Platinum's game about future-cops in battle-shorts is as awesome as you'd hope!
Since its announcement, Astral Chain has felt like a known quantity. Its pedigree speaks to a history of some of the finest action games ever made. Even within the limited scope of Nintendo, Platinum is a household name. Wonderful 101, Star Fox Zero, and Bayonetta 2 represent some of my favorite titles on the Wii U with their fast-paced, linear action. With this in mind I thought I knew what I would be getting with Astral Chain; a stylistically strong, lightning fast, third-person action game. In reality, however, Astral Chain may be the most ambitious game Platinum has ever produced.
When transdimensional beings called Chimeras begin invading and corrupting Earth, humanity is relegated to a small artificial island to survive. A special branch of the police is formed called Neuron in order to fight back the invading Chimeras. By binding Chimeras to Neuron officers using the titular Astral Chain, they are able to create a controlled form of Chimera called a Legion. This is where the player enters the story. You are given control of one of two twins who are joining Neuron. There is some very basic character customization present. Hair style along with hair, eye, and skin color can be adjusted. As you progress you’ll be able to make further changes to your character's outfit and appearance. Oddly, though, one cutscene late in the game uses still images of the default character rather than your customized version. Once you get your character set up, you’re thrust straight into the action. Riding on a motorcycle through a tunnel, you’re immediately attacked by enemies and forced to fight your way out. It was in this moment that I realized that Astral Chain might be one of the most visually impressive games on Switch, but more on that later. After escaping the tunnel and progressing a bit further down the road, you’ll be introduced to your first Legion. Legions aid you in combat and expand your arsenal of abilities. With each new Legion gained, your options on and off the battlefield increase.
What separates Astral Chain from my prior experiences with the work of Platinum Games is the diversity of its design. While the opening moments are par for the course, with lots of timed dodges, hacking, slashing, and shooting, things quickly change to investigating a crime scene and gathering clues. Later areas will have you exploring or solving some light Zelda-style dungeon puzzles. At one point, I was even tasked with helping to organize parked cars, or carry ice cream to a child in need. Combat as well is exceptionally varied both in terms of your own implements and the variety of enemies. Your character has access to three different weapon styles. One is a short sword-style police baton, another a heavy glaive weapon, and finally a gun for dealing with ranged enemies. In addition to your own abilities are the abilities of your Legions. There are a total of five capturable Legions throughout the game. Each one has their own unique abilities and individual weapon type. These abilities can be further added to by customizing each Legion as you progress. Even the chain, used to capture Legions, can be used to combat enemies as well. Wrap them up in it to prevent them from attacking and keep yourself safe, or clothes-line them with it as they charge to fling them back in the opposite direction. Your Legion can also pull you along the chain, which serves both as a way to cross large gaps and to propel yourself into an enemy and give some extra steam to your attack.
Legion abilities come in handy outside of combat as well. Between combat encounters, you’ll often find yourself exploring large environments. While you’re generally there with a specific purpose in mind, you are also free to explore and engage in a huge number of side quests. Your Legions can assist you using their various abilities. One Legion can pick up on tracks left by Chimeras who are hiding. Another, a dog-like Legion, can track people and items by scent and dig up buried items. Completing more of these side quests earns you more points and items to upgrade your character and Legions. It is also an opportunity for Astral Chain’s excellent writing to shine through. It isn’t often that a random character on the side of the road can be as genuinely engaging as they are in Astral Chain. These investigations often lead you into the Astral Plane, the alternate dimension from which the Chimera originate. These environments feel a bit like Zelda dungeons, often focusing on a combination of combat and environmental puzzle solving. Of the many mechanics Astral Chain employs to broaden its gameplay, the Astral Plane is perhaps the most interesting and well implemented. They have a nice gradual increase in difficulty and complexity as you progress. While interesting, the more investigation-heavy areas of the human world drop off significantly half way through the story. Even though Astral Chain generally does a good job of managing its many different ideas, it feels like the investigations were thrown to the side in favor of other portions of the design.
In terms of presentation, Astral Chain is nearly perfect. It is visually astounding. With a heavy focus on bright neon colors and high contrast environments, all themed around digital distortion, Astral Chain is easily one of the coolest looking games I’ve played on Switch. It holds up wonderfully in handheld mode as well. In fact I’d argue the sharp, native 720p presentation of the portable form factor might be the best looking way to play Astral Chain. There are only two small areas in which visual design hits a snag. The first is a single enemy type design that is completely dissonant in comparison with the rest of Chimeras. While the rest of the Chimeras look like demonic, biomechanical monsters, one particular type looks more like a Pokemon. The other disappointment is the Astral Plane itself. While the core design is perfectly fine, it shows very little variety over the course of the adventure. Given that you spend almost half the game within the Astral Plane, I would have liked to see a bit more to distinguish one visit from another. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is absolutely perfect. Every investigation, fight, and cutscene is scored by some of the best tracks I’ve heard in a long time. Plus, it has a killer anime style intro.
Astral Chain is the most ambitious game Platinum has ever made, and is for the most part a success. It would be tempting to use the old idiom, “jack of all trades master of none” but specific elements of Astral Chain excel far too greatly to refer to Platinum as anything other than masters. The combat, story, and music are some of the best you’ll find on Switch. That being said, there are clearly areas in which less focus was placed. Given your character’s role as a police officer, I found the gradual de-emphasizing of the investigation mechanics to be a tad disappointing. A few areas of the visual design could also use work, but they’ll hardly affect enjoyment of the game. Ultimately, what we’re left with is one of the most exciting and original action games on Switch, if not the most.