It’s not often I get to compare a game with Nier: Automata. It’s not even something I plan to focus on in this review of PlatinumGames’ next major title since delivering the world that absolute classic. I couldn’t help but think of that game when I first booted up Astral Chain though. Yet again, here I was greeted by an introductory segment of gameplay only tangentially related to how I would play the rest of the game, and yet somehow totally prepared me for it. In Nier: Automata it was a ‘shmup’ style shooting sequence, in Astral Chain it’s an action-packed motorcycle chase. I was introduced to the basics of gameplay and the world I’d be investing in on the back of a speeding bike, a bike that I’d almost never ride again. This is absolutely a PlatinumGames game.
In Astral Chain, like any good action RPG, the Earth is on the brink of destruction. Gates to another dimension have started opening up all over the world, bringing corruption and otherworldly creatures from the Astral Plane, and humanity has relocated itself to a floating island fortress called the Ark. That hasn’t gone as positively as first hoped though, and after decades people are still dealing with the interdimensional threat. Enter Neuron, a secret police task force headed up by a brilliant scientist named Yoseph Calvert that has managed to harness the power of the Chimera and use them to fight back. Through the titular Astral Chains, captured Chimera (now called Legions) are neurally synced to gifted human officers to act as a symbiotic partner in combat. You’ll play as one of two twin rookies, adopted children of Neuron commander Max Howard. Whichever twin you pick, you’ll get to name and lightly customize, with the other twin getting the name Akira (as welll as becoming the only twin with voiced dialogue). It’s not long before things go pear-shaped, of course, and all of Neuron’s active Legions break free of their control while a separate chain of events threatens to destroy life on the Ark. It falls on your chosen twin, who possesses the only remaining Legion as well as skills beyond any of the others, to go and recapture the lost Legions and wield them to fight back the impending doom.
It’s hard to say much more without spoiling some great twists and turns, but needless to say that it gets pretty bonkers as it goes on. Astral Chain’s story certainly doesn’t break much new ground, but it’s anime as hell and hugely entertaining. The final few chapters in its 15-20 hour runtime are especially nuts, in the best ways possible. PlatinumGames have a great talent for video game storytelling, particularly in using gameplay and game mechanics to sell a story’s themes and narrative beats. Astral Chain doubles down on that notion with its moody cop drama trappings playing into so many of its playable elements, but it also features some incredibly sharp writing. The world and its inhabitants are full of personality and subtle details that really sell the atmosphere, and it isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself. Hell, even the vending machines in the game have personality, and if you should happen to find one stuck in the Astral Plane it’ll cough and wheeze at you as it dispenses goods. Having a voiceless protagonist in such a story-heavy game can be tricky, and while I’m still not sure why Platinum went that route to begin with, they were very smart in making a conscious decision to always pair the player character up with whichever one of the diverse cast of NPCs would react appropriately in important moments.
I was expecting good things from the game’s score, but I hadn’t anticipated just how big of a dumb smile it’d put on my face while I beat down on interdimensional monsters.
The characters that are voiced are acted superbly all around, with the entire cast delivering performances on par with the anime world’s best examples. Combined with fantastic cutscene direction and some very impressive visuals from both an artistic and technical standpoint, Astral Chain is a tour de force for the Switch and absolutely compelling to witness from start to finish. The duality of the blue hues associated with the police forces and the deep reds of the Astral Plane, especially, set a tone that carries through to the full-circle final moments and show just how far good art can push a video game narrative. The cream on top is the excellent musical score from Satoshi Igarashi, who worked on previous Platinum games like Nier: Automata and Bayonetta 2, but gets his time to shine here. You can hear influences of those games in this one, especially in the eerie, robotic choirs that punctuate intense moments, but the heady mix of poppy beats, hardcore rock riffs and sweeping orchestration truly stands out on its own. There are even a few, excellent vocal tracks that really drive home the feeling that you’re playing a very intense anime (the song used in the end credits positively slaps). I was expecting good things from the game’s score, but I hadn’t anticipated just how big of a dumb smile it’d put on my face while I beat down on interdimensional monsters.
