Astral Chain Review – The Twins Of Destiny Don’t Disappoint
Astral ChainAugust 30th, 2019
Platinum Games has produced, over the course of the years, some of the best action titles ever released. Starting from the original Bayonetta, the Japanese studio has always managed to produce some solid, fast-paced action titles where shoot (and slash) first, ask questions later was the norm.
Things, however, didn’t stay so simple for the studio for long, and deeper role-playing game mechanics started getting implemented, such as the loot system and actual stats in Transformers: Devastation. This eventually led to the creation of NieR: Automata, a full-fledged action role-playing game where preparing ahead was just as important as raw skills.
Astral Chain can be considered as the culmination of this game design evolution from Platinum Games. The Nintendo Switch exclusive features a captivating blend of the gameplay mechanics introduced in PG’s games over the years, with some extremely on point tweaks that bring everything to new heights.
Astral Chain is set in a world where humanity is almost extinct. It is the year 2078, and the last survivors of the human race live in a huge city called the Ark, which is located on a massive, artificial island. Humanity has been pushed back to the Ark by mysterious extradimensional beings called Chimeras, which usually reside in the Astral Plane. When traversing over to our dimension, Chimeras spread “red matter”, which corrupts all living beings, including humans. If not outright corrupted, humans can get dragged into the gates leading to the Astral Plane for unknown reasons.
Humans are mostly powerless against the Chimeras, but there are some uniquely gifted individuals who can fight back. These are the members of the Neuron Police Task Force, who are armed with the Legions, subservient Chimeras who allow their masters to actually see the Chimeras and fight them. The Legions also aid Neuron in investigations.
Among the members of the Neuron Police Task Force are the Howard twins, the adopted children of the Neuron Captain Maximillian Howard. The two are fresh recruits, but it seems like they have been brought into the Neuron for a very specific reason, as they display incredible aptitude at controlling the Legions. With the guidance of other senior members of Neuron, like commander Yoseph Calvert and Chief Medical Officer Brenda Moreno, the Howard twins will learn more of their gift and of the battle to save humanity from extinction.
The story in Astral Chain has some strong Japanese anime vibes, and the game does its very best to feel like one, with things like an intro complete with a theme song and the character design handled by Masakazu Katsura, who is known for mangas like Video Girl Ai, Zetman and Wing-Man. As such, characters and themes don’t go much beyond the typical anime tropes, but they are enjoyable nonetheless. There’s also a good amount of mystery surrounding the Neuron and its commander, which is more than enough to keep the story going. Everything considered, the story is very well developed, the characters are charming and they provide a good reason to see everything to the end. One weird choice, however, is the silent protagonist, which doesn’t really work well in the context of the story, considering the same character is fully voiced if not picked as main character at the beginning of the game.
The story, while definitely enjoyable, is not the main reason to play Astral Chain. As already mentioned, the game takes elements from pretty much all Platinum Games developed titles and blends them together in such a clever way that makes the experience both engaging and varied.
Exploration and world traversing, however, is unlike anything that the studio included in past games. As the Howard twins are part of a police force, they will have to handle tasks like solving cases and bringing common criminals to justice. The investigation mechanics are very interesting and add quite a bit to the whole experience, with players having to explore locations thoroughly in search of clues that may lead to the solution. Once enough have been found, it will be up to players to connect the dots and proceed through the mission. While it’s not possible to get stuck, putting the clues together correctly will increase the score for the investigation segment, and a high score is needed to get an S or S+ rank for the whole story Chapter.
The investigation segments often require using the IRIS system, which allows players to get more information not only about the clues but also about the NPCs and even enemies, if active during combat. The IRIS is an extremely handy device, as it also displays the distance separating the players not only from the mission’s current objective but also from Red and Blue Cases, which are all optional. Red cases often involve combat, while Blue Cases are mostly simple fetch quests that can be completed in a short amount of time. Optional Red Cases are somewhat important as they provide additional details on the world and the story, and they are also required if you’re aiming for a high rank at the end of the chapter.
Everything considered, exploration in Astral Chain is extremely rewarding, and highly recommended. Both required and optional cases are varied, and they introduce new mechanics even in the second half of the game, providing an excellent diversion from the combat which will be the main attraction for most Platinum Games fans.
More so than any other mechanic in the game, the Astral Chain combat is the blend of mechanics taken from other titles developed by Platinum Games: there are elements from Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Transformers Devastation, The Wonderful 101 and Nier Automata, but this doesn’t mean that the game doesn’t come with something brand new. It indeed does, thanks to the Legions.
The Legions are Chimeras that fighting alongside the Neuron force and the Howard twins. They are divided into 5 different types – Sword, Arrow, Arm, Beast, and Axe -, all coming with a different moveset and different skills that must be learned by unlocking them on the different skill trees. Legions, which come with a sort of Stamina gauge that determines how long they can stay active, fight on their own once summoned, but players can decide to move them by pressing the ZL button and moving the right stick. Legions can also be brought closer to the player and be sent ahead to fight specific enemies.
The Astral Chain that binds the Legions to the Howard twins isn’t’ just for show, as it can be used in combat in some clever ways. By wrapping it around enemies, it’s possible to bind them temporarily, unleash a Chain Jump attack and more. The chain can also be electrified through specific skills, making it damage enemies that touch it.
While the Legions are the main weapon in the hands of the Howard twins, they are no slouch themselves. They are armed with the X-baton, which comes with three different attack modes – a quick attack mode with short-range and fast strikes, a ranged mode and a heavy mode. While all modes are viable against most enemy types, they are most effective against specific enemies, like ranged mode for flying enemies and so on. All X-Baton modes also come with different combo strings.
