It’s easy enough to recognize a Naughty Dog game before seeing the pawprint, or even Arc System Works’ craftsmanship of 3D polygons tricking the mind into 2D animated magic. FromSoftware is guaranteed to give you a learning experience you will never forget, while Treasure’s trigger-happy nature will see to it that your bullet-dodging reactions are put to the test. The point is, we don’t always need the presence of a familiar mascot or logo splashed across the screen to know who’s behind it. A hint of a particular quirk or a trademark moment will often do nicely. PlatinumGames certainly stands tall on this list, a fan-favorite studio that rarely shies away from taking risks over profit when it comes to bringing out their A-game.
Published by Nintendo, PlatinumGames’ latest venture Astral Chain could have easily just been something to keep the pillow warm for Bayonetta’s inevitable return. After all, we’ve known about the Umbra Witch’s third outing for quite some time now, so for a game like this to drop out of the sky is certainly a curious one. Some could have simply disregarded this as the developer’s B-team filler, normally in charge of their less than stellar licensed games. That is, of course, until we realize that game designer Takahisa Taura of NieR:Automata fame is in the director’s chair, under the supervision of relentless block-happy Twitter fiend and game developer legend, Hideki Kamiya.
It soon becomes apparent that Astral Chain is not a mere snack to fill the gap for a more anticipated main course, but its own beast altogether and clearly out to make a name for itself. It does so by adding familiar PlatinumGames ingredients we all know and love, then slow cooking them with its own secret recipe to draw out the mouth-watering flavors for a spicy kick. The result is something that tastes comfortably familiar, but wonderfully new and unique enough to separate itself from the rest of the menu.
Two seems to be the magic number in Astral Chain. So, what better way to portray this than offering you the choice to play the role of either brother or sister birthed as twins during a mysterious pandemic outbreak. Furthermore, our law-abiding siblings grow up to pursue a career in the most partner-oriented job role, becoming cops in a special task force known as Neuron. However, this story of opposites and partnerships delves a little deeper than that, in assigning your preferred twin a special bad-cop-gone-good of sorts. But rather than a fat bloke smelling of cigarettes and alcohol shouting and swearing a lot, instead, we get a formidable interdimensional creature tamed from a monstrous race known as the Chimera.
In fact, there are five of these Legions that can be handled by your adopted protagonist – all with their own unique abilities in and outside of combat. The Sword Legion, which you start with, contains a manually controlled multi-directional slice attack similar to Raiden’s ability in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. The Arrow Legion is a dab-hand with the bow, but with a little guidance you can shoot down enemies and switches with the added benefit of motion controls. Then there’s the Arm Legion who thinks with his fists and can be worn as armor to pound a Chimera’s face in like Master Mummy from ARMS.
And of course, not forgetting the Axe Legion, with a bigger blade than Cloud Strife’s Buster Sword that doubles up nicely as a shield that’s strong enough to stop a meteor. However, a cop isn’t a cop without a police dog. So what better ally can you ask for than the pooch Beast Legion who fights like Amaterasu and sniffs out crime like Columbo? The thing is, not only are these Legions murderers on the battlefield, but they also come in handy when it comes to some good old fashioned detective work.
A fair portion of your time with Astral Chain will be spent searching for clues around the Ark, an appropriately named artificial island where you will find the remaining survivors of a world brought to its knees by the effects of an interdimensional spill known as the Astral Plane. During your investigation through the flora-starved megalopolitan, we’re tasked with gathering information of Chimera activity as well as doing our general good deeds for society. On top of that, any information found during an investigation may be questioned and graded, so make sure that you’re paying attention.
Police errands that you can expect to do are usually simple tasks based around utilizing your Legion’s abilities or finding a suspicious suspect that fits the description. Thankfully, each location is large enough to spend enough time exploring, but not too big to the point where I ever felt like I was running around aimlessly for too long. The cities have a sort of Ghost in the Shell meets Kakariko village sense to them, with NPCs dotted around taped-off cyberpunk streets begging for favors. The various throwaway personalities found in the cities can tend to come across a little soulless though, with few memorable characters outside those scripted within the main story and a handful of the supporting cast that loiter around the Neuron Headquarters.
