You are the Ark’s last beacon of hope. Without you and your Legion to stop the demonic Chimera, humanity will perish in the Astral Plane. Featuring a superb mix of combat, investigation, stealth and puzzle mechanics, PlatinumGames has delivered a fresh, enticing title that even Rodin would raise a brow, and perhaps a glass, too. An intense, thrilling and climatic ride that’s both challenging to play and entertaining to watch.
The action-adventure title, Astral Chain, is what many would class as ‘home turf’ for developer PlatinumGames. Set in a ravaged man-made megacity known as The Ark, it’s a startling depiction of a world that’s lost, in desperate need of salvation. Perfect territory to parade both glorious and gruesome enemies within. There’s a whiff of sentimental value and nostalgia in Astral Chain’s gameplay too. Perhaps that’s down to notable inspiration from franchises such as Xenoblade, Bayonetta, Devil May Cry and, in some moments, The Last of Us. This unique blend isn’t off-putting though. It feels deeply satisfying and familiar to play, with some superbly woven pace-changers thrown in for good measure. Then there’s the investigation; a pseudo CSI show that doesn’t derail the game by asking questions first and shooting later. These parts are placed purposefully to catch your breath between the hair-raising, edge-of-your-seat gameplay that’s on offer in this post-apocalyptic cyberpunk world.
Taking around 35 hours to complete, Astral Chain wraps itself around the journey of a set of twins born in the Pandemic. Fathered by Captain Max Howard, the twins (Akira and an unnamed protagonist) are the new initiates of the Neuron Task Force – a special ops force that are trained to protect citizens from the slew of Chimera and the Redshift disease that plague the Ark in 2078. After losing your father to the Astral Plane – a bizarre, red-tinted corrupted world that bears similarities to Krypton – during a fatal moment between Legion and humans, the fate of humanity rests squarely on your shoulders. At Yosef Calvert’s command, players are tasked with not only saving humankind from being absorbed into the Astral Plane, but to discover the whereabouts of the four remaining Legion and wield them as their own. But when ARI scientist Jena Anderson begins unleashing her grievous plant-like creations on innocent citizens, things start to take a turn for the worse.
With three play styles available straight off the bat, Astral Chain keeps things easy for players new to PlatinumGames’ titles during Unchained and Casual modes. For those familiar with the difficulty, Platinum Standard bodes well for gamers who want a challenge without breaking too much of a sweat, while Platinum Ultimate (unlocked after chapter/file completion) is vicious in its appeal, requiring precision with the dodge and sync attack mechanic.
As covered at length in our preview, Astral Chain deftly blends the combat from Bayonetta and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 to deliver an exciting smorgasbord of mechanics. Between perfecting your dodges to initiating a perfect call with your Legion to deliver a sync attack, the combat shines brilliantly in this setting. There’s also something uncanny in its appeal too. You can use your Legion’s chain to bind multiple enemies, chain jump across large gaps, and climb their chain to get some incredible airtime during sync attack combos. Unsettling and exhilarating at the same time. Of course, even Legion need respite from time to time; that’s why they’re tied to a Limiter Gauge. Acting as a stamina bar, the Limiter steadily depletes over time. While you can upgrade the Limiter, increasing the number of seconds available to your Legion, perfecting when to call and dismiss your Legion is the key to victory.
Since most PlatinumGames require you to ‘get good, or die trying’, mastering each of the five Legion available to you is worth its weight in gold. Between File01 and File08, you’ll unlock the Sword, Arm, Arrow, Beast and Axe to use in battle and exploration mode. Each Legion type comes with their own Skill Tree, where you’ll need to acquire Gene Codes to unlock special skills, increased stats and ability slots. The Axe Legion, for example, can use a special skill named ‘Blue Shield’ which props up both player and Legion defence with four revolving shields, while the Arrow Legion can use ‘Air Shot’ to rain down arrows, sniping multiple enemies mid-flight. Specials can be activated during battle by holding ZL and X/Y (other pre-set button configurations are available). They’re a great way to annihilate smaller enemies, leaving you to focus on the big boy.
Outside of battle, Legions are particularly adept. Between cleaning up Red Matter to helping innocent bystanders recover from Redshift, they are vital to the Ark’s ecosystem. The Beast Legion is a favourite of mine as, not only can you pet the adorable creature, it also leads you straight to clues and perpetrators by way of its scent tracking ability. Unfortunately, when you choose to hitch a ride from your canine friend, keeping control of it is a complete nightmare with clumsy, wildly erratic movement. On the other hand, the Arm Legion can carry you (in a controlled manner) across obstacles and sticky goop. Plus, you can even fight from within the Arm, using its mechanics as an extension of your own body.
Astral Chain’s investigative elements of play are a great change of pace from the intense battle action. As a Neuron Police Officer, you’ll earn Duty Points by helping citizens of the Ark. By solving Red (main) and Blue (side) cases throughout chapters, you can improve your ranking and earn bountiful rewards, health increases and more. There’s a real mixture of gameplay on offer too. Stealth, chase, collectathon, gyro control and straight up puzzles all make an appearance. One of my personal favourites was trying to move cars with my Arm Legion to clear a path for the clean-up team during File08. Taking place in a top-down grid, players must try to move the cars in the least amount of moves as possible to achieve the highest score. Even stealth missions are fun, enabling players to wield their chain mechanic with skill.
Exploring the Astral Plane also reaps rewards. This bizarre interdimensional area is home to block puzzles, invisible flooring, moving platforms and disappearing tiles. It’s like a Zelda dungeon and features a myriad of different paths to hard-to-reach areas for field items. Chimera will frequently pop up here too, often causing you to think before you act. You’ll find it’s easy to zip between the Ark and the Astral Plane with red gates – just like those seen in Bayonetta. And although the Astral Plane isn’t aesthetically pleasing, it’s purposefully presented to assault your senses, driving you to find the exit that much quicker.
While Astral Chain is best played in docked mode with a Pro Controller for accuracy and precision during combat, handheld play is sharp and detailed. In terms of layout, it can be difficult to initiate special attacks with such a wide controller but those can be solved with altering the pre-set button configurations. Unfortunately, like most games in handheld, the scale of enemies quickly becomes diluted, resulting in fights which don’t feel quite as explosive and action-packed as they would on a larger screen.
If you’re looking to play Astral Chain in co-op mode, it’s probably best to take it in turns. In co-op, player one controls the main character, while player 2 controls the Legion and camera. Although you’ll have more control and are able to focus on one character rather than two, co-op mode feels awkwardly disjointed. When the entire storyline focuses on you becoming one with your Legion, splitting this up into two modes of control feels deeply unsettling. Not only is the mode unpolished, it also forces both players to use a single joy-con each. The result is a hot mess of clunky, stifled gameplay which catches the camera involuntarily, disorientating both players.
PlatinumGames has developed a superb blend of combat, investigation and stealth in Astral Chain. It’s a game that keeps you on your toes – for better or worse – and like any other title in their arsenal, requires players to get good quickly or die trying. For fans of Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, Astral Chain is a must-buy. An explosive action game that demands your attention.
A review copy of Astral Chain was provided to My Nintendo News by Nintendo UK.