Astral Chain

Astral Chain has the PlatinumGames signature all over it while also attempting to push past the studio’s usual scope; not everything new that it tries clicks perfectly, but because of its wider grasp, it is easy to perceive the title as a culmination of what the studio had done up to its release

Although they are often made up of various teams, many gaming companies tend to have a very noticeable signature. Square built a legacy on top of incredible RPGs with elaborate stories and deep battle systems. FromSoftware dominates a genre they pretty much invented by investing on a mixture of simple but challenging action combat with intricate maze-like levels. Bethesda spends years crafting massive open-worlds focused on real-time fights, character customization, abundant sidequests, as well as thick scripts. And even studios with varied libraries that spam multiple genres have a defined touch. Nintendo, of course, is the greatest example of that, as the company is a giant that puts out titles that take place in colorful worlds, feature iconic charming heroes, and usually explore quirky straightforward gameplay scenarios. But other historical developers like Capcom, Sega, and Konami also present a mark of their own, albeit to a smaller degree.

Some signatures, though, are stronger than others, and PlatinumGames is certainly among the members of the industry that have a more pronounced stamp. Even before it was founded, future key professionals of the company were already displaying their unique vision in Clover Studio, a Capcom subsidiary that put out visually stylish classics like Viewtiful Joe and Okami. And as soon as they walked out the door to begin their own journey as PlatinumGames, those developers quickly showed what kind of software they wanted to make, for in 2009 they would go on to gift players with MadWorld and Bayonetta: two efforts that were graphically very different from one another, but that were united by the same general focus on flashy combat, effectively taking the rusty action genre in a direction that merged artistic boldness, visual flair, and thrilling fast-paced gameplay.


As yet another creation by PlatinumGames, this time in tight collaboration with Nintendo, Astral Chain does not stray away from that norm. Its art style may have standard anime character designs, but everything is made glossy and unique by a cell-shaded presentation filled with bright cyberpunk technology. To boot, the title uses the nature of its story to construct stunning set pieces and orchestrate grand action scenes within them. But although Astral Chain is, from a certain perspective, exactly what one could expect out of PlatinumGames, the adventure also does a good job at complementing that traditional core in which the company excels with new gameplay scenarios. The result is, despite a few stumbles, one of the studios’ most remarkable and epic products.

As indicated by its cyberpunk art, Astral Chain takes place in a rather bleak future of planet Earth. The year is 2078, and by that point all humans are forced to live in an artificial island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Named The Ark, it was built because civilization started being attacked by monsters from a parallel dimension, dubbed the Astral Plane. These creatures, called Chimeras, began to emerge from interdimensional portals following a massive meteor strike, and they were so effective in attacking the population, turning them into violent beings named aberrations, and even taking victims to the Astral Plane, that little by little they were able to drive people out of the places they inhabited around the globe. With humans hanging on he brink of extinction, governments of the world got together to build an isolated safe haven and ferry as many people as they could there.

Due to how it packs the entirety of what is left of the human population on an island, The Ark is an endless metropolis that has, in spite of the dark times in which it exists, advanced technology and the bustling spirit of a futuristic version of New York City or Tokyo. Yet, the outlook is not good, since the place is frequently attacked by the Chimeras and total apocalypse seems to loom around the corner. What keeps this threat at bay is a very select group of about five officers known as Neuron, a special police task force that is able to defeat the aggressive creatures thanks to the Legions, which are nothing but tamed Chimeras that are connected and controlled by a human agent via the titular Astral Chain. As the game begins, players assume the role of one of two twins who are about to join Neuron. The adopted kids of the squad’s current captain, they are chosen because their DNA has proven to be ideal for the forming of the unique connection that is required for a human to control a Legion.

Beginning with generally routine incursions into locations in The Ark where Chimeras pop up, the plot of Astral Chain – naturally – ends up evolving into something much larger than that, with the protagonist eventually emerging as the only one who can stop the world from ending. It is a basic arch, but one that is mostly well-done and that touches upon plenty of shocking revelations, interesting characters, and dramatic moments. It has to be said, though, that two choices hinder the script to different degrees. Standing as a minor problem, there is the fact the twin that is chosen as the playable character will turn into a silent protagonist. Although being a quiet hero is not inherently bad, in the context of a title that oozes the PlatinumGames flair and, especially, considering the story involves many scenes where it feels the character should talk, that decision comes off as slightly odd. Meanwhile, in a more serious issue, be it as a result of poor writing or as a consequence of opting to leave a lot to be read between the lines, the game does not resolve or take full advantage of some of the mysteries it presents.


