The marriage between Platinum Games and Nintendo has honestly been a match made in heaven. Not only has it allowed Nintendo to have some truly offbeat but exciting games on their hands, Platinum has a bit of freedom in development and design that having a rich patron like Nintendo affords. We’ve been able to see Bayonetta flourish (one of the best titles on the WiiU, hands down), we’ve seen oddball items like Wonderful 101 come to fruition, and, to be honest, the last Star Fox title was decent, not gonna lie. Of course, we all wait with bated breath for the return of the bespectacled witch with Bayonetta 3 (which will hopefully get more news soon), but, in the meantime, we’ve got a doozy of a title on our hands. When you throw just everything possible into the stew pot, you could end up with a dreg of a recipe, bland and murky and lacking in direction. Then again, when you temper the balance just right, you create a truly memorable and exciting experience. Astral Chain, thankfully, is firmly in the latter category.
The story of Astral Chain that isn’t beset with spoilers is a strange but understandable one. Dimensional portals, called gates, started cropping up on Earth some time ago, bringing forward the Chimeras, which are semi-invisible beasts that systematically kidnapped and removed something like 95% of the world’s population. The remaining few have retreated to The Ark, which is a massive city on an artificial island, but it isn’t totally safe: monsters continue to infiltrate, and the survivors are gradually becoming infected with “red matter” as gates continue to appear. You are one of two twins who end up joining Neuron, a police task force whose job is to combat the Chimeras as they appear (and also assist the regular policing duties, but we’ll get to that later). Part of your super secret combat is that you are given control of a Legion, a Chimera that’s been bound to you through a powerful machine called a Legatus. As it turns out (to the surprise of no one who plays video games), your character has an unusually high affinity for synchronization with your Legion, turning you into the perfect combatant. Will you simply fight back against the coming annihilation, delaying the inevitable? Or will Fate somehow offer you and the rest of the world a chance to survive? Only time will tell, but not too much time, because you can seriously bang out the whole main storyline in about 15 hours.
It should be noted, right at the top, that Platinum Games has purposely set up Astral Chain for four different types of players, and you can fall into any of these slots quite well after the initial stage. There’s the Unleashed mode, which takes care of combat in a big way and allows you to focus on the compelling and fairly engaging storyline. There’s the Casual Mode, which should be called Standard but Platinum is known for pushing their players to try and meet a higher calling within gaming. The actual Standard mode is strong armed, not gonna lie, and will be a perfect level for those a bit familiar with Platinum Games and their expectations (particularly Bayonetta). Then there’s Ultimate, which is utter nonsense and should be experimented with only after you make it through the game successfully on one of the previous difficulty levels (also, only available after you beat certain stages). Not only does Ultimate allow for zero revives, it also permanently locks out the ability to shift down to Unleashed, which is a damn shame. Unleashed does make things easier, true, but it can also be fun because it’s not a one-and-done switch. Unleashed has a variety of options to turn on and off to make you sort of powerful or absolutely God-like, but I can understand why it’s not allowed, at all, for Ultimate. Gotta make that rank worth it, you know?
At its core, Astral Chain is, in my opinion, all about the combat, and it’s a wonderful and terrifying thing to behold. You control both your main character and your Legion, with the idea that the Legion CAN auto attack, but also gradually runs out of energy and must be recalled occasionally so that it doesn’t burn out entirely. As you move further and further into the game, the relationship between you and the fighting of the game becomes more involved and serious, gradually adding additional facets that you wouldn’t have imagined initially. The Legion is connected to you by a chain, so you end up using it to wrap up enemies, clothesline them, using your Legion as an anchor to jump some places (and it’s the only way to jump, at that), and even more. You find new weapons and weapon types to upgrade to, adding ranged and heavy melee attacks, not to mention your Legion itself goes through a series of changes. You discover new stances, new abilities, and even different Legions to control eventually, with everyone’s favorite being the Beast Legion (literally a giant demon dog). Personally, I found the Arm Legion to be invaluable, because I liked the floating and the punching, but that’s me. Best of all, that’s just my particular play style, and no one else NEEDS to be on board with that, thanks to Astral Chain’s versatility.
