Platinum Games have spent the last dozen years making slick action game combat their calling card. From the raging sass of Bayonetta to the calculated combat of NieR: Automata, they’re a studio that knows how to take something as straightforward as people trying to smack each other about and turn it into a balletic, hyperkinetic visual feast that will have players on the edge of their seats for hours upon end.
Astral Chain is the latest from the Japanese development house, and fans can immediately rest easy in the knowledge that so many of the elements that have typified their previous work are present here. There’s their particular brand of razor-sharp combat in a beautifully presented and fantastical world, but where previous games have focussed on their characterful lead protagonists, Astral Chain is much more interested in putting you at the centre of the action.
You’re cast as a police officer tasked with keeping the peace on the Ark – a floating island safe haven that was built when the Earth began to be overrun by an otherworldly contagion. Unfortunately for the populace of the Ark, that hasn’t exactly gone to plan. Gates to this otherworld have started to pop up there as well, with citizens turning into aberrations as they’re affected by the redshift energy that’s flooding the world, and other horrendous creatures known as Chimera starting to invade. It’s a right old apocalypse.
Fortunately for you, you quickly go from Bobby on the beat to being inducted into the police task force Neuron, who have the only known means of fighting back against the corruption and its resulting horrors. Unfortunately for you, this relies on chaining you to a captured Chimera which, despite all of their writhing and clear intention to get away from you at any given moment, will fight alongside you and take your orders. Most of the time.
Combat centres on the synergy between you and your captured Chimera – known as a Legion – and the legacy of Platinum’s dodge-heavy fighting style is plain to see. You control your central character in a relatively traditional way, with your transforming X-baton capable of dishing out plenty of damage on its own. However, while you can leave the Legion to their own devices to auto-attack whoever they see fit, you have to take on board what they’re doing if you want to be completely effective in battle.
It can all get a little fiddly at times, and even towards the end of the game I still found myself all fingers and thumbs while trying to get each of my Legion to do exactly what I wanted. When it clicks it’s an awesome system, and I never struggled any more than I felt I should have, but I can see some players loathing the more technical aspects of wrapping enemies in your chain or having to utilise the various Legion and their special moves while trying not to die.
Though there are clear ties to Bayonetta, NieR: Automata and Platinum’s licensed output like Transformers Devastation, Astral Chain feels as though it’s inherited a hefty dose of The Wonderful 101’s engaging and occasionally confusing control scheme. Much like that under-appreciated gem there’s tons of fun to be had with it, but don’t be surprised if you don’t always feel completely in control of everything that’s happening in front of you.
The overarching narrative is classic anime fare, with you and your twin sibling at the heart of the action – you choose whether you want to be the male or female twin at the start of the game. The storytelling is excellent with brilliant in-engine cutscenes and high-quality voice acting helping everything come to life, but I was often left wondering why Platinum had decided to make the central protagonist silent. It makes sense in games where you’re trying to see yourself in the game, but it just steals some of the life from Astral Chain. The sum total of the lead’s personality can be found in a solitary chuckle and it just feels at odds with everything else Platinum have put in place here.
The sound design is phenomenal. Satoshi Igarashi mixes high-octane action-flick orchestral riffs with futuristic beats and heavy guitars in the more intense moments, contrasting them with atmospheric vocal tracks that call to mind the Halo series’ soundtrack. With a few awesome metal riffs thrown in for good measure it regularly sets the tone, particularly during the hairier combat sections.
It’s not all about combat mind you. There’s plenty of actual policework for your future cop to get embroiled in. At various points you have to collect evidence, using camera footage, a Batman-esque IRIS mode, witness statements, and you’ll even use your Legion to eavesdrop on unsuspecting perps. You then have to put it all together once you’ve built enough of a picture of what happened. Though it’s no different to any number of RPGs that gate progress behind having to talk to a specific character, it’s a clever way of dressing it up and making you pay attention throughout.
There are other RPG-esque systems squirreled away behind all the fighting as well. You can level up your equipment, earn rewards for a series of gameplay goals, and unlock new moves and improved stats for each of your Legion. At times this feels like it’s another box ticking exercise, but new moves and abilities change the way a Legion handles and adds some nuance as you get further into the game.
I wasn’t initially convinced by the sections between the combat, but I came to love the world that Platinum has built here. Travelling through the different areas in the Ark and beyond, solving crimes and even just picking up litter is surprisingly compelling and I really started to relish the more thoughtful approach. At times there’s some light puzzling as well, all of which helped to break the experience up, and if you’re a completionist there’s a ton of things to keep you busy on your journey.
Given the recent conversation over gatekeeping in action-heavy games, it’s nice to see that there’s been some thought put into accessibility here. Platinum have included an Unchained difficulty mode which will quite successfully handle the combat for you, leaving you to experience the story in full. It’s still probably not the easiest game in the world – utilising your Legion outside of combat can still be tricky – but it’s pleasing to see efforts being made to help people through. On the other end of the scale, those looking for a serious challenge can jump into Platinum or Pt Ultimate difficulty which will grade you for your performance in each section.