When Astral Chain was announced earlier this year, it was easy to forgive some mild scepticism from Nintendo fans. Wait, another anime-styled action title from PlatinumGames, and one that's less than a year from release? While the studio has built up an incredibly solid reputation with titles like Bayonetta, The Wonderful 101 and Vanquish, it has also produced the likes of The Legend of Korra and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan. Given the astonishingly short period of time between announcement and proposed August release, it's easy to see why some would ponder if Astral Chain is set to be another B-grade release from PlatinumGames; a filler title designed to slot into the development schedule in-between the real big-hitters.
Given that the announcement trailer gave us little to go on in terms of gameplay, such negativity was perhaps warranted, but we were lucky enough to attend a preview session recently that has totally flipped our expectations on their head. While we didn't dismiss the game out of hand following its initial reveal, we admit to being slightly underwhelmed; now, however, we're can help but feel supremely confident that with Nier: Automata director Takahisa Taura at the wheel and all-round gaming legend Hideki Kamiya supervising, Astral Chain is shaping up to be one of the best Switch games of 2019.
While we weren't allowed to go hands-on with the game, we were shown several sections – including an epic boss battle – that gave us a solid perspective on the scope and scale of the game itself. But first, some exposition: Astral Chain takes place on a giant floating city called The Ark which is plagued by other-worldly beasts known as Chimera. These monsters spread a red substance known as "Corruption" throughout the city, infecting normal people with the aim of eventually pulling them through rift gates into their dimension, trapping them in torment forever.
To combat this threat, the police force establishes a division known as Neuron, comprised of officers who have the equipment required to tame Chimera; these domesticated monsters are known as Legion, and each one has different attributes – for example, the Sword Legion excels at melee combat, while the Arrow Legion allows you to perform accurate ranged attacks. In a really neat touch, the Legion display Police markings on their otherwise monstrous forms.
While the player can attack, shoot and dodge independently, to really master the game's mechanics you need to call in your Legion
As the demo began, we assumed that we'd be shown the usual flat-out PlatinumGames arcade action, but in Astral Chain your police duties are almost as important as your combat role. Before you can dish out any punishment, the main character initially has to investigate a bridge collapse (apparently) caused by a Chimera attack. To proceed to the next phase, it's necessary to sweep the scene for clues and use the IRIS – an augmented reality device which allows you to see the footprint of past events – to piece together a reliable chain of events. At one point, the player is required to use their Legion is eavesdrop on a pair of suspicious and rather resentful police officers (the Neuron are seen as a bunch of weirdos even by 'normal' law enforcement, you see).
With all of the clues collected and a solid sequence of events completed, the chase begins – culminating in a boss battle against a burly Chimera. It's here that the unique relationship between the player's character and the Legion comes into play; while the player can attack, shoot and dodge independently, to really master the game's mechanics you need to call in your Legion, which has its own stamina bar that slowly depletes over time (and when it receives damage).
The Legion can be sent to attack enemies automatically and will do so without any input from the player. However, at certain points in your combo, you can 'sync' your attack with your Legion, creating incredible combination attacks that often end with a flashy finishing move that sees the Legion rip out the heart of the Chimera – a nod to a similar system seen in the amazing Metal Gear Rising: Revengence. The game's easily-accessible photo mode means you can preserve these awesome attacks for posterity, too.
PlatinumGames is the true master of stacking mechanic upon mechanic to craft an engaging combat system
This might sound simple enough on paper, but the demonstration we were given illustrated perfectly how PlatinumGames is the true master of stacking mechanic upon mechanic to craft an engaging combat system that rewards players willing to invest that little bit of extra effort. For example, you can wrap the chain that connects you to your Legion around enemies, pinning them to the spot and making them an easy target.
Similarly, the chain can be used to slingshot your character over gaps in the environment. The game is packed with little extras like this, as well as skill trees for all of the Legion you unlock; these allow you to add special moves to existing combos and generally make your attacks even more effective. One example we were given was adding a special 'Sync' attack to the end of a particular move.
Elsewhere, there are other little details that really bring the world to life. You can pick up trash and deposit it in a nearby bin to earn extra money, and there are crossings in the city that fine you cash if you happen to be on them when the lights turn to red. The English-language voice acting is excellent, but the Japanese voice track is also included if you consider yourself to be a bit of a purist. On a more obvious visual level, it's also possible to customise the appearance of the main character, creating an avatar that's as unique as you are.
In the space of a single demo session, Astral Chain has gone from becoming 'just one more game' on the Switch's 2019 release slate to a title we simply cannot wait to get our hands on; August can't come soon enough.