If you’re a fan of stylish, frenetic combat, you’ve probably scratched your action game itch with PlatinumGames’ other successful titles that set new standards for the genre. And with each new game, PlatinumGames aims to push boundaries and entice gamers to lose themselves in strange and compelling worlds where physics seem like an afterthought and characters are as zany as they are relatable. Their newest game, Astral Chain, is a progression of this design mantra while somehow feeling like a more mature and refined experience despite its wacky premise.
Astral Chain takes place in 2078, and Earth has become uninhabitable, forcing what is left of the human species to migrate to an advanced city known as The Ark. You’re placed in the shoes of a male or female twin enlisted in a special task force known as Neuron during their fight against an encroaching threat of the Chimera, an interdimensional alien species. There’s nothing new here at first glance, but the twist is apparent quickly: Humanity has found a way to capture and convert these creatures into allies. Now known as Legions, these subservient Chimera connect to you via a chain and fight alongside you as you push back the alien invasion.
"With each new game, PlatinumGames aims to push boundaries and entice gamers to lose themselves in strange and compelling worlds where physics seem like an afterthought and characters are as zany as they are relatable. Their newest game, Astral Chain, is a progression of this design mantra while somehow feeling like a more mature and refined experience despite its wacky premise."
If it all sounds kind of insane, that’s because it is. But even so, Astral Chain never falls victim to feeling hokey thanks to its absolutely stellar production quality and devotion to making its premise feel grounded in the world you’re inhabiting. Set-piece moments are executed with finesse and exceptional camera work, and the believable voice acting is miles beyond any I’ve heard from other anime-style games. The developers frame scenes so perfectly even during simple moments of dialogue, giving Astral Chain a film-esque tone that begs for a movie or show adaptation. This is all helped by the fact that Astral Chain is probably the best-looking game currently available on the Switch. Its striking cel-shaded visuals are reminiscent of something like A Scanner Darkly, making its anime art style pop off the screen with vibrant use of colors and lighting as you venture across its neon-drenched cyberpunk city.
While I hate to add to the list of people who compare games to Dark Souls, bear with me as I irritate you with the comparison for a moment. Make no mistake – Astral Chain’s combat isn’t deliberate like Dark Souls; it’s an entrancing symphony of beautiful chaos and visual spectacle. But much like the newer Assassin’s Creed games revamped their combat by borrowing certain combat mechanics from games like Dark Souls (minus the oppressive challenge), Astral Chain does the same. You click the right stick to lock on to enemies, use ZR to attack them, and use B to dodge – and it all initially feels very similar to anyone familiar with the Souls-like genre or the games that have adopted its mechanics, something my muscle memory appreciated. But the familiarity stops when you factor in the chained Legions that serve as a direct extension of your character.
The Legions do plenty of attacking by themselves during the intense, exciting combat encounters while you dodge and maneuver about the battlefield getting in hits as you can and setting up cool combo possibilities. As you both whittle away at enemies’ health, you’ll often time your attacks together perfectly and result in synchronized attacks that give you the opportunity to do some extra damage. Meanwhile, if you’re adept at dodging, you can slow down time momentarily and get some shots in on an enemy’s back for even more damage. If you’re not adept at it, you’ll need to practice because much of the game’s combat boils down to you out-manoeuvring your opponents – you can tank a handful of hits, but you won’t last long blatantly ignoring the B button.
"The developers frame scenes so perfectly even during simple moments of dialogue, giving Astral Chain a film-esque tone that begs for a movie or show adaptation. This is all helped by the fact that Astral Chain is probably the best-looking game currently available on the Switch."
In typical PlatinumGames fashion, it wouldn’t feel right without some eccentric abilities, and the ones in Astral Chain don’t disappoint. You can directly control your Legion and use the chain binding them to you to wrap up enemies and pin them down, an especially invaluable asset against bosses and larger enemies. Additionally, a chain jump gives you the ability to propel yourself to your Legion, giving you a much needed boon to your mobility that really comes in handy both for getting to enemies or getting away from them as necessary. Your Legion has a time limit before it needs to recharge, and it’s not until you don’t have these extra abilities for controlling the battlefield that you realize just how significant of an impact they have on fights.
Astral Chain boasts five total Legion types that unlock as you progress the game’s story. Each one is an equally important asset to have – one aggressively melees with a sword, one shoots arrows to knock down flying enemies, one can be used like a suit of armor to grant you heavy attacks, another can be used as a mount, and a late-game Legion offers helpful defensive capabilities. Each of them possess skill trees, but they all basically mirror one another with only a handful of interesting extra abilities setting them apart. I would’ve definitely preferred more engaging upgrades, but with such an impressive variety of playstyles already available across the five different Legions, I’m just being greedy at this point.
Fighting is only part of the meaty content offered in Astral Chain. When you’re not bashing in Chimera faces, you’ll be partaking in task force investigations and dialogue-heavy quests, both of which sound agonizing on paper and yet somehow manage to be a pleasing break from all the chaos thanks to the game’s phenomenal writing and sense of place. There’s no dearth of enjoyable side-content either, with copious amounts of NPCs to get additional quests from and plenty of extra pathways just begging to be explored. It’s during this side-content that Astral Chain showcases a bounty of heart, and even when my tasks boiled down to something essentially pointless like finding cats hidden in every chapter, I welcomed the levity.
"It’s during this side-content that Astral Chain showcases a bounty of heart, and even when my tasks boiled down to something essentially pointless like finding cats hidden in every chapter, I welcomed the levity."
Even when the game gives you room to breathe, you can rest assured there’s some heart-stopping action on the way soon enough. Much like Nier: Automata before it, Astral Chain deviates from traditional gameplay frequently enough to always keep you on your toes, often throwing entirely new one-off gameplay segments at you that range from simple things like platforming and puzzle-solving to balls-to-the-wall set pieces like riding a motorcycle while shooting enemies or dodging falling vehicles on a collapsing bridge. This endless variety in gameplay means that even if you aren’t particularly fond of one element of the game, you’re sure to find something else that quickly recaptures your attention.
It’s worth noting that playing in docked mode is definitely the best way to enjoy Astral Chain. While the game still looks great in handheld mode, there’s simply so much going on during combat that it can be difficult to keep up with it all when viewing everything so small. I was occasionally unable to see small projectiles and such during more intense battles, but the game isn’t so unforgiving that it made for a poor experience – it’s just a game best enjoyed in all its glory on the biggest screen you can find.
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch.
Stellar presentation and visuals; Visceral, engaging combat; An abundance of content; Gameplay variety.
Mediocre upgrade system.