Astral Chain is the gaming equivalent of snowboarding while wearing sunglasses and posting an absolutely banging snarky tweet from your mobile. It simply oozes this kind of cool – look, I didn’t make the rules here – with its superstar developer line-up at Platinum having built up an anime-infused world of police, monsters and the decay of human society, and then wrapped it up with some of their trademark flashy and frenetic combat.
The only thing is that it doesn’t immediately appear to be that cool. You begin the game with a motorbike section that owes more to the PSP’s Pursuit Force (if you can remember such a thing) than it does Bayonetta, and when you eventually hit the ground you find yourself to be a meek and fairly mild police officer with a puny gun and a baton. Taking out the grotesque Aberrations that confront you isn’t even that easy, and that’s before you’re suddenly confronted by invisible Chimeras that you can’t even touch.
Fortunately, Astral Chain gets much, much cooler pretty quickly. You’re recruited/forced/the subject of nepotism into Neuron, a shady, basement-level police department that’s basically just become humanity’s last hope against this otherworldly threat. Neuron’s experimental raison d’etre is that they’ve found a way to capture and control Chimeras by tethering them to receptive police officers, and, surprise! You’re super receptive!
So is your twin – presumably to make selecting what gender you pick have some thematic value. You can change a few visual parameters like skin colour and hair style of whichever sibling you’ve picked to make them feel a bit more like yours, but largely they’re your classic anime game silent protagonist, just with a monster chained to them. Masakazu Katsura – creator of the Zetman manga – is responsible for the character designs, and the wider cast have a similar appeal, drawing you into this incredible world.
Astral Chain itself looks and feels like the action hybrid sibling of Monolith Soft’s Xenoblade Chronicles 2, with the tethering between character and living weapon almost a direct match. That’s hardly a negative – Xenoblade 2 is among the best games on the Switch – but it takes away some of what would otherwise feel pretty damn unique about the game.
When you take the controls though, it’s clear that there are some significant differences. This is a Platinum game after all. Your tethered Chimera – known as a Legion – can be called upon whenever you need to battle, like a horrible, writhing, steroid-infused Pokémon. They’ll actually attack anything nearby quite happily if you let them, but the most interesting stuff happens if you take control of them. It takes some getting used to, as you’re still in charge of your main character’s attacks and dodging, but if you hold the ZL button you can move your Legion around and send them after whoever most needs stabbing by a vicious beast.
You can also do a couple of interesting things with the chain connecting you together. If you have your Legion wrap their chain around an enemy – think a monster-shaped version of Wedge Antilles’ Snowspeeder taking down an AT-AT – they’ll become tethered in place for a short time, giving you the chance to wallop them without any chance of comeuppance until they break free. You can also use your chain to bounce a charging enemy backwards by catching them between yourself and your Legion, which again gives you a few sweet sweet seconds to dole out a fistful of damage.
There is, of course, a fair amount of importance placed on dodging. Just like Bayonetta, Nier: Automata and Transformers Devastation, carefully timing your evasive manoeuvre will see you enter a bullet-time state where you can unleash a powerful counterattack. Enemy attacks glow green and red to give a visual cue, but you’ll still find yourself getting smacked around the first few times you try it. Trying to keep tabs on your main character’s dodges and attacks while utilising your Legion effectively definitely isn’t that easy to pick up, but when it falls into place combat starts to show some of that old Platinum rhythm. It feels good.
The Chimera come in various sizes, and they get much, much bigger as you progress. Coming across one in the course of a regular section let’s you know you’re in for a decent challenge, but when one of the huge bosses turn up you can expect to be pummelled. There are at least three different difficulty levels for you to play through; Unchained basically takes charge of any combat section for you, Casual is easy, and Platinum will make you work hard to succeed. Platinum difficulty is also the only one where you achieve ranks for your play, is strict on the number of lives you have, and really it’s the true way to play the game. It’s nice to see the inclusion of more accessible options though, and Unchained mode means that anyone will be able to experience the story and the world.
Being a police officer, the game fortunately shows that it’s not all about beating up supernatural perps and brings in some detective work for you to work your way through as well. If you’ve played one of Rocksteady’s Batman games you’ll have a good idea of how it works, even matching its blue-tinged visuals when you enter detective mode – wait, I mean IRIS mode.
In IRIS mode you gather evidence by replaying events via the police’s holographic reconstruction – shame it can’t quite recreate everything that happened, huh? Once you’ve built up a timeline and gathered your evidence, Captain Max, or Captain Dad as he actually is, will quiz you on what you think you’ve discovered. Don’t worry about getting these exceedingly easy questions wrong as you’ll get to continue no matter what, even if your father thinks you’re an idiot, and a disgrace to the uniform.
You can use your Legion out here to do some stuff as well, like listening in on conversations (normal people can’t see Chimera unless the area is heavily corrupted) or closing the portals that Aberrations and Chimera slip through, though these sections seem a little forced, at least early-on in the game. For all that the design work is absolutely stellar, and it looks and sounds amazing, I worry that the periods between beating up bad things isn’t going to work long term. That said, we’ve only played a very early portion of the game so far.
It feels as though I’ve spent this entire time comparing Astral Chain to any number of other things, but all of these disparate elements are certainly being pulled together in an interesting way. Platinum’s trademark combat feels mashed up and messier here than it has ever done in the past, but there’s a vibrancy that more than makes up for its lack of absolute precision. I can’t wait to see where it all goes, and it’s undoubtedly a great start for another Nintendo exclusive.