Astral Chain takes a while to get going, but it becomes a charming, thrilling experience that borrows much from other PlatinumGames titles while being something special all of its own.
When it came to marketing Astral Chain, Nintendo had a lot of strong production credit options. From the creators of Bayonetta? From the developers of Metal Gear Rising? Supervised by Hideki Kamiya? Or, er, from the makers of Star Fox Zero? Well, maybe leave that one off… but what about this: directed by the lead designer of 2017 game of the year contender Nier Automata?
That last credit is probably the most important. Takahisa Taura isn’t one of those Japanese developer names that’s instantly recognizable, but Astral Chain is a strong argument that in years to come he may well become that. Nier Automata was the brainchild of the gleefully chaotic Yoko Taro, but Taura essentially led the project at developer PlatinumGames – and after the success of Automata, Astral Chain is his first project directly at the helm.
While games are of course made by huge, talented teams rather than one god-like individual, Taura’s journey to this role appears key to Astral Chain. The game has been supervised by action master Hideki Kamiya, creator of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta. From Taro and Nier the game clearly borrows an attitude – some light-touch RPG-like mechanics and a dedication to minute detail and cute, silly nods. Atop this is a sprinkling of the all-new. And the result is a game that feels like a brilliant PlatinumGames greatest hits collection while also something that stands apart quite uniquely on its own.
Set in the year 2078, humanity now lives in one mega-city that’s actually sprawled across a man-made floating island. You’re cast as a member of the police, but you’re not dealing with petty crime: you’re actually super special anime cops that tackle the supernatural. In this case, the supernatural takes the form of deadly, invisible interdimensional monsters called Chimeras. You have the abilities and technology to see, fight, defeat and even capture the chimera, and stopping the invasion and preventing deaths becomes the driving thrust of the story.
It’s from the system of capturing and making use of chimera that the game gets its name. The titular Astral Chain is the ethereal blue chain that is used to ‘bind’ a captured Chimera, known as a Legion, to you. A Legion can be summoned for a limited time, but when it’s out it is a useful AI partner in combat that can also be controlled to a limited degree. You’re always attached by that chain, however, thus limiting how far a Legion can stray. It also proves a valuable twist to combat – the protagonist and their Legion can dance around enemies to wrap them in the chain, trapping them for a time, clotheslining them with the chain for a knockdown, and so on.
Much of combat beyond this twist is typically Platinum. There’s a lovely, meaty dodge and counter-attack mechanic that feels incredibly satisfying when you nail it. There’s different combo options and a satisfying rhythm to combat that players must really master if they want to get the most from the game. There’s even, dare I say, a shade of the closed-doors demos I saw of Platinum’s cancelled Xbox title Scalebound in that you find greatly differing move sets through your AI partner and the five different Legion types you eventually unlock rather than through the protagonist, who has a fairly predictable skill set for an anime rozzer.
As both cop and Legions see their abilities grow, the options for how the two can interact greatly open up, creating brilliant opportunities for the two to work together in combat. This is when Astral Chain is at its best: when a sense of balance is found between the AI partner and the protagonist, and in this Astral Chain manages to find a new strand and style within the action genre Platinum has so thoroughly cornered.
Astral Chain isn’t all fighting, however. The flow of the game is pretty clearly cut three ways: there’s exploration, investigation and combat. These three don’t necessarily always follow the same order mission-to-mission, but all three are typically present in any one of the stages of the story.
Exploration is pretty simple, and this is where the influence of Nier Automata is most keenly felt. You’ll actually get downtime between missions to explore chunks of the city. This isn’t open world, but rather smaller, curated zones with side quests and points of interest. There’s lots of Taro-style touches here that Taura clearly picked up on while working on Nier – like how you’ll be fined for jaywalking if you don’t wait for the city’s slick hologram crosswalks to flash green. The sidequest content is relatively run-of-the-mill but enjoyable nonetheless, and the Legion is used in some smart non-combat ways here, like using its invisibility to the normal public to position it close to chatting NPCs to listen in on a private conversation from afar.
On other occasions you’ll be tasked with an investigation of a sort – and that basically takes the form of a Batman-style detective mode where you’ll search an area for clues using your holographic interface. Often this is something large and impressive caused by the invading chimera, but sometimes you’ll also just be a good cop, helping citizens out with more mundane enquiries.
It all comes back to combat, however. That is Astral Chain’s heart. You’ll be yanked into the Astral Plain, the home of the Chimera, and weather waves of assault and tackle platforming across bizarre otherworldly environments. Before anything gets too boring, Taura’s past experience rears its head again in the form of surprisingly intricate RPG systems – character upgrades and stats to consider, this game as much a role-playing one as much as it is a character action game. As previously mentioned, the upgrades and stats across the six ‘playable’ characters – the protagonist and five different Legion – leads to a great deal of variety and choice in battle.
That choice isn’t just about giving the combo-heads something to do, either. You can use certain upgrades to tweak abilities to make Astral Chain a little less twitch-focused than a Bayonetta, for instance, or buy skills that take the micro-management pressure off on the Legion side if handling both characters is proving a bit much. It works on multiple levels, much like the rest of the game.
This review has largely been gushing, but I want you to know that Astral Chain isn’t perfect. The non-combat side of the game is often fairly pedestrian and the story can be pretty overwrought even if it is largely told in a knowing, tongue-in-cheek manner. With that noted, this is absolutely a worthy successor to Nier Automata – and like that game, Astral Chain is definitely a contender for one of my favourite games of the year.