When things really get going out on the field, you see the harmony of destruction that Platinum Games is famous for singing and delivering in a HUGE way. With Bayonetta 2, I sometimes felt like the game got carried away and started fighting for me, so that even the scariest boss fights could be saved with QTE and furious button mashing. With Astral Chain, everything is a ballet, requiring precision and timing and quick thinking that delivers in such a great way. You might need to dodge multiple swings in a row, cartwheeling across the screen before being catapulted back into the fray and delivering several backstabbing blows. You might send your Legion to the far corner as the Arrow Legion, using powerful ranged attacks while you try and draw fire and time out parries with the gladius. You know you do well at the conclusion of almost every fight when the game ranks you, giving bonuses and accolades for not using items, taking no damage, chaining the enemy, throwing the enemy, and so much more. You feel out of breath because you realize you’ve been holding it the whole fight. It grabs you in the most vicious way, and it’s wonderful.
However, if combat really isn’t your thing (which is what Unleashed Mode is for), there’s so much to still do and explore within Astral Chain. There are Red and Blue tasks, translating into main and side missions, with things like fetch quests, investigations, and general police work that you need to do with every stage. Sure, Chimeras are bursting in and ruining civilization, but those punk kids are fighting! Might as well subdue them with your Legion (no one else can see the Legions, so you really do seem like a magical officer). Close up small gates, clean up red matter all over the place, open each and every chest, talk to everyone, analyze them with your IRIS (a special AR overlay that tells you everything about everything), and be careful not to destroy too much patio furniture. You’re a police officer, not Grand Theft Auto, show some damn respect! Oh, and be sure to have a chat with every vending machine who wants to gab, it’s always a fun and exciting time. Plus, bring out Beast Legion once in a while and give him some pets, then ride him around town like a madman and try to imagine everyone else seeing you bucking on an invisible horse at 40 miles an hour. It’s a brand of fun I didn’t know existed.
The graphics and audio presentation of Astral Chain are also fantastic, despite what others might say about the rendering in handheld mode. I understand that I’m a Nintendo fan and a bit of an apologist, but I also know what “handheld mode” means and don’t find it that strange that the graphics are rougher when I’m not connected to a power source. I also got to play for like two hours without needing to immediately plug in and charge, so I seriously can’t complain. The combination of animation and cell shading gives the perfect cyberpunk, dystopian robot feel to Astral Chain that best emulates the storyline at hand. The different Chimeras are distinct and awe-inspiring, with some being positively massive and difficult to navigate around. You have plenty of customization options to make your hero (male or female) look the way you want, but it’s still in the same anime vein as the rest of the game, so don’t expect Fallout 4 levels of customization. Dimensional red shift, burning buildings, crumbling infrastructure and the pristine, anesthetized headquarters all stand out in stark detail, giving me a surprisingly high level of nooks and crannies to explore. This also balances well with the soundtrack, who brought along the composer from Bayonetta 2 to intermix some classical feelings with electronic ambience, plus a couple of really solid opening and closing themes to further seal the anime influence. Seriously, if Platinum wanted to option Astral Chain as a 13 episode series, I bet a lot of people would watch the hell out of it.
However, the only thing I wasn’t totally on board with (ironically), was the way the characters moved the story forward. After you get told that your player is the only damn hope for the future, you’d expect people to be a bit more understanding of your station. Instead, Akira is really hostile and whiny towards you, everyone wants you to pick up their laundry, and, yea, the cops have their hands full, but I feel like you’re used more as a band-aid than as an antibiotic. Of course I can take the time to fight a few of the minor infected characters, but did you know there’s some kind of hybrid terror out in the wild that will definitely murder us all? No? Alright then, maybe give me a little quarter. I couldn’t skip over anything because the storyline itself was really engaging, but it was just how some of the NPCs interacted with me that sort of put me off. Also, we saw that Platinum does great with vocal protagonists (Neir, Bayonetta), so I think I would have rather had our Player character have a bit to say instead of nodding and grunting.
Having said that, I have to say that I’m incredibly happy with Astral Chain. It’s got the right brand of chaos and complexity to suck you in for several hours or push you for a fifteen minute spurt to see if you can get a better rank on a previous level. There’s plenty to discover and explore, hidden secrets and tons of extra quests (anyone else helping out the toilet fairy?), and honestly has potential to be Game of the Year for the Switch. I didn’t even get a chance to scratch the surface of co-op mode (my kids are super not ready for that), but, as a solo experience, it was fantastically gratifying. If you have a Switch, you really might want to consider picking this up ASAP. The fight for the future starts – and ends – with you.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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ASTRAL CHAIN Review
Gameplay - 9/10
Graphics - 9/10
Sound - 9/10
Replay Value - 9/10
User Review( votes)
Astral Chain is, frankly, the best combat experience that I’ve had on the Switch to date, and is a contender for top game on the Switch this year.