Astral Chain Review — The Ties That Bind
PlatinumGames' Astral Chain is the most innovative action game in years and certainly one of the best games of 2019.
The Nintendo Switch has been a system full of amazing Nintendo published games. From The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to Super Mario Odyssey to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the bar of quality Nintendo Switch games must meet to be truly great keeps rising. That is why you should not take it lightly when I say that PlatinumGames’ Astral Chain stands with those titles as one of the best games on the system and that it is one of the strongest action games of this generation.
From the moment Astral Chain began, it cements itself as one of the most technically impressive Nintendo Switch titles. Whether it be in docked or handheld mode, the neon-fused, colorful megacity known as The Ark always pops out of the screen and the frame rate barely ever drops. While the Switch might not be able to handle realistic graphics like the PS4 and Xbox One can, Astral Chain proves that there is a ton of potential for more stylized titles to look amazing on the system. Even games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild can struggle when it comes frame rate, so it is astounding that Astral Chain runs as well and looks as good as it does.
Those production values carry over to the game’s story and English localization, too. While the lip syncing does not always match up and the story is a bit melodramatic, Astral Chain still tells a gripping tale with a surprisingly well voice acted cast. At the center of the story is silent protagonist who can control living weapons called Legions, though memorable characters like your sister Akira and others such as Hal, Brenda, and Olive keep things interesting. While not to the level of Nier: Automata, Astral Chain does touch on some more grandiose and meta concepts during its climax, so it’s worth keeping your eye on if you like anime or games that get into this territory.
Past PlatinumGames titles, despite truly excellent gameplay, could sometimes suffer from weird writing or voice acting, but Astral Chain bucks that trend. This is all well and good, but it wouldn’t be a PlatinumGames title without gameplay that is worthy of discussion. Fortunately, Astral Chain’s combat is definitely worth talking about as it features some of the most innovative mechanics for the action game genre in years.
At the center of things is the relationship between the player and their Legions. There are five different types – Sword, Axe, Beast, Arm, and Arrow – and they all have a variety of uses during and outside of battle. They are integral to the narrative, but also give Astral Chain its unique gameplay twist of controlling two characters at once. Though the player character can fight with their own baton that can transform into a gun, the Legions typically deal more damage. Legions can be equipped with unique passive and combat abilities and have lengthy skill trees, so there is a ton of progression and customization for action game and RPG fans to sink their teeth into here.
The Legion may do some basic attacks on its own, but players are in full control of it for the most part. With a simple press of the right trigger, it can be controlled. Movement is key too, as you can lock enemies into place with the titular chain by circling them or alternatively slingshotting an enemy back where they came from if they charge right into the chain. As a player, your relationship with these Legions evolves over the course of Astral Chain to a user/weapon dynamic I have not seen in many games. Using the Legions doesn’t feel like controlling a friend or a pet, it feels like an extension of oneself. Coupled with the level of polish that one should come to expect from an original PlatinumGames title, Astral Chain manages to have one of the freshest combat systems in years.
Astral Chain is not as combo heavy as a title like Bayonetta, and at a first, this may seem like a downside. Once you take into account the additional control of the Legion though, the slower pace begins to make more sense. Especially when you are easing players into such an innovate way to fight with two characters, overwhelming players with Bayonetta-levels of intricate combos could have been detrimental. Still, just because it isn’t as combo heavy doesn’t mean Astral Chain is boring. There are still plenty of moves to perform that should keep high-level play interesting, and controlling Legions consistently keeps players engrossed in the moment-to-moment gameplay.
I’d rather PlatinumGames tackle this new system too, rather than just copy what was already successful in their other games. From 2014 to 2016, PlatinumGames fell into a kind of a rut with licensed games like Transformers Devastation and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan where all of their action games felt like Bayonetta-lite and did not stand on their own with enough interesting mechanics. The developer is seeing a bit of a renaissance right now with Nier: Automata and Astral Chain, and a big part of that is because they are taking risks with their action games again. Astral Chain may be a bit different in how it plays when compared to most of their lineup, but Bayonetta 3 is still in the pipeline and Astral Chain’s quality makes me more excited for that sequel than ever before.
Astral Chain also differentiates itself with the amount of downtime between action heavy sections. In between fights with ever-raising stakes, sections of investigative police work fill out the game. Some of it is simple, like comically picking up litter and throwing it in trash cans. There is also an investigation system like that of the Batman: Arkham games where players investigate a crime scene with the help of their Legions and all-seeing I.R.I.S. in order to find out what happened. Other quests have players talking to NPCs to find keywords before stitching them together to conclude what happened in specific situations. All of this is much different than what PlatinumGames has done before, and it is surprisingly just as enjoyable as the combat.
Legions have use both in and outside of combat, allowing that bond to grow while also adding some sci-fi flare to police work. These sections are spaced out pretty evenly, so just as I was getting tired of the police work’s slower pace I could usually dive right into some sort of fight. Interestingly, if you’d prefer to just focus on those story and police sections, Astral Chain has an Unchained mode that will do the fighting for you. This may seem counter-intuitive on a surface level, but it has decent applications for both casual and hardcore action game players.
For casuals, it allows them to experience the game’s other strengths without progression grinding to a halt if they get stuck on a particularly difficult fight. Players still have to move their character around and activate finishing moves in this mode as well, so it isn’t completely hands off either. Unchained mode can be toggled off at any time, so it is truly great for introducing new players or younger kids to the action game genre. While hardcore players may scoff at the thought of using it, Unchained actually helped me discover some interesting combos that I did not know were possible in the few times I tested it out. If you are a player who likes to get really amazing at PlatinumGames’ titles, Astral Chain’s Unchained mode is worth checking out in at least one fight to learn about some combos and strategies you didn’t know were possible.
Astral Chain is unlike anything else on Nintendo Switch, or even in the action game genre, right now. It’s a technical marvel on a system that usually struggles to get games looking this good, and managed to stay competent in other areas like writing and voice acting when doing so. The story plays around with fun sci-fi concepts and creates a world that is ripe for exploration in more than one game. Best of all, it manages to be innovative and approachable at the same time.
Simply put, Astral Chain is one of the best action games I’ve ever played and is now my favorite title from PlatinumGames because of how it manages to deliver solid action and be innovative at the same time. The investigative sections and unique relationship formed between player and Legion bring something fresh to the action genre as well. When PlatinumGames is able to branch out with interesting new ideas like with the first Bayonetta and The Wonderful 101, they usually strike gold, and Astral Chain does nothing to stop that trend. It stands as a shining spot in both Nintendo and PlatinumGames’ lineups, and is obviously one of the best and most innovative games to release in 2019.