Astral Chain’s battle system reaches its maximum potential when both the Howard twins and the Legions are in sync. This is done with Sync Attacks, which are unleashed at the end of any combo string, special command attacks, which are learned by enhancing the X-Baton with money and special materials when dodging attacks and more. These Sync Attacks, which are extremely powerful, can be unleashed when the controlled character emits light, and they are somewhat reminiscent of Transformers Devastation’s Rush Attacks. It’s thanks to these Sync Attacks that the combo potential of the game reaches new heights, as they usually launch enemies in the air, and the proper use of the movement options can allow players to continue attacking the enemy with new combos.
Legions are also able to unleash a variety of different skills that come with a cooldown timer. These skills range from simply increasing attack power to summon rotating swords, electrifying the chain and so on. Legions can also unleash some personal actions that allow players to cut through the energy generated by Chimera’s attacks, ride the Beast Legion, shoot arrows with the Arrow Legion, be protected by the Arm legion and so on. These all deplete stamina, so they cannot be abused, but they can make the difference.
Astral Chain combat mechanics can feel overwhelming, but thankfully the game does an excellent job in introducing them gradually. There’s also a full-fledged tutorial mode that can be accessed at the Neuron’s HQ which is also extremely handy.
An excellent combat system would mean nothing with bad enemy design, but thankfully Astral Chain fully delivers on this front. Enemies range from the very simple Aberrations to different Chimera types, which all come with unique attack patterns. Several of these Chimeras also require some of the Legions’ unique abilities to be defeated, something that adds even more variety to combat. Every enemy encounter is extremely exciting, and boss battles are even more exciting. In true Platinum Games’ fashion, Bosses are big, strong and require good knowledge of the mechanics to be defeated efficiently.
Sadly, many of the game’s combat mechanics may not get their time to shine due to the generally low difficulty level and the evaluation system. Astral Chain features different play styles – such as Casual, Unchained, Pt Standard and Pt Ultimate – which alter how much damage enemies dish out, how many continues players get and so on. Only Pt Standard and above see the typical Platinum Games ranking system for story missions, and it’s here that things don’t feel balanced enough, as it’s extremely easy to get S+ ranks due to how the scoring system. At the end of each Red Case and main story case, the player performance gets ranked depending on completion time and performed actions. Pretty much every combat maneuver nets points, even using items, so just using all X-Baton modes and all Legions, perform a few Sync Attacks and skills, can be enough to get S+ rank, even if a lot of damage is taken. This takes away a lot from the game, as sloppy play is not exactly punished. Pt Ultimate is a bit more challenging due to how strong enemies are, but getting S+ ranks is not any harder than getting them in Pt Standard. All of this is definitely not going to be a big issue for most players, but it will definitely rub Platinum Games hardcore fans the wrong way, as it feels like an unwanted simplification of what the studio always does best.
Astral Chain also features a co-op mode which allows two players to play through the campaign together. As the game is primarily a single-player experience, co-op doesn’t work too well and feel more like a novelty to let players try out the Legions moveset. The combat mechanics aren’t tweaked for co-op, so the stamina gauge is still present, and when a Legion cannot be summoned, the only thing the player controlling it can do is move the camera around.
Being a Nintendo Switch game, Astral Chain isn’t among the best looking games of the generation. Despite this, it’s still rather pretty, mostly thanks to the art direction and character design. The Astral Plane is especially good looking, with alien structures popping out of the background thanks to the clever use of color. Character design, as already mentioned, is extremely good, and all characters, as well as Chimeras, look very unique and distinguishable. Bringing things slightly further are the customization options for both characters and Legions, which allow players to create their own, distinct look. The interface is also extremely well done, and fully customizable to boot.
The performance was one of the biggest concerns regarding Astral Chain, as Platinum Games decided to go with a locked 30 FPS frame rate. After playing the game extensively, I have to say that it was the right choice to do, as there no slowdowns even during the most hectic battles. Sure, it doesn’t feel as smooth as the other games from the studio, but it’s definitely better than to have a floaty frame rate that could damage the experience.
The soundtrack is also extremely well done. Eerie atmospheric pieces accompany the exploration phases, while some rocking pieces offer the perfect soundtrack to all the Chimera subduing players will be performing. Voice acting, which is available in both English and Japanese, is also quite good.
At the end of the day, Astral Chain is yet another excellent Nintendo Switch exclusive that no fan of action games should pass on. While there are some small issues here and there, the game is definitely among the best titles developed by Platinum Games, showing how the studio is more than capable of developing games that go beyond what they have created so far.
Review code provided by the publisher.
Astral Chain is, without a doubt, one of the best games ever released by Platinum Games and one of the best Nintendo Switch exclusives to date. With its combination of explosive action gameplay, which masterfully blends together mechanics taken from previous games developed by the studio, engaging investigation and exploration mechanics, an enjoyable story and huge amount of content, Astral Chain is a game that no fan of action games should pass on. That's even in spite of some issues here and there, such as the low challenge level and unbalanced evaluation system that makes it too easy to get S+ ranks.
- Interesting cyberpunk setting
- Strong anime feel
- Engaging story
- Excellent exploration and investigation mechanics
- Masterfully crafted battle system
- Huge amount of content
- Main story isn't particularly long
- Getting S ranks is too easy
- Difficulty is generally too low