This last stumble in plot may be considerable, but truth be told PlatinumGames has always found a way to thrive even with stories that do not quite hit the mark. Sure, like MadWorld, Bayonetta, and The Wonderful 101, Astral Chain always punctuates its gameplay moments with plenty of voice-acted cutscenes that not only add flash to the action, but that also develop the story; and this time around, perhaps thanks to some Nintendo backing, the production values on the presentation front seem to be higher than ever. As such, there is a clear desire here to build a great plot. Nevertheless, like other PlatinumGames projects and not differently from a solid action movie, Astral Chain can get away with these troubles if it delivers when it comes to thrills; and it does just that.

The first and most important component is, obviously, the combat, which gains special contours because of the Legions. On their own, the protagonist possesses run-of-the-mill moves that are implemented very well: the ZR button is responsible for a basic attack that can be chained on a combo, and later it can be combined with other inputs or employed in specific situations to execute different blows; meanwhile, the B button is used for dodging, which if triggered just as the character is about to be hit will slow down time for a bit. At any point, players can use the directional pad to switch between the three basic weapons: a light baton that is fast but generally weak; a gun that paves the way to ranged combat, being specially useful against flying foes; and a heavy greatsword that deals a lot of damage but is slower than the alternatives.

It is basic, but it is a wise kind of simplicity, because Astral Chain reserves complexities to the synchrony between hero and legion; hence forcing players to act alongside their partner from another dimension if they want to succeed. The Legion can be summoned with ZL button, at which point it will automatically target the enemy players are attacking. Their presence on the battlefield, though, is limited by an energy bar that constantly goes down, only being restored when the Legion retreats – be it via another press of ZL or an automatic withdrawal that occurs when the bar reaches zero, which will then cause the creature to be sidelined until the bar is full. To a point, it may sound counterproductive to put a threshold on how much an element that is so essential to battles can be used. But, truth be told, the effect is wholly positive. For starters, the energy drains slowly and recovers quickly, meaning there is very little downtime. Furthermore, the small intervals when the Legion cannot or is not being used will force players to briefly adjust their approach to the battle, likely to a more defensive mindset.

The greatest impact the Legion has, however, is in the ridiculous amount of moves it enables. When holding ZL, players will get to move their partner with the right control stick, and a lot of trickery can be done with that basic. Moving the Legion in a full circle around the enemy will cause the Chimera to be temporarily bound by the Astral Chain; if foes are charging and the chain is extended to interrupt their path, they will be caught and flung back violently into a brief stun; and when ZL and ZR are combined, the Legion will pull players in its direction, damaging any enemies that are hit along the way. And that goes without mentioning other simpler techniques that are also vital. The Sync Attack can be triggered at the end of a melee combo executed by the protagonist: if players press ZL as a light flashes, the Legion will unleash a special move. The Finishing Move involves pressing A right as the enemy is defeated, and will fully heal the hero and restore the Legion’s energy gauge. And the Perfect Call has players summoning the Legion when they are about to be hit.


At first, it can indeed be a lot to digest. In particular, the moves that entail putting the Legion in a certain position should take some time to be grasped even by experienced players due to how the idea of controlling two characters at the same time is unusual, especially in such an action-packed setting. However, as the quest goes along, they are likely to become almost instinctive. Moreover, the game greatly capitalizes on the options brought by Legions in multiple ways. Firstly, it makes battles look as flashy and stylish as one would expect from PlatinumGames. Secondly, it raises the skill ceiling and widens the available alternatives so that both the game’s rating system (which awards players a grade after every combat) as well as its unlockable extra difficulty can be explored and enjoyed by those who want to polish their skills to the highest degree.

This flexibility is further expanded by the fact the protagonist will, as the quest progresses, come to control five distinct Legions: Sword, Arrow, Arm, Beast, and Axe. Pleasantly, much like partners in an RPG, they can be greatly customized: each has a Skill Tree that is unlocked by spending orbs collected from defeating Chimeras, and they can also be equipped with passive abilities and two active skills that are triggered in battle by pressing the X or Y button while ZL is being held. Additionally, and on what is pretty much a must to defeat some of the game’s incredibly large and varied cast of Chimeras, every Legion (which can be freely switched in battle via the Y button) has one or two inherent abilities attached to them.

By pressing L, the Sword Legion can move into position to perform a slash in an angle dictated by players, and this can either block incoming attacks or sever the links between two Chimeras, such as in situations when one creature is generating a shield that protects the other. Using the same button, the Arrow Legion will let players aim a powerful shot. The Arm Legion can be directed to lift objects and throw them at foes as well as to envelop the protagonist in its protective armor. The Beast Legion can use its sense of smell to make invisible Chimeras appear and it can be mounted so its speed may be used to let the heroes escape gusts of wind that might make them fall down from platforms or get away from attacks that suck them into damaging traps. And the Axe Legion produces a protective energy shield while also being able to break energy barriers that certain Chimeras use to block any incoming attack.

