What was a huge surprise towards the end of a Nintendo Direct earlier this year, Astral Chain arrives a mere six months after announcement and comes from the highly talented and experienced team at PlatinumGames. The action-adventure hack and slash gains a new IP to the genre, will this new universe bolster Platinum’s already impressive library that includes the likes of Nier: Automata and Bayonetta or prove to be a chink in their chain?
Extinction is imminent in the year 2078, the human race has been reduced drastically and what remains are those who now reside on an artificial island that features “The Ark” a city designed to be the last stand of humanity. From first look, the hook is there, immediately an interesting story is presented that features a clear and present danger. Chimeras have arrived from another dimension called the Astral Plane and seek to corrupt all life and in essence destroy everything in their path.
Enter your character who will be one of two siblings, twins to be precise and you get to choose which one to play. Your pick will become your unique character to customise whilst the other will be named Akira Howard and a unique point is that they are opposite genders, so your story may feature a male or a female Akira. The main purpose for this I believe is that it makes things so much easier from a story-telling and design perspective throughout and especially in the late-game. You and your sister join Neuron who serve as the Chimera-ass kicking good guys hell bent on thwarting the inter dimensional creatures and protecting humankind.
Going on from the beginning you are immediately hit with character after character that bring a variety in look, personality and their own role to play. Not all of them unfortunately stick, with many being forgettable and only a few being ones to remember mainly due to their involvement throughout the story. Akira, Yoseph, Jena, Hal, Olive and Brenda I can name off the top of my head with the others I really have to dig deep for, not ideal to have so many what I feel to be throwaway characters but it lets some of the others shine just so much more.
PlatinumGames have a trend of producing unique, out-there stories paired with responsive, fast and enjoyable gameplay, the same goes for this through and through. The main gameplay feature is the player and legion link, you control not only your character but a legion which is linked to them via their Legatus equipment. This makes for an experience that is a bit tricky to pick up but after you find your footing it is so damn rewarding piecing all the intricacies and variables together.
The ZL and ZR buttons are heavily prioritised when in battle, with the latter being your regular attack button and the former used for calling on your Legion and attacking with them. Move and aim are as you expect, however holding ZL will mean the right stick will now move your Legion, handy for trying to navigating the many platforming style puzzles and blocking or tying up enemies. Between character and legion there is a strand that joins the two and this allows you to wrap around an NPC in order to halt them or can be used to block a charge and fling them off in the other direction, it’s different and just as much fun each and every time I execute it.
Skills can be assigned to each legion and serve to provide depth to the gameplay loop, much appreciated but I feel it doesn’t quite prevent fights from becoming a tad stale at times, especially when facing the same type of enemy numerous times in a row. Fortunately, throughout the entire twenty plus hour story, new enemy types get introduced right through to the end and bring their own battle pattern to figure out and combat. Each legion comes with their own skill tree that allows you to power them up with increased attack power, defense power and more skills.
If that wasn’t enough, ability codes offer buffs that range in anything from auto-heal to increasing critical damage. There is a lot to keep track of but I never got overwhelmed, I would sometimes forget to manage a few of the features but never felt penalised for doing so. There are five legion to add to your roster and I think what’s quite refreshing is how evenly spaced through-out the story they are in terms of bringing them in. What’s so great about this is that everytime I felt I was getting too comfortable, boom, new gameplay style. Variety can be seen in just about everything, legions, enemy types, missions, skills and ways to fight.
Chapters come in the form of files and in between each file you roam the central hub, the police headquarters in which Neuron members prepare themselves for each mission. It’s basically where you buy any consumables, customise your look and maintain your legions but presented in a way that just makes it seem a bit more than what it is.
This year has already produced some fantastic looking games in terms of art style and overall design, this joins that list with ease. The anime art style feels right at home in this futuristic, sci-fi setting and does well in covering up the quality limitations of the hardware. What’s quite funny is whilst there are some fidelity shortcomings, the setting and how the design has come together make the jagged lines seem deliberate, I can’t explain it other than it just fits.
All locations and characters exude this rough coolness, thanks to their aesthetic design and do a lot in building an epic fantasy world filled with bad-ass people to meet and interesting places to explore. Everything right down to the weapons and gear look like a piece of tech that I want to get my hands on, and what I dreamt of as a kid when running around with toy guns, swords and sabers. I could go on and on but simply put everything matches the setting, the UI, characters, locations, effects, everything, just……okay I’ll calm down.
What’s not to love about the soundtrack, it brings the beats and action when it absolutely needs to, it helps solidify the heartfelt, climactic moments and above all just makes me feel happy when playing. It doesn’t matter if I’m chilling around the central hub, exploring the rest of the city or in the heat of battle, the sound was with me at the right moments to build the tension and hype or bring the atmosphere down, it just kicks ass.
OVERALL: 9/10 – EXCELLENCE
Astral Chain is yet another fantastic addition to the Nintendo Switch library and the action, hack and slash genre in general. It reeks of personality, delivering not only a memorable story of survival, but a stunning soundtrack and awesome visuals too. Whilst among the cast of characters there are forgettable faces, I feel the ones that stick, do so for all the right reasons, well written and performed superbly. Platinum does it again.
Written by Rhys Baldwin.