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ASTRAL CHAIN Review

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PlatinumGames has always been known for its fast-paced action games. MadWorld took the brawler in an interesting comic book meets film noir direction while implementing a scoring system based on how brutal you could be. (A location People Can Fly arrived in when they made Bulletstorm as well it would seem.) Bayonetta made for a great action hack n’ slash game that implemented guns, swords, and interdimensional mechanics as well as themes. The sequel improved upon all of that stuff. Vanquish was a terrific third-person combat game with great cover shooting mechanics. The Wonderful 101 was a quirky action game that had elements of all of these all while doing things on the Wii U gamepad that couldn’t be done on other consoles of the time.

In short, this is a studio that has always had a knack for making fun, action games that seem to go a step beyond similar ones. It’s rare they put out something nobody likes. Every project also seems to have something special about it. Even if there are a million other games of a similar vein, there’s something that stands out about it.

PROS: Brisk, rewarding gameplay. Replayability. Storyline & characters. Co-op.

CONS: Menus lag. Inconsistency reading chain jumps.

COPS: Fighting crime in a future time.

Astral Chain continues that trend of great action gaming with visual flair. When you start the game you’re dropped into a character creation menu where you choose to either play through the game as a male or female police officer. Once you choose one and customize them the game begins. Whichever you didn’t choose appears in the storyline as your twin. Once the game starts it immediately begins to feel like a big-budget action movie in the vein of Timecop or Robocop.  You’ll find yourself riding a motorcycle in a tunnel when you answer a call. This immediately transitions to a rail shooter filled with the kinds of stuff you’d see in a Dolph Lundgren vehicle.

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When you get through it you’re off to fight off a tough challenge, and this is when the game’s storyline picks up. As new recruits, you and your twin sibling have been sent to fight crime for NEURON the police force for the bustling city of Ark. Without giving away too much, the gist is these aliens from another dimension begin crossing the Astral Plane and kidnapping people, giving them diseases or both it’s time for our heroes to investigate.

 

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And investigate you will. Because even though this game is in many ways the action game you’d expect from the people who brought out those other games it is also a police serial. Over time you’ll begin to see the pattern the game has to offer. You’ll have a combat section, and that will be followed many times by a detective section. In these parts of the game, you’ll have a primary objective to perform or complete, but before you can do so, you’ll need to interrogate people to get information.

You don’t need *all* of the information to move on, but if you do go ahead and get everything there are bonuses to be had. During any of the sections, there are also side missions you can do. Sometimes these will get you items like medicine to heal with or a booster to increase your attack damage. Other times they will be things that can actually affect the storyline to some degree.

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Another cool thing they’ve done in these investigative sections is sprinkling a dash of Batman: Arkham Asylum in here. In its own way of course. You’ll have some sections where you’ll have futuristic recordings of events where, much like Batman, you have to deduce what happened to get more evidence or track a character down.

And throughout the game, you’ll have side missions that take you into the Astral Plane for some enemy closets to open up on you. Surviving these, as with other side missions, can net you some bonuses. Some of these aren’t just out in the open you’ll need to find them. How do you find them? In many cases, you’ll have to employ the use of a Legion. What are Legions? Well, you’ll discover through the storyline that the aliens from the Astral Plane are known as Chimeras. Among these Chimeras are Legions. These are more powerful aliens that have specific abilities. In fact, NEURON uses them as Police animals after taking control of them and using them to fight crime, there is a point where they get loose and go rogue.

 

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Of course, yours (a Legion with swords for arms) doesn’t escape. So this leads back to the structure. You’ll do detective work, then go hacking n’ slashing. Eventually, you’ll get to a fantastic boss, and upon defeating it you’ll go to the police station. The police station is a preparatory area where you’ll talk to colleagues, use a training room, buy or upgrade weapons, maintain your Legions, buy medical supplies and even use the bathroom.

It is also where you’ll be introduced to the game’s comic relief character; Lappy. Lappy is a giant mascot meant to keep youngsters on the straight and narrow. But they also show you around the station through a series of jump scares. They also narrate the training exercises as well as become a part of the storyline.

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You’ll want to listen to Lappy though. While they sound suspiciously like Sandy Cheeks they do cover some of the more advanced techniques for solving puzzles and getting around traps. All while getting accustomed to using the various Legions. After you leave the police station you’ll continue the cycle of missions. But the thing is the game is so engrossing with its story, characters and combat you will barely notice it. Even if you do notice it you won’t care.

Throughout the campaign, you’ll come across the other Legions. When you do you’ll have a bit of a fight on your hands because you also have to take control of them again. When you do, you’ll be using them not only in a combative role, but to solve puzzles too. They also add a bunch of replay value, because you can go back to previous areas with them to find secrets or side missions you might not have been able to before. You’ll also find items over the course of the game that you can add RPG like buffs to each of your captured Legions. You can add moves, or unlock new abilities or simply make them deal out more damage.

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You also can’t leave out the Legion all game long. They have a meter that empties, and if it does there’s a cooldown period before you can use them again. There are of course items you can find to reduce the consumption but make a good habit of putting them away for a little bit mid-battle for a few seconds. In each stage, you can also try to collect a bunch of the red matter poisoning the world to make your way toward other goals.