What is a nice about Astral Chain is that it uses these abilities as tools to break away from the usual PlatinumGames envelope of incessant action. Yes, some of those skills are absolutely essential in a few battles and all of them are at least helpful in a couple of fights. But their usage is actually more prominent outside combat, in moments when Astral Chain slows its pace down to focus on two other gameplay fronts: investigations and, shockingly, segments with a mix of puzzle-solving and platforming that lightly recall The Legend of Zelda dungeons.


In total, the game’s story is broken into eleven chapters, which are called files and ought to take players about twenty hours to complete. Invariably starting from a secure location, usually the police headquarters, where the hero can peacefully stock up on items and upgrade their tools before setting out to danger, these files mix and match the distinct facets of Astral Chain to form units that feel like the episodes of a good futuristic law-enforcement blockbuster, with the obvious caveat that this is a task group that mostly fights beings from another dimension. As such, even if there is indeed a lot of action, there is also plenty of talking, exploring the surroundings, and – of course – being temporarily transported through a gate to the Astral Plane.

Investigations usually entail talking to people in order to gather information about what is going on: often the sudden appearance of a chimera. In all segments of this kind, the protagonist will be unable to move away from a predetermined area before they have fully gathered the necessary intel. It sounds basic, and in a way it is, but the game sprinkles enough different elements onto that formula to keep it interesting. Investigations may lead into stealth segments that will have players either following someone or having to go through a heavily guarded area without being spotted. They might involve the sudden appearance of foes. They include plenty of sidequests that, truthfully, are a bit irregular in quality, as while some may even lead to unique Chimeras or interesting stories, others involve silly activities that do not add much to the game. And they also rather frequently hold situations that will require the intervention of the Legions.

It might be a door that needs to be opened with the Arm Legion so that someone stuck in a destroyed subway train can be rescued; a room brimming with poisonous gas which can only be avoided with the Axe Legion’s shield; the scent of a nearby Chimera that needs to be tracked with the Beast Legion; a gate whose electronic lock has to be slashed with the Sword Legion; a distant device that must be disabled and can just be reached by the Arrow Legion’s weapon; or even a conversation that needs be eavesdropped. Astral Chain is constantly adding those little tasks to the fabric of its gameplay to turn moments away from combat into engaging morsels that are perfectly tied to its world and to its premise.

The same applies to the segments that take place inside the Astral Plane. This dangerous realm, which is packed with dangerous creatures and can be slightly confusing due to its visual sameness, is usually accessed when the protagonist is tracking someone who has either voluntarily entered or been taken to that alternative reality. On their way to their target, they will be faced with portions that recall the puzzle rooms of a The Legend of Zelda dungeon, with the difference being that rather than using equipment to overcome obstacles and solve riddles, they will have to employ their interdimensional partners: pushing blocks with the Arm Legion, avoiding fast traps with the Beast Legion, shooting targets with the Arrow Legion, slashing barriers with the Sword Legion, and more. It pretty much goes without saying that the structure of these areas and the smartness of their puzzles never reaches The Legend of Zelda heights; the Astral Plane is essentially linear, even if it has special items hidden in optional places, and the riddles are basic. But that does not mean these segments are not great: besides being fun and presenting good challenges, they also nicely contribute to bringing variety to Astral Chain.


However, it is worth noting that, in particular, the platforming component that is present in the Astral Plane might be the game’s biggest problem. Firstly, because falling into the void due to disappearing platforms, gusts of wind, blocks that push the protagonist to their doom, or other traps causes excessive damage. Therefore, especially considering this is a combat-focused game that is decently challenging, such punishment may lead to frustration. Secondly, because the Chain Pull skill, in which players move the Legion to a distant ledge and then use the ZR button to be pulled towards it, is widely used while being a bit problematic. The issue here is that sometimes the technique will fail either because the Legion will suddenly move from their intended position without warning or due to how slight miscalculations can cause the protagonist to bump onto obstacles; both cases will lead to unfair falls and a lot of damage. Still, this is only an annoying smudge on a game that does incredibly well in many regards.

Astral Chain has the PlatinumGames signature all over it: barring a few exceptions, many of which are also products of the company, it is hard to find a Switch title that pulls off action gameplay with so much style, smoothness, and confidence. Yet, this is also a project that clearly attempts to push past the studio’s usual scope, not only betting on a more expansive and serious story, but also widening the framework of its missions to pair up abundant combat with investigations, platforming, and puzzle solving. Not everything that it tries clicks immaculately: the plot leaves hanging threads, its equivalents to dungeons can be visually confusing, and the platforming has a few rough spots. Nevertheless, Astral Chain is a flashy, nicely produced, and thrilling package of explosive action in a bleak but glossy cyberpunk future. And even if PlatinumGames has done better, at times it can be easy to perceive the title as a culmination of what they had done up to its release.


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