You’d think it’d be a little easier to relax when you’re lounging inside a hotel suite playing a video game, Platinum Games’ Astral Chain, to be exact.
High above Comic-Con, Seagulls were flying face level to the glass panes of the room, while sailboats were lazily drifting off in the San Diego bay; yet all anyone could pay attention to was the merciless destruction of pixels, the blue and red neon bloom effects sparkling off the huge TV that was running this latest build of the game; a near finished, post-E3 build only one month out from release.
To any non-action fans out there, you might actually want to keep reading. It turns out that Astral Chain is not always a game of pure chaos. In fact, this hands-on demo went out of its way to show off how Platinum’s latest borrows interesting aspects from many of their previous games – and a little surprisingly, a few other contemporary titles as well.
How is this game different from its trailers? Well, when those neon lights fade, sometimes Astral Chain wants to be a mystery-adventure game. You also definitely don’t have to squint very hard to see all the elements of an action RPG, what with all the side questing and item pick-ups. But even on the calm San Diego bay, playing Astral Chain is frenetic arcade action matched by few games out there. This game has its hands in a lot of honey pots – and that’s a good thing.
The Story of Astral Chain
When Astral Chain isn’t just letting you style on your enemies, it seems to have a lot to say about law and order and the lengths a society will go to in order to enforce it during times of calamity.
You play as a police officer on the beat – one in which you broadly personalize with the skin type, gender expression and hairstyle that you want, by the way. In this floating city world, recent events from a sci-fi threat known as “Chimera” have left red, pulsing junk all over the streets of The Ark, the city you’re patrolling. This redness emerges from “the astral plane” – the first half of the game’s namesake – and it acts as the stuff you both investigate to move along the story, and sometimes get rid of, for points. That’s the plot in a nutshell.
All the monsters you eventually encounter in this game definitely look the part of said Chimera, with their weird mish-mash of animal parts, though whether or not they act the part of a Chimera by definition, something that is aspired to but unachievable, may be the real glue of Astral Chain’s story.
Gameplay in Two Halves
The dominant gameplay element emerges when you tap ZL, which instantly produces a creature on screen known as a “Legion”, some kind of police branded creature that, frankly, doesn’t look so happy to be tied up.
There are different types of Legions with alternating strengths and weaknesses apiece, and you can assign varying attacks you find to them too, essentially making them your personalized, auto-attacking weapons.
There’s a ton of voice acting in this game, with many characters of interest wanting to talk to you, all in spoken English over top the dialogue boxes
The Legion is tethered to you by – here’s the second namesake – a chain, basically a leash between you and them that you can even wrap around enemies with your joystick while attacking. You can’t keep your Legion out forever though, as a little meter runs down the longer you have it out there. Hold down ZL while moving the left stick and your Legion moves around the screen in time with your stick movement, different from your own movement going on with the right stick. If you’ve ever played Wonderful 101, it feels a lot like control system in that game, which is the first, obvious Platinum riff among many that are stuffed into this experience.
More on the action portions in a second. The other main action you’ll be doing is solving crimes by talking to NPCs; sometimes helping them or healing them, other times buying items like medicine off of them. (Fans of high production values, rejoice: there’s a ton of voice acting in this game, with many characters of interest wanting to talk to you, all in spoken English over top the dialogue boxes.)
In general, gameplay oscillates between these two extremes of investigation and fighting. There are the typical Platinum chapters – basically levels – and in this game they are split into red and blue “cases”, the red ones being action-oriented, the blue ones involving more in the way of item collecting and deductive reasoning.
In the area we encountered, a back-alley, digitally roped-off scene of a crime required careful consideration of some evidence. In a previous hands-on, Nintendo showed us sweeping in-game tech that allowed you to watch events from the past unfold in front of you. In this play-through, some nine hours into the game we were told, it was just some good ol’ fashioned kneeling down and looking at stuff. There’s an over-the-shoulder perspective as you look at the evidence, not at all unlike Rockstar’s L.A. Noire.
This is where the game hammers home the concept of “duty”. We didn’t see the ramifications of this gameplay paragon system, but in Astral Chain you maintain “duty points”, which are quickly lost if you were to rampage through the city knocking things over and destroying stuff. (Sorry to the person we bumped into.) However, you can gain them back by getting rid of red matter and helping people out. It’s a safe bet Astral Chain wants to say something about the arcade-like destruction gamers often leave in their wake.
A More Robust Action Game
With the gameplay that differs from the more traditional run-and-gun Platinum titles out of the way, it’s time to talk about why you should definitely be excited for Astral Chain.
After travelling to the astral plane to kick some Chimera butt, we spent the bulk of our time fighting Chimeras of all types in what some Nintendo fans might readily compare to the Twilight Realm in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. (Your mileage may vary with that comparison, but the point is that it’s some spacey set-piece where you fight a bunch of bad dudes.)
You’d need a professional boxing announcer to even begin describing what’s happening on the screen all at once
Here is where most of the crazy stuff that you see in the trailer happens, and all that action feels great to pull off in your hands. We mean really great. It doesn’t come easy, though. When you battle, you will come to take advantage of many of the items you’ve earned during the detective portion. A robust upgrade and attack system runs multiple menus deep, and gives both you and your Legion all sorts of combo potentials that feel, quite frankly, limitless.
Here’s how it works, take notes. Your character can wield at minimum a baton, a “gladius” long sword, or a blaster. You can assault, cartwheel, and kick, and you can pause the action in real-time using the D-pad to switch between your items, which sets up a lot of Matrix-esque combos. There are also three different Legion types, and you can unleash at least two different Legions on a chain at any given time, and also there is a robust combo system that’s at minimum six attacks deep, plus you can style with wrapping the chains around your enemies on top of doing physics-based finishing moves. And it all combines with your skill points and attacks assigned. It’s a lot. You’d need a professional boxing announcer to even begin describing what’s happening on the screen all at once, and it took more time than we had in this playthrough to even come close to getting used to all the different button presses.
In this way, Astral Chain is best recommended to hardcore action fans. The gameplay is even deeper than, say, Platinum’s Bayonetta, while at the same time maintaining that series’ silky smooth comboing feel and end-of-chapter grading system. That’s a huge compliment, given how satisfying Bayonetta makes button-pressing feel, and Astral Chain is no different in that regard.
Really, Astral Chain is the uncanny and not subtle combination of Platinum Games’ greatest hits: the fighting mechanics of Wonderful 101, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Bayonetta, with a lot of the tactical and visual elements of Nier: Automata (that game’s celebrated designer, Takahisa Taura, is at the helm of this one).
Throw in the fact that we were shown a massive boss battle – as in, a boss that was massive – plus were teased branching paths in a single chapter, including certain pathways that require returning to later on with your skill tree artfully filled out, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a meaty, explosive, and inventive game that all looks fantastic on the Nintendo Switch.
We aren’t sure yet if the detective portions of the game will be as entertaining as the action cases, or if the storyline does anything more than echo the sci-fi war classics at your local library, but it’s very likely Switch owners are about to face a sobering reality they might not want to hear: Astral Chain just might be another must-buy title for Nintendo’s 2019 console lineup.
Astral Chain releases August 30, 2019. Stay tuned to Nintendo Life for our full review.