There’s plenty to do in Astral Chain before it even comes time to whoop Chimera arse though, and to be honest it’s where the game shines the most. The game is laid out in chapters called Files (in keeping with the cop theme), and each File takes place in a small area that can be freely explored, full of opportunities to chat to NPCs, develop your character and Legions and complete optional objectives. A lot of the time these take place in the Neuron HQ, where you’ll become very familiar with the facilities and the people and see their stories play out over the story’s course, but you’ll often go out into public places like city centres or slums and interact with the general populace as well. These moments do a fantastic job of selling the game’s world, which is as grounded and convincingly written as it is beautifully abstract. There’s something about chasing down and subduing a graffiti tagger with the aid of a huge, spectral creature weilding a sword emblazoned with the word ‘POLICE’ that’s both absurd and uncomfortably believable. Balancing out the more bleak ‘downfall of society’ stuff is a bunch of fantastic humour and charm though, with some recurring sidequests asking you to do things like rescue and adopt stray cats, assist Neuron’s canine mascot Lappy in spreading good vibes and find (rather questionable) bits of toilet paper to bring back to a desperate colleague at HQ. All of this stuff is great, especially the bits where some of the game’s more benign mechanics are brought in to make sense of a task. One scenario had me help a surveyor who’d lost his measuring gear figure out some distances by simply walking to specific points and using the quest marker to tell me how far away I was from him. Brilliant.
Nothing just an image gallery of Lappy being super intense
The most challenging mission of them all
After each of the game’s chapters you’ll earn points based on completing major and minor cases, how much scattered ‘red matter’ you clean up in the world, and your performance in each combat encounter. Your score is basically your character’s experience level as a Neuron officer, earning you new ranks that come with health upgrades and better equipment capabilities. In your downtime, there are a lot of fairly deep RPG systems to take care of, from upgrading your weapons to unlocking new skills for your Legions and even literally scrubbing corruption off of their bodies. The fine control that you have over how your Legion handles is much appreciated, especially when you start to unlock the randomly-dropped ability cores that augment things like the length of their chains or their affinities for certain elements. There’s even an achievement-style system called Orders that tracks smaller milestones and doles out extra rewards like crafting materials and clothing/Legion colour schemes. On the lower difficulties you could almost get away with ignoring some of the progression systems on offer, but to succeed in battle, and to earn accolades while doing so, you’ll really need to dig in deep.
Because of course, what would a PlatinumGames game be without a hefty dose of ridiculous, action-packed combat? When it comes time to kick some Chimera butt, the Legions really start to come into their own. Equipped with the X-Baton — a futuristic piece of kit that can transform between a baton, a pistol and a giant sword — you’re pretty capable alone, but you’ll need to call on the aid of your Legions if you want to have a fighting chance. You can summon any one of the Legions you have available at the touch of a button, and they’ll simply fight alongside you (as far as their chain allows). To be truly effective though, you’re able to control their position directly in order to coordinate tandem manoeuvres. The most satisfying examples of these are using the chain between you and your Legion to wrap around an enemy and immobilise it, or stretch it out in front of a charging baddie like a slingshot and yeet them across the place. You’ll also get access to unique ability commands for your Legion, which are at the tap of a button and run on a cooldown, and usually make for great crowd control. I got a lot of use out of the Sync attacks, which are big melee moves triggered by certain criteria like landing a complete combo or chain-binding an enemy. You’ll initially only have access to one or two, but through training your Legion you’ll unlock more, meaning more regular opportunities to use them in combat. By the end of the game, you’ll be triggering them almost constantly, and potentially even automatically. This can threaten take a little of the edge off of some encounters, but my God is it satisfying.
Working together to bring down each of a giant Homunculus’ legs or splitting up to wail on two regular Chimera is awesome.
Each of the game’s five Legions have their own playstyle and abilities, and each feels impressively different to handle, even non-directly. Their unique skills are useful both in and out of combat and often let you take immediate control to employ, like the Arrow Legion’s ranged attacks that are great for handling flying enemies in battle as well as shooting down ladders and switches in exploratory sequences. Astral Chain’s combat is at its best when you gel with your Legion, and those moments happen most when you’re fighting single, bigger enemies or just a couple of regular ones. Working together to bring down each of a giant Homunculus’ legs or splitting up to wail on two regular Chimera is awesome. The combat can become a little frustrating in bigger groups, mostly thanks to some annoying camera quirks and a generally weightier feeling to everything that doesn’t always work well in frantic situations. It’s pretty forgiving overall though, and the trade-off of satisfying and very physical gameplay is worth the odd annoying fight. There’s also an option for co-op play (!), which is something I didn’t even realise going into the game, and is kind of just dropped as a little surprise in an early training conversation. Co-op is pretty much what you’d expect, allowing two players to rock a single Joy-Con each and control both the main character and a Legion individually.
