt more Legions under my control and press further into the story.
The biggest question, of course, is how the combat mechanics work. The trailers and gameplay footage released up until now make the game look like it has a sort of complicated dual Bayonetta-esque fighting system. This is not necessarily the case. Attacking only really consists of a single button accompanied with an evade, which, on the surface, is a far cry from the button-based patterns and input timing to Bayonnetta’s chain combos. If you are like me though, you will probably still try to approach the game with a messy concoction of dodge and spam. In doing this, you will ultimately be left in a crèche with all the white belts if you don’t learn to adapt. The first giant boss will certainly see to that, and it won’t be the one that you think it is.
The thing is, Astral Chain’s formula tends to play quite differently from what you would expect from the wicked Umbra Witch. The Legion itself kind of automatically throws out most of the big shots, but it’s up to you to manage its positioning in combat. Snapping the ZL Button will cast out your Legion like a fishing rod in the desired direction and another flick will pull your enslaved ally back towards you. Holding down the ZL Button in combination with the Right Stick will let you freely navigate the Legion, presenting the chance to tie up an enemy in chains.
The other mechanic that I’ve been introduced to so far is the ability to position my Legion so that I can clothesline a charging Chimera with the chain – sending them flying as a result. Mix that with the rookie’s ability to swap between a baton and gun, and you have the recipe for a very different, yet somewhat vaguely familiar scrap. Considering that I can only equip the first Legion out of a possible five gives me a hint at how deep the combat and general gameplay could possibly get. Add to that some more practice and the progressive introduction of new tools and I can foresee plenty of potential possibilities.
I have only played roughly two hours of Astral Chain and the sense I get from my first impressions is that this isn’t quite the Bayonetta 3 stopgap that I had expected it to be. If anything, it rocket-fuels my anticipation even further to see where this adventure will take me, and how the gameplay mechanics plan on taking me there. After all, it wouldn’t be a Platinum game if they weren’t willing to take risks and try something different. I’ve only merely scratched the surface and I already have a very good feeling about this one. Just listening to the epic soundtrack alone is making sure of that.
Astral Chain will release exclusively for Nintendo Switch worldwide on August 30th.