With games like Bayonetta, Vanquish, Wonderful 101 and MadWorld in its back catalogue, it's little surprise that Japanese developer PlatinumGames has gained a reputation for tight, action-packed titles that mix stunning visuals with intricate and rewarding gameplay mechanics. While its games haven't always been the commercial smash hits they deserve to be, they ordinarily gain rave reviews and are lauded by both press and gamers alike. When PlatinumGames releases something, it's usually a good idea to sit up and take note – especially when it's a game that has also been produced in conjunction with Nintendo (yes, let it be known that we still really like Star Fox Zero).
The hype for Astral Chain – which is directed by Takahisa Taura (previously lead game designer on Nier: Automata) with supervision from industry legend Hideki Kamiya – has slowly been building since the game's initial reveal in February this year, which, lest we forget, is a staggeringly short period in terms of AAA development. Since then, we've had a couple of chances to go hands-on to get a feel for this dimensional-shifting third-person action title, and now the final code is in our hands we're pleased to report that it absolutely delivers on every count.
Set in a future where volatile interdimensional gates have brought the human race to its knees, mankind exists in a sheltered floating city called The Ark. Here, the populace is protected by a specialist police force known as Neuron – special officers who are tooled up to deal with Chimera, otherworldly beasts which cross over into our dimension from the astral plane with the objective of infecting humans with 'redshift corruption' before pulling them into their hostile, chaotic realm. While the stakes are high, humanity isn't totally defenceless in this battle, and Neuron officers are equipped with Legion helpers – best described as Chimera that have been domesticated and are under your control.
These monsters – which come covered in cool, police-style armour – are connected to your character by a chain (hence the game's title). This connection is what lends Astral Chain so much of its unique gameplay mechanics. Tapping the ZL trigger will call your currently-selected Legion into being, and holding it down will allow you to control it using the right analogue stick. This behaviour has applications both in and out of combat; you use your Legion to hover up 'redshift' particles when you're exploring locations, but you can also use it to wrap the chain around enemies, temporarily tethering them to the spot so you can rain down multiple attacks.
In fact, the chain is perhaps one of the most useful and multi-faceted items in any action game of this ilk. Certain enemy attacks, for example, are telegraphed by a red beam, which shows precisely where that particular foe's lunging attack will go. If you're quick enough, you can pull the chain across this beam, catching the enemy when it eventually makes its move and throwing it backwards, giving you the chance to wade in with a combo while it lies stunned. You can use the chain (in conjunction with your Legion, of course) to leap around tight corners or cross gaps you'd normally be unable to negotiate.
Astral Chain's controls are so complex it sometimes feels like the game could come with a Haynes-style operations manual. Every single button on the Switch is used in the game, and recalling what does what during the heat of battle can, at least initially, be quite daunting – especially when you consider that Legion aside, your character has their own set of melee and ranged attack options (as well as a handy dodge which slows down time, Bayonetta-style, when triggered at the right moment) which can be combined with the blows of your beast ally to form deliciously balletic offensive moves. In battle, a tap of the ZL trigger will hurl your Legion in the direction of the nearest enemy, and it will begin attacking automatically.
You can, if you so wish, head in another direction and attack a second enemy, but it pays to stick together as you can sync your attacks (denoted by a blue flash) for massive damage. A perfectly synced attack will trigger all kinds of chain-related acrobatics, and it's possible to perform these stunts after a perfect dodge roll (executed by pressing the B button). Heck, you can even combine the chain's uses; remember how we said it can be used to leap around obstacles and gaps? Well, you can wrap it around multiple enemies instead and leap from foe to foe, administrating a devastating blow with each twist and turn.
The Chimera you're fighting against add wrinkles to the gameplay thanks to the fact that some of them require special tactics to defeat. Some enemies are impervious to your attacks until you defeat secondary enemies which cover their allies with protective shields. Sometimes, the pesky support Chimera is floating above your head, while at other times it's concealed in the ground, and you'll need to use your dog-like Beast Legion to dig them up before finishing them off. Boss fights do an excellent job of mixing up play tactics, forcing you to toggle between Legion skills and your own ranged and melee weapons to emerge victoriously.
Tapping the '+' button brings up the IRIS, another key component of Astral Chain's gameplay. This allows you to scan the environment for clues, Metroid Prime-style, and – when you're at a loose end – can prove to be incredibly useful, as it pinpoints key NPCs and objectives. Like your Legion, its usefulness isn't simply limited to one portion of the game; toggle it on during combat and you can gain information about enemies, such as their remaining health.
With this being a PlatinumGames title, there are of course layers stacked upon other layers when it comes to the complexity of the combat engine. You can use your Legion to propel your character skywards so you take out aerial enemies in tandem, and when a foe is almost out of energy, a quick stab of the A button finishes them off, with your Legion ripping out their heart in very much the same way that Raiden pulls off body parts as part of Metal Gear Rising's 'Zandatsu' feature. Doing this not only replenishes your health gauge but also gains you a healthy dose of 'Gene Code' points, which are dished out following combat and are used to unlock new abilities and buffs in each Legion's skill tree. Skills can be mapped to the X and Y buttons, and these vary depending on your current Legion; a personal favourite of ours is the ability to automatically bind a group of enemies in one go, which comes in handy when you're in danger of being mobbed.
