Astral Chain is now a year old. In this soapbox piece, Mitch Vogel explains why he thinks it's one of the most significant Switch titles yet.
This past weekend marked the first anniversary of the release of Astral Chain, the latest product of the long-standing collaboration between PlatinumGames and Nintendo. Featuring hectic cyberpunk battles, stylish anime action, and oodles of cats, it didn’t take long for this release to become a fan favourite and one of the best-selling games for the platform. However, Astral Chain was an even more significant title than it might appear at first glance, so much so that we’d argue it was the most important release that Nintendo put out last year.
For a quick recap, let’s take a look at what else Nintendo put out last year up until Astral Chain. It opened up the year with the January release of New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, and a month later, we got the surprise release of Tetris 99. A month after that, we got Yoshi’s Crafted World, and then there was a bit of a dry spell until we got Super Mario Maker 2 in June. Then in July, we got the double feature of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 and Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
Notice anything? All of these games were sequels or re-releases. Yes, it’s true that sequels comprise most of a AAA developer’s lineup, but part of the joy of a fresh platform is the chance to play brand new games and franchises that you’ve never seen before. And, to be fair, Nintendo was (and still is…) a little light on those new experiences. Labo? Sushi Striker? ARMS? With perhaps the exception of that last one, Nintendo still hadn’t really taken a shot at putting out an original big-budget game that ‘belonged’ to the Switch. It needed a game that makes a statement, the kind of thing that speaks for itself.
It finally got that game in August with Astral Chain, an original game in every way. The PlatinumGames billing all but guaranteed that the third-person action mechanics would be well-executed and satisfying, while the original IP allowed the developers to run wild with some cool ideas. Controlling two (well, one and a half) characters at once presented some interesting concepts, such as how the titular chain that connects the two is just as important to a fight as the fighters themselves. Then there were the open-ended detective sections, which worked as a nice palette cleanser in between battles and showed that Platinum can do more than just bombastic bosses and set-piece arena brawls.
Who could forget that thrilling intro sequence on the motorcycle, racing through a neon-infused tunnel while being hotly pursued by demonic entities?
The overall aesthetic was something new, too. Neither Nintendo nor Platinum had any cyberpunk-inspired games in their catalogues and the unique blend of tech and occultic themes led to a rather unique final product. Who could forget that thrilling intro sequence on the motorcycle, racing through a neon-infused tunnel while being hotly pursued by demonic entities? Or the moment you capture your first Chimera and get to see the combat system in full for the first time?
And then to think such a cool aesthetic was so seamlessly blended with Platinum's goofy sense of humour. Whose idea was it to give every single vending machine its own personality? Or to have a toilet fairy that you have to 'free’ by giving it toilet paper you find in levels? Or to have an entire game-spanning sidequest about collecting cats? Astral Chain very quickly proved itself to be an action game in a league of its own, one that wasn’t afraid to take chances and try things that would set it apart from the pack.
It’s important to remember, too, that PlatinumGames was still trying to pick up the pieces from the rough few years it had endured up to that point. After the release of Bayonetta 2, which didn’t sell all too well on the ill-fated Wii U, Platinum released The Legend of Korra, Transformers: Devastation, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan, all of which were met with decent to poor reviews and low sales.
It’s important to remember, too, that PlatinumGames was still trying to pick up the pieces from the rough few years it had endured up to that point
These licensed projects were all mostly just done for the paycheck, however, as the company’s next main project was the ambitious Xbox-exclusive Scalebound. That one looked to be shaping up to be one of the best games ever made by Platinum, until development issues led to Microsoft cancelling the project in 2017. After that point, Platinum had nothing to show for four years of focused development on an IP it didn’t own, and it was running dangerously low on cash.
It wasn’t until Nier:Automata’s runaway success in 2017 that Platinum began to make a comeback, and Hideki Kamiya even went so far as to say that Nier was solely responsible for saving the company from bankruptcy. Still, one title could very well represent a fluke rather than a trend, and though mobile games Lost Order and World of Demons helped to bolster the bottom line, those two releases were hardly headline-grabbing examples that screamed ‘Platinum is back!’ Astral Chain, then, was the title that solidified the positive trend. Its focused mechanics and hard to put down gameplay showed that the company was still capable of recapturing the manic magic of its earlier releases while also boldly going in new directions. It showed that Platinum hadn’t lost its touch after all, that the company had been knocked down, but not out.
All of this is to say, Astral Chain was the most important title put out by Nintendo in 2019. For the Big N, it represented a much-needed yet risky foray into trying something fresh for its relatively young platform. For PlatinumGames, it represented a means of restoration after the litany of mistakes and bad luck that nearly spelt the end for the studio itself. Moreover, it showed that the Switch itself is a viable platform for some impressive games that aren’t simply ports or sequels. The cyberpunk art style, fast-paced action, and gripping gameplay offered up by Astral Chain cannot be found anywhere else, and the glimpse that this release offers into what the Switch is capable of bodes well for the future of the platform – if developers can be as brave as Platinum in testing that potential.
For the Big N, it represented a much-needed yet risky foray into trying something fresh for its relatively young platform
There seems to be a growing sentiment around the Switch which holds that the platform’s worth should only be measured by how well it can run old games. That the quality of its library is defined by how many high profile ports it gets. Can it run Witcher 3? Can it run Dragon Quest XI? Can it run DOOM? Of course it can, but Astral Chain stands as a firm reminder that it can do so much more if studios are willing to put in the elbow grease to make something memorable. Hopefully, Nintendo has understood this and has some big unannounced projects on the way, as it’s the platform holder's responsibility to lead the way and show that it has enough faith in the Switch to swing for the fences by doubling down on some brand-new ideas.
Only time will tell if Astral Chain will remain a one-off, though the developers have mentioned that it sold above expectations and that they have plenty of ideas they’d like to further explore. Even if it does remain a standalone release, Astral Chain surely stands as one of the best games yet made for the Switch and is a shining example of what new experiences the platform is capable of.
What do you think of Astral Chain? Did it leave much of an impression on you? What other sorts of new ideas would you like to see Nintendo or Platinum explore? Share your thoughts in the comments below.