‘Astral Chain’ Is Magical Sci-Fi Fun, And A Nintendo Switch Essential
Astral Chain is a gloriously colourful cavalcade of contradictions that shouldn't work in the slightest, but somehow holds together to represent not only one of PlatinumGames' most remarkable titles - which is really saying something, given this is the studio behind Nier: Automata, Bayonetta and Vanquish - but also one of the Nintendo Switch's most special exclusives.
It's a sci-fi-leaning, cyberpunk-y near-ish future-set adventure that finds humankind in a near-extinction situation, with most of the planet uninhabitable because of the Chimera, an invading alien species from another dimension. Stakes have never been higher for the planet, and for its remaining mega-city, a floating metropolis on the Pacific Ocean called the Ark.
And yet, this is also a game where the customisable player character - one of two police officer twins, male or female (the one you don't select at the beginning becomes a key NPC in the story, named Akira) - can take goofy selfies, have conversations with personable vending machines, recover butt wipes of various kinds for a toilet fairie (yes, really), and spend their credits on extravagant ice creams.
It's also another evolution of PlatinumGames' near-unparalleled action genre expertise. Because if there's one element of this experience that truly binds its most wildly disparate elements together, it's the combat.
Astral Chain is as demanding as the player wants it to be, and switched up to its highest difficulty - it's only here that your efforts will be ranked - it's right up there with Bayonetta as a demanding but fair fighter. Precision dodging opens windows of opportunity for strong offensive moves (albeit with no significant focus on combos), speed is of the essence, and the use of your police arsenal alone won't get the job done.
This is where the Legions come in. These are, essentially, domesticated Chimeras kitted out with armour and weaponry, and your character can swap between as many as five of them at a time, each with their own specialisms both in and out of battle. Your first is the Sword Legion - guess what that one's sporting on its arms.
Later on you "bind" a Beast Legion, which, when chained to you via an arm-mounted contraption, basically looks like a dog on a leash. And when it's picking up the scent of some hidden object, dragging you behind it, that's precisely what it is. You can also ride on it, which is rad, obviously.
If you're getting some Pokémon vibes right now, welcome them, as Astral Chain definitely looks to Game Freak's smash-hit series for some inspiration. Co-director Takahisa Taura - who was co-designer on Nier: Automata - has spoken in several interviews of his love for Pokémon, and how the pocket monsters influenced the relationship between Astral Chain's Neuron task force, and said special team's array of Legions.
When you send a Legion out in battle, it'll do its own thing unless you choose to control it - which you can do a variety of ways. First and foremost, each has a special move, mapped to the left shoulder button - Sword can slash in any direction (echoes of another PlatinumGames banger, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, right there), Arrow can slow time and target enemies, Arm can lift up debris on the battlefield and hurl it at enemies. Holding the right trigger button allows manual manipulation of your Legion's position, and given there's a chain between you and it, that affords the player a few useful tricks.
Enemies can be wrapped in the chain by running the Legion in a circle around them, leaving them helpless for a battering; and the chain can be stretched across an opponent's path of attack, catching their dash towards you and flinging them back, stunned and vulnerable. If you want to get a friend involved, co-op play is an option here, with the second player assuming the role of the Legion.
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There's plenty more to do when your Legion's running free, from helping sick civilians (the presence of the Chimeras leaves behind a dilapidating red matter, which your Sword Legion can cleanse) to retrieving lost balloons from trees to cheer up the Ark's children. Again, it's in these moments where the game's splendid contradictions raise their heads.
The Ark's police force is under massive pressure to get results, but it insists on dressing one of its officers up as Lappy, a cuddly dog mascot. There's a load of mean Chimeras to battle, but forget that - there's a stray cat to be found in every level, likewise a toilet, which you'll need to locate to keep that aforementioned fairie happy.
It's all so gleefully chaotic and sometimes genuinely funny that Astral Chain's legitimate moments of high drama can catch you quite unawares. As time passes and the player character retrieves more Legions, so the Neuron team's commander, Yoseph, begins to seem a lot shadier than he did in the game's beginning. At the same time, a notable antagonist reveals herself as something other than a terrorist hell bent on destroying what Yoseph and his team is trying to protect.
It's not like the twists aren't telegraphed here - Astral Chain's story trades entirely in moreish melodrama, complemented by outbreaks of heavy-riffing rock music - but when they do come, the consequences can be surprisingly severe.
Nevertheless, the plot is capable of surprises, most significantly concerning the fate of the NPC twin - but their importance is never underplayed, given they get all the lines while the player character gets, and this is no joke, none at all.
Yep, you're a silent protagonist in Astral Chain - which, after the wisecracks of Bayonetta and the nuggets of wisdom served by Nier: Automata's 2B, is something of a disappointment. It's also fairly jarring when major events rock our chosen hero's way of life, upending so much of what they thought to be true, and all they can do is grunt and gasp.
But that's one of Astral Chain's few failings. The only other one of any note is that while the Ark is said to be a huge city of diverse districts, we see little of it. The environments we explore are vibrantly detailed, never more so than Harmony Square, where traffic speeds beneath bridges, connecting shopping centres and leisure facilities. But a little more variety might have been nice.
What's definitely not lacking for variety is the gameplay outside of the scraps. There's people to rescue from collapsed subway stations, stealth sections, crime scenes to analyse (using your IRIS visual filter, which highlights objects and individuals of interest) and trails to follow, and all kinds of police station gossip to keep up with. Every new level brings with it side missions, which can be easily found by checking on your map, and range from trailing suspicious gang members to collaring pick-pockets.
You also have to care for your Legions. After each mission they'll be, well, dirty, and there's a corner of the police station where they can be cleaned up, and their armour's colour changed, if you're bothered about such things. Similarly, your character can pop on different outfits, change their hair style and colour, and choose from a gradually expanding wardrobe of head- and eyewear.
As it's developed as a Switch exclusive, solely targeting Nintendo's hardware, there's never any slow down in combat, no stuttering frame rate. Astral Chain plays smoothly and sharply, and charms effortlessly while its story heads towards some truly epic showdowns. While a lot of attentions were focused on Bayonetta 3 and the cancelled Scalebound, PlatinumGames had this title cooking away in the background - and, perhaps against the odds, it's shown itself to be quite the stunner.
It's not a bona fide system-seller like Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey, or the forthcoming Pokémon games, Sword and Shield - but if you have a Switch already, a fondness for fantastical combat full of singular flair, and spectacular science fiction hijinks, Astral Chain is absolutely essential.
Featured Image Credit: PlatinumGames/Nintendo