As for the combat itself, it feels classic PlatinumGames. There is a slew of elements that you may have seen in other games they made. Notably Bayonetta. The RPG elements can also feel a little like the ones implemented in Bayonetta, although I’m reminded more of The Wonderful 101. Be that as it may, they are expanded here. On top of that, the use of the Legions really makes this game stand out a lot. You’re essentially controlling two characters. One hand is your Timecop and the other is your Legion. You can do a bunch of different attacks between both of the characters. Plus you’ll eventually reclaim all of the missing Legions. You can switch between them on the fly, which you’ll need to do as some enemies are weaker to certain Legions. Plus as I alluded to before, some Legions can access some areas when exploring the others can’t. Or in some battles, you might need to switch between them depending on the form a certain boss may take.

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Among them is the Sword Legion you start with which fights with rather brisk sword swings, and can also be used for recon moments. There’s also the Arrow Legion which is a great option for airborne enemies or getting the jump on distant ones. The Armor Legion is basically a hulking beast of armor you can wear or send out to beat the tar out of bad guys. It can also be used to move things. Then there’s the K9 Legion which behaves like a dog. You can have it dig through things to find items or have it chase a scent. You can also ride it like a horse! And finally, the Axe Legion which can put out a forcefield, destroy key objects, or attack things with an ax.

If all of that wasn’t enough, you’ll want to use the IRIS system the game implements. This puts the visuals into a sort of wireframe mode which allows you to spot some objectives, items, or weak points easier. It’s also a handy way for you to use stealth tactics when necessary. It’s also a must if you want to measure that boss health. And it does all of this under some of the most appealing visuals on the Nintendo Switch. PlatinumGames has always had good looking games but they really push some great details in this highly stylized action game. There are some terrific vistas you’ll see. Some wonderful skylines. Some abstract art, and some unsettling yet minimalist sections as you visit parts of the city and Astral Plane.

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The characters are also splendid with a nice blend of modern, and futuristic themes. It shouldn’t be a surprise as they brought in Masakazu Katsura who is famous in Anime and Manga circles. He’s best known for Tiger & Bunny, but he’s been in those worlds for years. His character designs pop off of the screen here. And that isn’t to say everything in the game is top tier visually. There are some things in the background that are clearly enabling lower textures or details. Sometimes you may notice a certain wall or floor looks a little flat. But overall these decreases in visual fidelity are minor in the grand scheme of things. You’ll likely be too busy being mesmerized by flashy finishing moves, and trying to survive waves upon waves of enemies.

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And all of this is married to a storyline that is honestly quite good. It has characters you’ll get attached to. It has some swerves. Some you’ll see coming. Some you won’t. It has some terrific performances by the voice actors involved. And while the story does have some of the tropes you may expect to see in a tale like this, it still earns some genuine emotional responses. Going back and analyzing things in it is something you’ll likely find some depth in. It isn’t going to be as profound, and thought-provoking as some of the films or novels you’ve read. But it does go deeper than a simple “This is the antagonist. This is what they did. Stop them.” you might expect to get from most action games. And the fact your decisions impact how things play out a bit means you’ll want to go back to it for a second or third playthrough. And before I forget, the soundtrack is great too. There are some insanely good heavy metal tracks when the action heats up, and a few electronic pop tracks that fit the theme well when exploring, or sleuthing.

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There are a couple of problems I did have while playing the game though. Mainly with the chain jump mechanic, you’ll get to use at some point in the game. The problem with it is that in a couple of situations it isn’t clear where you’re going to land. Unfortunately, this means you may lose a ton of energy or even a life missing a jump that you (at least in your mind) should have made with no problems. These aren’t frequent moments. At least they weren’t when I played through it. But it is something to make a mental note of. The other thing is the game sometimes has inconsistent load times between areas. Again, nothing that makes you crazy, it’s just a strange minor annoyance.

Still, it’s a fantastic game overall. One I highly recommend picking up even if you think it might not be your cup of tea. There is a bevy of difficulty settings as well. There are your usual Easiest, Easy, Normal, Hard, scale. But there is also a separate option for using the Legions. You can either control them manually, or you can have the A.I. control them. Frankly, even though it might take you a level or two to get used to them (there’s a lot of functions you can do with any given one of them),  it’s far better than relying on the computer to do things. That said, it is a nice option for those who feel they need more time to figure out how their main character works.

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And if all of that isn’t enough for you it has a cooperative mode where one player controls the police officer and the second player controls the Legion whenever they’re needed. In an age where most any multiplayer option is online-focused, it’s nice to see a console game take the classic couch approach. That said, be prepared to have some classic arguments with your pals if they can’t keep up with you. Even on lower difficulty settings, Astral Chain is quite the challenge.

Ultimately though, Astral Chain is a must-play release. It’s classic PlatinumGames through and through. But it also improves on many of the features introduced in earlier games while giving you a bunch of new features and a wealth of content. This is a game you’ll complete and then want to replay to either find things you missed before or to see how different choices affect the story. There’s also the fun of turning up the difficulty as you replay it for an even bigger challenge. As contemporary action games go, Astral Chain is a keeper.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

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