Focusing solely on combat for a moment, it's clear that the engine PlatinumGames has built here offers a lot of scope for player skill. As you might expect, your performance is ranked depending on how well you did in each encounter, so if you feel the need to strive for perfection then Astral Chain gives you room – and incentive – to do so. By the same token, the game isn't so brutal that novices will be humbled within seconds of reaching their first boss. You can just about muddle through, and a generous selection of assist options – listed under the 'Unchained' options menu – allows you to automate certain moves so you don't have to worry about finessing your button presses. Much like Nintendo's 'Super Guide' system, this is clearly in place so those players who are totally new to this kind of experience can still make their way through the narrative without becoming hopelessly stuck, and because it's totally optional, veterans don't have to feel like it's cheapening the challenge.
You unlock various Legions as the story progresses, starting with the Sword Legion. Each one has its own unique ability which is vital when it comes to getting past some of the light puzzle challenges present in the game. For example, the Sword Legion can slash through laser barriers and even shatter unseen connections in the real world, while the Arrow Legion's long-range attack is required to hit switches. The aforementioned Beast Legion is perhaps the most unique, as you're able to ride on its back to dash past fast-moving environmental hazards, it can dig for bonus items and – perhaps most amusingly of all – you can give it a scent and it will track down missing objects or individuals.
To categorise Astral Chain as a pure action game would be unfair. For large chunks of the game, you'll be getting your hands dirty with detective work, and while it follows a very linear, level-by-level structure, there are ample opportunities to wander off the beaten track and earn some additional credit by fulfilling entirely optional side-missions. As you wander around each self-contained location there are a seemingly endless number of odd-jobs you can indulge in. You may spot individuals enveloped in redshift who can be 'cured' by your Sword Legion. Elsewhere, picking up discarded drink cans earns you a cash bonus when you deposit them in a bin – cash that can be spent on curative items and buffs at the many vending machines dotted around the city. Clearing up redshift corruption earns you a bonus that adds to your police rank, and if you're willing to explore you'll find hidden crates all over the game which contain useful items, ranging from healing kits to materials you can use to open up each branch of your Legion's skill tree.
During police investigations, you'll need to compile evidence and piece together a series of events in the correct order before the story can progress. It's nowhere near as in-depth or involving as something like Phoenix Wright, but it's a nice change of pace from the action scenes and is structured in a way where it really does feel like you're picking needles out of haystacks and solving a troubling case – even if the route to the answer is relatively straightforward.
Sleuthing isn't the only way that PlatinumGames has broken up the structure of Astral Chain. There are other diversions present, including a retro-style mini-game that sees you handing out balloons as the Neuron mascot, Lappy, and a puzzle section which tasks you with clearing away abandoned cars from a top-down perspective. These are optional missions that you can ignore if you simply want to experience the narrative, but they add some variety nonetheless. Somewhat less welcome is a stealth section which sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the intense, chain-swinging action – but, in typical PlatinumGames style, you can actually forgo sneaking around entirely and simply go in all guns blazing, if you so wish.
Astral Chain certainly gives you a lot of gameplay systems and mechanics to deal with, but the story is structured in such a way that you're never overwhelmed with too much information at once. Whenever a new Legion is introduced, the next level usually has a puzzle element which not only calls upon that Legion's unique ability, but also schools you on how to use it effectively in future encounters.
Special mention must also go to the incredible world-building that PlatinumGames has pulled off here. Not only is the core premise of Astral Chain – a police force tasked not just with stopping criminals, but dealing with beings from another plane of existence – incredibly cool, but the plot takes several neat twists and turns along the way. The whole package is helped immeasurably by some of the best visuals we've yet witnessed on Switch; the character design – supplied by famed manga artist Masakazu Katsura – is excellent throughout, while the Legion and Chimera are equally well-realised. The Ark is also something of a star, and there are several areas which branch out in multiple directions, giving you the impression of being inside a living, breathing cityscape.
While the game doesn't hit 60fps levels of smoothness, performance in both handheld and docked modes is solid and reliable, which goes a long way to ensuring that combat is intuitive and seamless. There are some moments when slowdown does occur – usually when playing in handheld mode – but it's never enough to dull the intensity of the experience. While Astral Chain predictably looks somewhat 'last-gen' when compared to the best the PS4 and Xbox One can offer, it nevertheless sets a new high watermark for Switch, which – lest we forget – is powered by the same kind of tech you'd find in a smartphone or tablet from a few years ago. Oh, and Satoshi Igarashi's soundtrack is equally striking, mixing an epic orchestral sound with more contemporary wailing guitars and laid-back dance music. It's not quite as bold and in-your-face as his work on Bayonetta 2, but it's a perfect fit for this type of game.
Given that Astral Chain has a linear narrative, you might assume that longevity is an issue, but like PlatinumGames' previous hits, there's actually a lot to do once the credits have rolled. Your first playthrough is going to take well over 20 hours, if not significantly more, depending on how many of the multitude of optional side-quests you wish to tackle. However, it's almost inevitable that on that initial run-through, you will miss things. Therefore, a second, third or even fourth attempt will give you a more complete picture of the game – and if you truly wish to master the mechanics of the combat so you can get the best ratings after each encounter, then you could potentially be playing this for weeks, if not months. Add in a very welcome co-op mode – where one player controls the main character while the other is in charge of the Legion – and it soon becomes clear that there's more to Astral Chain than you might expect.
With its amazing visuals, fantastic presentation, varied gameplay and deep, rewarding combat, Astral Chain could well be PlatinumGames' most accomplished game yet. It mixes detective work with exhilarating battle sequences that are inventive, challenging and – perhaps most importantly – breathtakingly cool. The complexity of the game's myriad systems may prove intimidating for some players, but the inclusion of a co-op play and the ability to automate many of the mechanics via the 'Unchained' mode means that even complete newcomers can still enjoy the ride. Astral Chain isn't just one of the Switch's stand-out hits – it's one of 2019's best video games.