Platinum Games have made enough of a statement to make ears perk up at the mention of their name in regards to a new title. Without regard to some questionable licensed games that were made strictly to keep the company afloat, their pedigree is one of exceptional gameplay, innovative ideas, and singular vision. From the company that brought you classic games about fighting angels using hair, helping robots discover the existential terror of consciousness, and fighting the senator of Colorado comes a game about being an anime cop with a Stand. That game is Astral Chain.
Astral Chain is being slept on by everyone. Until today, when (what I am going to risk my credibility by calling good) reviews have dropped, nobody seems to have taken much notice of the title. Directed by Nier Automata’s gameplay designer Takahisa Taura, it boasts some seriously innovative spins on the character action genre.
Let’s talk main conceit. In Astral Chain, you play as a cop tasked with protecting the last vestiges of mankind from mysterious creatures called chimeras. These baddies appear en masse from gates leading to the Astral Plane, a demonic hellscape that looks like an MC Escher drawing that someone spilled strawberry jam all over. Of course, no singular cop is going to be able to handle the chimeric threat, and that’s where Legions come in. These shackled, cop-ified chimeras fight alongside you in combat, connected to your wrist by a chain. The chain. The Astral Chain, presumably.
Right at the beginning of the game, Taura decides to let the player see how the combat would look without Legions. It’s really boring and hard. It sucks. It’s bad. Then you get your Legion and it feels like someone removed a bunch of duct tape from half the buttons on the controller.
Notably, plenty of fan-favorite Platinum Games staples have been innovated upon using Legions. The directional slicing from Metal Gear Rising, for instance, can be performed using your sword Legion. “Sync attacks,” or attacks which use both you and your Legion in tandem, effectively serve the same purpose as Wicked Weave attacks from Bayonetta. As a long time fan of the studio, seeing the flourishes of past games come through here left me with a smile on my face.
That’s all well and good, but a two-character action game has a lot more to offer than some good recycling of ideas. That chain that connects you and your Legion isn’t just there for show, you can wrap enemies up in it for a sizable stun or use it to clothesline charging foes. Sling-shotting huge monsters onto their big stupid rumps made me giggle like an idiot, and carefully controlling the Legion in combat came more quickly than I imagined. The combat (and grading) is much more forgiving than similar games, but it comes with a focus on planning and style rather than twitch reflexes.
It isn’t all about the combat, though, and I think that’s what separates Astral Chain most from traditional Platinum games. Instead of the pacing ramping up logarithmically until the endpoint, missions in Astral Chain take their time. They start slow, allowing the player to explore lush environments and do some light detective work before plunging them into the action. The Switch’s hardware is a bit of a slouch compared to its contemporaries, but here small-scale open worlds are bustling with NPCs and just enough detail to get their point across. During these outings, you’ll encounter a huge variety of side quests ranging from shooting galleries to logic puzzles, all featuring writing that’s refreshingly witty.
In between missions you’ll return to HQ, spending time with characters that deepen as the story progresses and upgrading your Legions. Abilities, actions, and even the paint job of each Legion can be customized, meaning you can create a logical synergy between them. For instance, using the power boost ability on one legion, then swapping to another with a damaging area-of-effect attack means you’re getting the best of both worlds. Astral Chain can feel just as much like an RPG as it does an action game, and this is no doubt a philosophy carried over from Nier Automata.
With all these side quests and trips back to HQ, how’s the pacing? I’m happy to report that it’s actually quite excellent, with crescendos capping off with big narrative moments in a story rife with intrigue. Things can slouch a bit when investigations go just a little bit too long before getting to the action, but these are generally paid off with appropriately explosive boss fights.
One absolutely mind-blowing decision was that to make the Astral Plane a space for exploration and *shudders* platforming. Using the Legion, you can “jump” to distant platforms by maneuvering it into place and pressing the right trigger. By combining this with moving platforms, sling-shot crystals, temporary footing, and various bits and bobs, the team did the impossible: they made it not terrible. It’s not great or anything, but making my way across a huge space to get a chest or clean up a little extra chimera goop was always good fun. Plus, these segments aren’t as numerous as many were probably lead to believe by pre-release coverage.
I had a long, hard think about whether Astral Chain was my new favorite Platinum game. I still think it might be, because as much as I adore the art style of Bayonetta or over-the-top theatrics of Metal Gear Rising, their best tendencies are combined here in an impeccably crafted package. Every moment after the wonderfully cheesy anime intro lives up to the anticipation built in those opening moments – this may well be the best action game on the system.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by Nintendo.
Astral Chain combines all the best impulses of Platinum Games with a unique combat system and rich RPG mechanics. The world, story, and atmosphere are icing on the cake - this is one of the best overall packages from the studio and a remarkable directorial debut for Takahisa Taura.