PlatinumGames has been on a roll since its inception a decade ago, and almost every title the studio has released has solid gold. This is a double-edged sword, as it puts each of its new releases under a microscope. After the fantastic Nier: Automata I was skeptical that PlatinumGames could reinvent its beat-em-up RPG formula to such positive results again, but Astral Chain proved me wrong.
Although under examination Nier: Automata and Astral Chain have very similar gameplay at their core, the presentation and layered systems make each feel entirely different. It’s a testament to the studio’s ability to world-build that so quickly off the back of Nier: Automata it was able to deliver such a unique and high-quality product. While many studios are struggling just to churn out sequels to established IPs that satisfy fans, PlatinumGames continues to create new properties that blow the competition out of the water, and Astral Chain is proof that the studio is a master of its craft.
Astral Chain Review | They are legion.
In the future presented in Astral Chain, Earth has been almost entirely overrun by an extradimensional species called the Chimera. The Chimera inhabit a dimension called the Astral Plane and have terraformed much of the surface of the world to resemble their home. Billions of people have died, and the remainder have established a city called The Ark where they’re making their last stand against the Chimera.
Humanity’s one effective weapon against the Chimera is the Legion. Legions are Chimera which are “tamed” and chained to a user via the Astral Chain. The Astral Chain is a psychic bond of energy which allows the user, dubbed a Legionis, to command the equipped Legion. Being chained to a Legion augments a human’s power considerably, and also allows them to see the Chimera and their effect on the physical world. Unfortunately for humanity, the ability to synchronize with a Legion is not universal, and only an elite few can use the powerful creatures in combat.
When the game begins, you take the role of one of two twins who have just joined Neuron, an elite police unit. Neuron currently has a monopoly on Legions, and since the twins have shown a high sync rate, they have been chosen to receive their own when they become available. Before that can happen, a Chimera attack is reported, and you’re forced to deploy to the scene to assist police in evacuating civilians and staving off the enemy.
Discovering the mystery behind the Chimera invasions and the motivations behind them is a large part of the plot, as is exploring the player character’s aptitude for syncing with Legions. Eventually, you’ll find yourself in a “savior of mankind” situation, and become the only Neuron officer able to control a Legion, which is somewhat cliche. However, the core plot manages to remain intriguing enough to excuse the overused anime tropes that rear their head now and then.
Astral Chain Review | Switch into high gear.
I’m increasingly impressed with just how excellent the performance is that we see with games optimized exclusively for the Switch. Astral Chain is beautiful and remains fluid while there’s a ton of action on the screen. It is the Switch, so we’re not talking about 4K at 60fps, but the game remains at a stable 30 fps while sticking to around 900p. Astral Chain uses dynamic resolution, so there are some image quality drops at times as the Switch compensates to maintain framerate, but it’s not super noticeable.
The visuals are just as impressive as the performance, with cel-shading giving an anime/manga vibe to the game’s characters and environments. It’s astounding to see how far cel-shading has come, and Astral Chain is one of the best examples of the technique to date. This, combined with oversaturated colors, gives the game a beautiful, stylized presentation, and it helps to cover some of the Switch’s shortcomings when it comes to texture memory.
There’s been much ado made about system exclusives, but Astral Chain shows where a game focused around one specific console can be a good thing. It plays to the Switch’s strengths while working around its weaknesses to craft a game that meshes perfectly with the hardware.
Astral Chain Review | Double the fun.
The big hook for Astral Chain is the ability to control two characters on screen at once. Both you and your Legion can fight simultaneously, combining your power to overwhelm Chimera and win the day. The controls for doing this are surprisingly intuitive and seem like an evolution of the way you controlled pods in Nier: Automata.
Over the course of Astral Chain, you’ll gain access to five different Legions. Your initial one, the Sword Legion, is a great all-rounder but isn’t outstanding at any one category. The remaining four are all specialists, each of which excels in a particular facet of combat. The Bow Legion, for example, supplements your blaster with strong ranged attacks, whereas the Arm Legion as a brute that pounds enemies with brutal, but slow, physical attacks.
Each Legion has an upgradable meter which dictates how long you can deploy it, which adds some challenge to the game. Knowing when to deploy and retract your Legion is the first thing you need to grasp to be effective in combat. The meter also acts as a health gauge for a Legion, so when an enemy scores a hit on it the time a Legion can remain out is reduced. If the indicator is completely emptied, it will refill slower than if you manually retracted a Legion, which leaves you on your own for longer.
Since your Legion gives you access to many of your combat options, your character doesn’t fight the best on their own. However, you have access to three upgradeable weapons you can use with your human fighter, the baton, the blaster, and the gladius. The baton allows for quick physical hits, the blaster is a long-range gun, and the gladius hammers your foes with slow, powerful blows. Each type of Chimera is weaker to one weapon over the other two, so making sure you become adept at all three is essential.
Your real power stems from teaming up with your Legion to cause maximum damage. Pulling off a perfect dodge, for example, will slow time for a moment and allow you to perform a Sync Attack which lets you combo an enemy in tandem with your Legion. These attacks are much more potent than either your character or your Legion’s base moves alone, and as you upgrade your Legion, you’ll be able to chain together multiple Sync Attacks to devastating effect.
The full upgrade system allows you to tweak Legions to your combat style. They can learn new attacks, equip buffs and skills, and grow to become more powerful. Each creature starts out potent, but by the end of the game, they can be death-dealing powerhouses. You can also upgrade each of your three weapons to make them stronger and to gain access to new moves in combat. The RPG systems enhance the gameplay loop and make it more satisfying than if it were just a standard beat-em-up.
Astral Chain Review | Non-combatant.
Astral Chain strikes a good balance between frantic beat-em-up action and non-combat gameplay by introducing investigative sections. You’re a police officer after all, so it’s your job to put together the pieces behind Chimera attacks and figure out how to prevent another one. You’ll interview witnesses, replay video logs, and use your Legion to track Chimera down once you’re on the trail.
I would have liked the investigative segments to have gone a little deeper than they did. Getting something a little closer to LA Noire would have made this game even more special. As it is, you mostly need to follow the waypoint on your minimap and barring a waypoint, just talk to everyone in the area. I found myself engrossed in the worldbuilding of the non-combat segments, and I think making you have to really puzzle out each incident would have been a blast.
Adding to replayability is the fact that each Legion has actions it can take outside of battle. The Sword Legion can cure citizens of redshift (a sickness that will eventually turn a human into a Chimera) and slice through electronic beams like lasers or radio signals, and each of the other four has their own special non-combat abilities as well.
Especially in the first few levels, you’ll come across locations you can’t access because you don’t have the right Legion. Once you figure out which Legion you needed, going back to a previous stage can be very rewarding as you can then access these areas to find items and side quests you didn’t see before. Strangely, there is no New Game Plus mode in Astral Chain, but you do unlock a challenge mode at the end of the game, and you can replay chapters at will.
Astral Chain Review | Another PlatinumGames masterpiece.
PlatinumGames just gets so much right in its games and Astral Chain is another example of how in touch the studio is with current trends. Astral Chain puts a fresh perspective on one of the oldest genres in gaming and is one of my favorite Switch exclusives to date. I would have liked to have seen more done with the non-combat sections of the game, but what’s there is excellent.
Astral Chain is a unique and beautiful game that excels at what it’s trying to do. It’s one of the best games of the year so far, and it makes me excited to see what the studio will come up with next.