'Astral Chain': Game Review

Astral Chain - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Nintendo

The Nintendo Switch exclusive, from 'Bayonetta' studio Platinum Games, is big on ambition, introducing a variety of new mechanics.

Japanese developer Platinum Games, best-known for the Bayonetta series, has delivered its most ambitious title yet with Astral Chain, a jack of all trades that offers a lot of fresh elements, albeit without ever mastering any of them. 

Astral Chain tells the story of twins selected to an elite group of crime fighters called Neuron. The unit protects the Ark, humanity’s last stronghold against a race of malevolent otherworldly beings called Chimeras. These Chimeras enter the human world through tears in reality called Gates, and the heroes of Neuron travel between the two dimensions throughout the story. Aiding the twins are tamed Chimeras called Legion, which are attached to the protagonists through a literal chain of energy. Players can choose their own hero, customize their appearance and, later on, the color and look of their Legion.

The Legion are easily the most interesting component of the game’s combat system, giving the player control of two fighters at the same time and offering strategy options that other action games simply can’t. In one battle the Legion can fight separately from the hero, in another the two can work in tandem for an entirely different set of attacks. This mechanic works incredibly well as the Legion complements the hero in ways that elevate both characters. 

Different Legion types also ensure that the battle system never grows stale, from the agile Sword Legion to the bruising Arm Legion. Each one can also assist outside of battle, manipulating the environment in unique ways that allow the hero to continue. The Beast Legion, for instance, can dig through piles of rubble blocking doors and open new paths. The game goes to great lengths to make the Legion feel essential to success rather than just simple window dressing.

The heat of combat with two combatants does bring with it some technical issues, however, notably in the camera work. Astral Chain’s camera is, simply put, not the greatest. It gets stuck in odd angles when walking through tight spaces and massive bosses tend to block its view of the hero while attacks are being thrown. 

There’s also some noticeable downtime when the Legion is doing its own thing during a battle, as if the AI forgets it’s fighting against enemies and decides to take a breather. Most of the time these delays are minor and the Legion will pick back up fighting, but occasionally players will have to consciously bring the Legion back to his or her side before it will continue fighting. This gets annoying quickly, as having to essentially coax a Legion back to battle breaks the flow of the action noticeably. 

Platinum is careful not to overload the game with battles, supplementing the combat with detective work at the beginning of every chapter. The hero will walk around sections of the city, gathering clues in the form of “keywords” that will then be used to review the case at hand. Once the facts are laid out, the game ramps up the action, but these investigative moments keep the game from becoming a mindless button-masher. 

The investigative sections also open the door to a myriad of side quests, which are uniquely sprinkled throughout each mission location. There are two types: Blue Cases, which are simpler tasks, and Red Cases, which require some legwork. The quests never feel extraneous. Even a case as simple as getting a balloon out of a tree for a child feels important. The heroes are cops after all, helping the public is part of the job. The main story arc has plenty to offer, but these side missions make sure there’s more than enough tasks at hand to keep the player coming back for more. 

Also buffering the action pieces are a variety of platforming areas, which are most commonly seen in the Chimeran “astral plane.” These sections mix small battles with puzzle-solving and world traversal, making this foreign world feel dangerous and wondrous all at once. That said, Astral Chain does sometimes fall victim to bad physics, knocking the hero off of a ledge they clearly landed on safely. 

Some longtime Platinum fans may not get the adrenaline rush they’re looking for. Astral Chain takes its time, methodically approaching its story and offering no reward for simply powering through the game guns a-blazing. Many sections require thought and strategy, where players must rely on cunning in battle rather than relentless assaults. 

Astral Chain brings the action Platinum is known for (even if some longtime fans of the studio won't get the adrenaline rush they're hoping for), while sprinkling in some new and equally fun elements to keep the experience fresh. The few issues that do appear tend to show up in very inopportune moments, but the massive boss battles and unique Legion-based gameplay should be enough to quell any lingering frustration, giving the Nintendo Switch another solid exclusive to be enjoyed.

Astral Chain is available on Nintendo Switch on Aug. 30.