As if the real-world stuff wasn’t enough, you’ll also spend a pretty significant amount of time in the Astral Plane; the creepy, otherworldly dimension that the Chimeras come from. A lot of Astral Chain’s side missions will send you through gates to engage in battles or quickly rescue a trapped NPC, but the meatier sequences come during main story missions where you’ll more fully explore this alternate dimension. The Astral Plane is an impossible place; blocky, floating land masses dipped in red and digital noise, constantly shifting and changing. If combat and investigation are two pillars of gameplay in Astral Chain then platforming is a distinct third, and the bulk of it occurs here. In fact, these bits feel a lot like the dungeons in something like Breath of the Wild in the way that they offer a series of environmental puzzles making use of your unique abilities, or those of your Legions at least. Your character can’t jump in a traditional sense, so the most commonly-used skill in your repertoire is the Chain Jump; sending your Legion out across a gap and then having them pull you over with the chain. Each Legion has their own unique contribution to make, like the Arm Legion’s ability to move heavy blocks and the Axe Legion’s destructive capabilities. All told, the Astral Plane makes for a great palette cleanser amongst everything else the game has to offer.
This place is a bit weird, isn’t it?
There’s a particular moment in Astral Chain where you’re tasked with aiding an important cleanup and evacuation mission following a huge battle. While you’re there, speaking to one of the Neuron officers opens up the option for a side quest. Saying yes to the quest prompts the NPC to respond with something along the lines of “Wow! Everyone else said they were too busy, but I guess you’ve got plenty of time!”, which is a perfectly-timed jab at the fact that as far as the story is concerned you really don’t. Herein lies one of the only minor gripes I have with the game, in that it makes a pretty big effort to encourage exploring every last nook and cranny and checking lots of boxes in the more open areas before moving on with the more pressing matters at hand. As I’ve said, the side stuff is generally great, but there’s still that clash with the story’s sense of urgency that’s typical of a lot of RPGs. It’s not so bad when everything is already over-the-top enough that disbelief is not just suspended but basically expelled, and PlatinumGames’ writers were at least aware enough of it to poke fun at it, but it’s a thing. There are also some annoying obligatory stealth sequences later on in the game, while I’m on the topic of complaints. They’re mostly inoffensive but do inadvertently highlight some small shortcomings of the game’s controls; the main one being that ‘sneak’ and ‘sprint’ are mapped to the same fucking button. Ugh.
Elsewhere though, Platinum have done an absolute bang-up job of making sure the experience of playing Astral Chain is as smooth and customisable as possible. Outside of just being able to customise the appearance of your character, their equipment and your Legions, there are an impressive number of tweaks and options to tailor the experience to your liking. Most immediate are the difficulty options. These run from the ‘Uninhibited’ mode, which has a laundry list of assists toggles to either reduce combat difficulty or automate it entirely for those who just want to see the story through unchallenged, to the default ‘Casual’ and then ‘Platinum Standard’ and ‘Platinum Ultimate’. Casual is definitely still a My First Action Game-style scenario, so I’d recommend ratcheting that up to Platinum Standard, which is the highest available on any first playthrough. The great thing about Astral Chain is that it’s set up to be super replayable, giving players a File/Chapter select option at any time to jump back and clean up missed quests or replay on higher difficulties to grind out some extra rewards, even before finishing the main game. This came in especially handy when I would constantly skip cutscenes by accident because the – button is pause and the + button is skip cutscene why?! It’s the little things I love the most though, the quality-of-life additions that really make playing Astral Chain an absolute joy. Being able to customise the UI and HUD right down to the colour scheme, and even having separate settings for playing on TV or handheld, is awesome. Also, the feature that automatically cashes in any items you pick up that you’re already carrying at full capacity is a stroke of genius.
Astral Chain is a gorgeous and superbly original game with an interesting world, stellar writing and ultra-compelling gameplay. It’s not perfect, but it approaches everything it does with an equal focus on accessibility and flash, and when its disparate elements gel together the result is bold and exhilarating in the kinds of ways that only PlatinumGames can get away with. It almost seems like it happens every other week at this point, but the Switch just got another killer app.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch // Review code supplied by publisher