PlatinumGames is a developer who thus far has had a near flawless pedigree. There have been some duds along the way, without a doubt, but for the most part, they’ve demonstrated that they’re the masters of their craft. Astral Chain is an enigma that could go either way, being their first original console game since 2013’s The Wonderful 101. Thankfully, despite some pacing issues, it’s another crazy romp that proves the developer isn’t losing their lustre.
Astral Chain opens in 2078. Humanity is on the brink of extinction, so the remnants of civilisation have relocated to a human-made island called “The Ark.” Strange beings called Chimera from another dimension – the Astral Plane – are attacking the world. With no other options, humans discover a way to make select Chimera subservient with psychic chains, using the Legions for both battles and investigating. You play an officer of the police department Neuron and must battle a new threat increasing the frequency of the Chimera attacks.
Platinum has never been known for their storytelling prowess, and Astral Chain is no different, although there were some genuine surprises along the way. The most bizarre issue with the story is that your protagonist character is a silent one. There are so many moments in Astral Chain, including a critical event that gets reused three times incessantly, where your character should say something. But they don’t, and it’s very jarring. What makes this even more perplexing is when you choose one gender, the other appears in the story with voiced dialogue. It’s weird and ruins most if not all the impactful moments of the story.
But enough about the story, I doubt such a thing is why anyone would play a game like Astral Chain.
A little bit different from other Platinum action games, Astral Chain still focuses on action but adds a few other elements to the mix as well. In your work as a police officer, you’ll not only fight the threat that the main story provides but also carry out tasks for the public. As such, the opening moments of every case take place in a semi-open level for you to solve crimes and help people.
The mini open worlds presented to you before embarking on your true missions are loud and lively. Perhaps owing to their smaller size, they feel alive and organic. In each one, you’ll have the opportunity to complete red case and blue cases. Red cases tend to be a story-heavy and tend to tie in with the main story. Blue cases are much less important and usually revolved around helping people. Some are simple, like making an arrest. Others are tedious, like tailing missions as in Assassin’s Creed circa 2012. Your mileage may vary, but some of them are tragic.
Following that, you’re usually thrown into a more linear level to do what Platinum does best – combat.
The combat of Astral Chain is refreshing as it’s not about being stylish in your execution of enemies. Instead, Astral Chain seems to reward efficiency and the correct use of your Legions. Your character uses the X-Baton, which can change into one of three weapons as you need. You also control one of five Legions, each of which serve a specific purpose in combat. Legions operate autonomously in battle, only stopping their offense if you say so, but doing so at the right time is the key to mastering the battle system. It does admittedly lack the skill ceiling that games like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry have, which means it is easier than those games too, but it’s still enjoyable.
The Legions themselves bring a great sense of uniqueness to the battles of Astral Chain. These creatures are all chained to your officer, so they never venture too far from you. You can send them out to attack or call them at specific moments in your combo to perform flashier moves called “sync attacks.” You can even use the chain that binds the two of you to tie up enemies or electrify the chain, so it deals more damage to enemies caught in the crossfire. It sounds like a lot is going on, and it seems especially daunting, but thankfully combat flows well.
It’s not hard to manage the Legions either. The UI is clear enough that you’ll know when your Legion is in trouble and when to order them to retreat too. The speeds of the battles feel just right as well, allowing you to use the other analog stick to control your Legion with little interruption. As such, the crux of the battle design favours those who control their space well and choose appropriate moments to bind their enemies with their chain. It’s admittedly not as fast-paced as the likes of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, but Astral Chain has a different sense of intensity compared to its contemporaries that make it unique.
You can also customise the Legions to better build a team with abilities that cater to your play style. Each one has a unique ability tree to navigate and unlock using gene points, which are earnt by defeating enemies. Some abilities are shared – every Legion gets the power buff, for example – but most of them are unique to each one. If that’s not enough customisation for you, each Legion can use a pre-set colour schemes, or you can create them yourself. Unit-01 fans eat your heart out.
One thing notable about the Legions is how they assist you outside of battle. One can slash through lasers to clear a pathway while another can sniff out hidden items in the ground. These abilities extend to the platforming, where moving a legion to an area allows your character to jump to them. One of the Legions can even behave as a mount, allowing for quicker traversal. It’s a simple but effective way to ensure the Legions are always front and centre and helps keep things interesting when outside of battles.
A major issue I had with Astral Chain was that it felt at times that the pacing suffers. It was a game that I wanted to sink myself into non-stop, but after each level, I found myself needing to take a break. The tedium of the blue cases and repetitive nature of the structure means the game begins to drag as the third act begins. Contributing to this, the game is one of Platinum’s longest, coming in at between fifteen to twenty hours for most players, which feels a little bit too long for a game like this.
Such a problem is exacerbated by a pervasive issue that seems to be plaguing most action games this generation – the environments and the locales are continuously reused. One glaring example is the Astral Plane, which appears like a corrupted or warped digital landscape. It’s visually stunning at first, but the game is so keen to keep throwing you back into it that it gets rather grating.
Thankfully, despite this, the game remains fun and enjoyable for most of its lengthy runtime. It just loses steam towards the beginning of the third act before picking up and ending the only way Platinum knows how – outrageously.
In terms of performance, the general quirks associated with the Switch remain. The art direction is strikingly good, with an almost garish spectrum of bright neon colours flooding your screen at any given moment. But despite this, performance can dip below the target framerate of 30fps regularly, slowing down the action considerably.
But it gives me great pleasure to balance out this criticism by declaring this to have one of the best soundtracks of the year. It’s eclectic than ever – some tracks blare distorted electronic, others cruisy bass, some even with epic operatic vocals. Astral Chain’s music does a phenomenal job at setting the scene and giving key battles more weight.
THE NINTENDO SWITCH VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Astral Chain is a unique experience from beginning to end, but some strange choices in the way it tells its story and major pacing issues in the third act bring it down. Regardless, Astral Chain fits right in amongst the Platinum greats, offering a fun and unique battle system that does a fantastic job at differentiating itself from its contemporaries.