Despite being rather skeptical of the whole investigation portion of Astral Chain before going into it, I actually found walking the beat much more enjoyable than I expected. While it doesn’t particularly do anything new in terms of side quest objectives that are maybe even a little too cliché at times, they never really felt frustrating or too drawn out for me to become impatient in wanting to push past them. If anything, they can be somewhat therapeutic, especially just after a mental high-adrenaline showdown with a horde of creatures trying to rip my face off. What’s more, there’s just something adorably satisfying about walking the Beast Legion through a futuristic take on London’s Piccadilly Circus while sniffing out crime.
What else I did find incredibly satisfying is how wonderfully simple, yet still diverse, the controls are in Astral Chain. The main character and Legion don’t feel like they are solely tailored for battle but then shoe-horned into game-pacing situations. Maneuvering a Legion feels just as great wandering around a city as it does when undergoing Legion-specific hazards and obstacles in the Astral Plane. There’s certainly a learning curve to be met in synchronizing the coordination of two characters simultaneously, especially in combat. But, with the personalities of each Legion working under my control, it gave me an unquestionable impression of power and support with a team that I grew to know and trust.
The highlight of the game is, of course, the action and combat. What first led me to believe that this was going to be a more simplistic take on Bayonetta’s formula soon turned into a world of depth and style. The game does a decent job at introducing the player to the combat system layer-by-layer. This became especially helpful because fighting and maneuvering two characters at once and knowing when to press or let go of certain buttons took a fair bit of practice to get my head around. This is somewhat balanced out with the main character only having one attack button, while the Legion itself automatically dishes out damage under orders. However, it isn’t long until the layers unfold with a sheer arsenal full of possibilities with every angle becoming a screenshot-moment of destruction.
What starts as a clumsy mash of buttons soon becomes a Cirque du Soleil-level of acrobatic beauty. Casting out a Legion towards a giant Chimera with the pointy end, to then command it to catapult our protagonist into the forefront of a stylish attack felt great no matter how many times I did it. To then perfectly dodge an oncoming swing before carrying on with an onslaught while timing sync attacks is pure PlatinumGames at its finest. The chain also becomes a vital tool, allowing the player to constrain enemies for a few extra open shots. Not only that, but the huge amount of attack customizations that become available in the dense options menu provide countless, stylistic opportunities – especially when considering that there are five Legions to assign them to.
All of the action and exploration is wrapped up in a plethora of fantastic adrenaline-fueled cutscenes and an absolute banger of a soundtrack. The visuals are one of Nintendo Switch’s finer offerings when docked to the TV with an explosion of vibrant colors and clean edges. While I would say that the enemy design isn’t always quite as imaginative in comparison to Bayonetta’s Angels of Paradiso, the look, style, ambiance, and the imagination that bleeds across Astral Chain’s art design is still all so stunningly crafted together in its own right. It’s just a bit of a shame that the lip-syncing doesn’t quite match up with the English voice acting during cutscenes.
Playing Astral Chain in handheld does maintain the high-octane experience, although the downscaling onto the smaller screen results in much more noticeable jagginess along the edges. Some may be disappointed that the game is locked at 30 frames-per-seconds, which, to be frank, really didn’t bother me at all. What I will say, however, is that the camera can become quite disobedient during combat. But, with a few adjustments in the options menu, I soon managed to tame it to my satisfaction, just like my Legions.
Astral Chain is yet another addition to the Nintendo Switch library that will be fondly remembered for decades to come. Its yin-yang of chaos and carnage, fused with the calmer subtleties of investigation and exploration makes returning back to the action that little bit more special every time. There are so many gameplay elements that just feel and sound so goddamn satisfying that it’s so easy to become blind to any faults. It’s a game begging to be replayed countless times with an absolute boatload of things to do, observe and unlock that I haven’t even touched upon in an effort not to make this review even longer than it already is. Put it this way, if Astral Chain doesn’t turn out to be my game of the year when 2019 reaches its end, whatever surpasses it would have to be something incredibly special indeed.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Nintendo