Review | Astral Chain
I’ll just cut to the chase, Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 are my favorite “hack-and-slash” games of all time. The kinetic combat, over-the-top spectacle and easy to learn, hard to master controls make them some of the best in the genre. It created the pedigree for PlatinumGames, and after the third game was finally unveiled during the VGAs in 2017, its absence later was surprising. Even more so that Platinum is releasing another Switch exclusive action game before it, simply known as Astral Chain. Even if the latter didn’t have any significant spotlight, there’s a lot of that classic Platinum trademark action here.
Humanity has left the corrupt earth in favor of the space city of Ark, where life has far more stability. That is until a horde of chimera attack various landmarks around the area. The Neuron special task force was able to harness the power of the chimeras by utilizing the Legatus unit, a powered backpack that houses the titular “Astral Chain” that binds the rogue creatures. The player assumes the role of one of the Howard twins (either male or female) as a new cadet of Neuron. While the two are new to the force, they soon develop latent powers that become handy for their organizations, as well as their opposition.
The plot of Astral Chain would be familiar to anyone who has watched a sci-fi anime before. In fact, PlatinumGames enlisted the creative mind of Masakazu Katsura, a famed character designer in anime and manga such as DNA² and Tiger and Bunny. The English dialogue doesn’t sync with the dialogue, as it seems it was synced only to the Japanese audio. At the very least, the actors do a serviceable job regardless. Some characters are definitely likable, such as the shy Hal who hides behind a cute yellow drone. Also Marie, the bespectacled officer who tends to parade around the Ark as everyone’s favorite dog mascot, Lappy. However, the rest of the cast is rather one note and don’t leave much of an impression. This especially goes for the twin’s father, Max, who has a suspiciously high voice for a veteran warrior.
The reason why the plot might be a bigger issue here than in other games is the emphasis on exploration. Before every chapter, players can roam around the Neuron headquarters. Either to purchase items, upgrade weapons, or even complete missions. After departing for a mission, since Neuron are essentially hi-tech police, they also must solve crimes and help citizens. The game has several open areas in which the denizens of the Ark would need help with tasks. This includes finding lost items or even assisting Neuron directly by deciphering a case at a crime scene.
When it comes to crime solving, players use the IRIS system, similar to Detective Vision in the Batman Arkham trilogy. By scanning the area, players can view camera footage of suspicious perpetrators, even asking for evidence from locals. Gathering evidence may sound simple, but remembering the important details to rightfully discern the situation grants more duty points. Collecting more duty points at the end of a chapter will result in more experience. Gain enough experience to rank up and the maximum health will increase. Partaking in those activities can be a nice break from the action, but they also harm the pacing, often lasting longer than the actual combat segments. By the end of the game, they overstay their welcome. The good news is players can simply bypass side activities and tackle the main objective directly. The only drawback is gaining less duty points.
The player can use a unique weapon called an X-Baton. This sci-fi modification on a simple weapon actually has several configurations. The base settings is a fast hitting device, but it can also change into a gun that can hit flying enemies. Later on, a broadsword-like feature becomes available, and while slow, it can shatter enemy defenses easy. It’s satisfying using the right X-Baton configuration for the job, but more than often they do minuscule damage to the variety of enemies. That’s where the legions come in to play.
The legions, as mentioned before, are sentient creatures bound by a chain to do its user’s bidding. While at first only the Sword Legion is available, throughout the sizable adventure, more will be added to the arsenal. This includes Bow and Arm Legions. The key to playing well is knowing when to summon the legion and work in tandem with it. Legions can dish out a lot of damage, but their energy depletes if one’s not careful. Paying mind to the meter next to your Legion is vital to success.
Legions mostly fight on their own, often attacking the nearest enemy with combos. By holding the ZL trigger and moving the right analog stick, you can move the Legion manually. This helps in positioning the legion behind enemies, making them more vulnerable to critical attacks. Encircling enemies with the chain can also stun them for a moment. In fact, later on players can teach their Legions several sync attacks that turn the tide of a battle in an instant. When the character glows, a simple click on the ZL trigger can unleash a powerful sync attack. Successful performances gives a chance for another sync attack. While the combat starts off shallow, the player only performing a one button combo, once Legions learn new abilities, the combat does find its groove and become more entertaining. It’s just a shame it takes a few chapters (and Legions) to hit its stride.
Each Legion also has unique abilities that can be used on and off battle. The Sword Legion, for example, performs a directional slash at an angle that can stun enemies or break barriers. The only real nitpick I have here is the controls. Players have to memorize what each trigger does, pressing the analog to focus, and of course how one controls the attack direction and the other the camera position. Other abilities prove to be less daunting. The Bow Legion can shoot objects from afar, and the Arm Legion can lift heavy objects or open ajar doors. There’s even a Beast Legion that behaves like a police canine, digging up items or becoming a companion mount.
Some Legions fair better than others, and while there are plenty of methods to power them up, it’s best to focus on the ones you’ll use most frequently. Using ability chips can increase stats like attack, defense or healing prowess for your Legion. You can even teach them new skills like a temporary attack boost. The same goes for upgrading the X-Baton and the Legatus kit. While you can upgrade them, it’s pretty costly, leaving it to the player’s discretion as to what tool is the best for the job.
Besides roaming around in neon-lit cities, there are instances where players wander the eerie and ominous Astral Planes. These Astral Planes house many of the combat encounters in the game. There’s also simple puzzles to solve by utilizing the right Legions. In addition to puzzles, there are also segments where players must use their Legion to yank them to another platform into order to progress. This is due to the lack of the ability to jump in the game. At least hopping between platforms is simple thanks to an indicator under the Legion showing if it’s above safe ground. The only problem is at times, it’s hard to estimate whether or not the character can land safely. This causes them to fall, sacrificing health to call out the Legion for a rescue, and then repeating the segment.
Another issue with Astral Chain is the camera. Since the right analog stick is used to toggle between locked-on enemies, there is no 360 degree camera control. More than often being too close a wall with a barrage of chimera monsters attacking at once can make the action chaotic and messy. Thankfully, most of the battles occur in open areas, but the ones that don’t can be frustrating.
Astral Chain is perhaps one of the longest offerings from PlatinumGames yet. Clocking in around 20 hours, there’s plenty to do in the world of the Ark. You may even find yourself repeating side missions to get higher grades. Those are only given in the traditional “Platinum Standard” mode as opposed to the more casual mode geared towards those who just want to have flashy anime fun. Even then, the standard difficulty isn’t hard, as there are plenty of healing items laying around. There are even combat items like barriers, grenades and drones to utilize. Regardless, the Legion is more than enough since even when its temporarily down, its energy charges back relatively quickly.
While there’s definitely a lot to like about Astral Chain, it isn’t without its flaws. Uneven pacing, camera issues, shoddy platforming and the generic storyline and characters can sour the experience. Thankfully, there’s also a unique combat system that combines bright colorful visuals and a slick UI that mitigates most issues. There’s even a nifty little co-op mode for players to play with two joy-cons, though pro controller support would’ve been nice. It may not be PlatinumGames’ finest title, but it’s definitely a fun time for any Switch owners looking for their next blood-pumping action title.
Final Score: 8.0 out of 10