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April 2020

Astral Chain

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Genre: Action
Developer: Platinum Games
Release Date: Aug. 30, 2019


Switch Review - 'Astral Chain'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Sept. 9, 2019 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Astral Chain is a synergetic action game where humanity’s last chance against an interdimensional invasion is a sentient weapon called the Legion.

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Astral Chain is set in the not-so-distant future, after humanity has been ravaged by an otherworldly source. The ones who remain live in a city known as the Ark, where humans are transforming into monsters. Unbeknownst to the people of the Ark, Chimeras are a much greater threat; the invisible beings are pulling humans into an alternate dimension called the Astral Plane. The only hope are the Legions: "tamed" and armored Chimera and their masters. Players control one of the Howard siblings (a man and woman), who are drafted into service and given prototype Legions, just as someone unleashes terrorist attacks across the Ark.

Honestly, Astral Chain's concept is, "What if Neon Genesis Evangelion had Stands instead of giant robots?", and it wears that influence on its sleeve. (After finishing the tutorial, your Legions turn into the purple-and-green color scheme of Evangelion Unit-01.) As such, the main plot is fun in a cheesy '90s OVA sort of way, but it's also immensely predictable. The fun comes from the many side characters and plots. Police Dog Mascot Lappy will bring a smile to your face, and Astral Chain's story is best when it isn't being Evangelion and is about police antics with an invisible murderbeast.

On the surface, the combat looks pretty simple. Players control one of the Howard siblings and have access to a basic set of abilities to attack, dodge and move. At the touch of a button, the X-Baton weapon can transform from a baton (all-around) to a pistol (long-distance) to a gladius (slow but strong), each with a simple combo string. As you progress, you can unlock some special moves, but they're not overly complex, and you'll probably stick with safe combos.

What sets apart Astral Chain's combat is the Legions. Legions are basically somewhere between ghosts and monsters who are chained to your character and serve as their weapon. Each Legion has its own distinct abilities and can be swapped out at will. The Sword Legion is a jack of all trades, the Arrow can fight from a distance, the Arm is bulky and defensive, and so on. You can command the Legions to attack using both special moves and sync attacks, which are context-sensitive special attacks.

By far the title's biggest problem is that it gives a terrible first impression. The first two or three chapters set up the game and spend a lot of time teaching you some of the least useful mechanics. After a certain event occurs, things pick up rapidly. The more options you get and the more Legions you recruit, the more fun the game becomes. On the one hand, I can understand spending time to teach the basics, but the tutorial doesn't work so well, and much of what it teaches is replaced by easier to use mechanics.

Perhaps this is clearest in the game's Astral Chain mechanic. The player is bound at all times by the titular chain to their Legion. You can take direct control of the Legion and move it with the right analog stick while retaining full movement with your left. While you do this, the chain becomes solid and can be wrapped around objects or enemies. This plays an important part in puzzle-solving, but it can also be used in combat. One method is to form a chain in the path of an oncoming enemy rush, so you an slingshot them back. The other is to wrap the chain around one or more enemies to bind them. Bound enemies are vulnerable and can trigger special high-damage attacks, though any bound enemy gradually grows immunity to it over the course of a fight.

It works fine against slower enemies but feels weird and awkward against faster enemies, which is who you'd want to bind. However, early in the game, you unlock an Auto-Bind attack for pretty much every Legion, which instantly encircles enemies in front of you. All of the manual control in combat ends up being far less relevant. You can still use it, but the game gives you a far better in-combat option, relegating manual control to puzzles and out-of-combat actions.

This also applies to the Legion's unique abilities, which can be used in combat and in puzzles. Most of these will feel familiar to Platinum fans; for instance, Sword's power is Raiden's special Sword mode from Metal Gear Rising. It puts the player in a hold stance where they can manually target their slashes, which lets them solve puzzles and stun enemies. The game teaches this and makes it seem more important than it is, which can lead to flailing around in combat as you search for the ideal place to use it.

On the other end of the spectrum, the game doesn't teach enough about other Legions. For example, the Arrow's ability to manually aim and fire a bow is incredibly useful for stopping certain enemy attacks, but the game isn't great about teaching this. Likewise, the Beast Legion can find digging and invisible enemies, which makes them easier to take on. Yet you have to puzzle out much of this from trial and error or getting lucky. This means there's a lot of depth to combat that you may not see at first, since swapping between Legions for maximum effectiveness goes a long way.

All of this might sound frustrating, and initially, it is. Once the game clicks, though, it feels amazing to swap between Legions, unleash special attacks, bind and break enemies, and tear through the battlefield alongside your Legion. The game has a poor introduction and a steep learning curve, but once you get past it, the combat system is a joy to use. It feels great and looks cool. It may lack the depth of some of Platinum's other games, but it makes up for it with sheer unbridled enjoyment.

With that said, once you do know what you're doing, Astral Chain is not a difficult game. I was effortlessly hitting S-Ranks on combat scores by using Auto-Bind and Sync Attacks. Since the game also borrows Revengence's ability to fully heal by killing an enemy with a finisher, but it doesn't penalize heavily for taking damage, tanking your way through attacks is a far more viable option without losing your score. If you don't care about score, you can reliably spam items to get through any combat encounter, and you get multiple extra lives per stage. There is a tougher difficulty mode and high scores to go for, but don't expect anything too punishing.

Astral Chain isn't just about combat. A large chunk of your time is spent exploring the game world, which isn't large, but each chapter provides a small segment to explore. What's neat is that there are tons of hidden things to explore in the world, and your Legions basically function as Zelda power-ups. You can use them to zip over passages, open secret doors, or play different minigames to unlock further power-ups or cosmetics for you or your Legion. Most of this is optional. You can go through the main story quest and never touch a side-quest, but you'd miss the amusing writing and fun side bits. You're even rewarded for going back to earlier chapters with Legions that you didn't have before in order to find some particularly rare loot.

Astral Chain has a relatively nice art style and runs at a fairly smooth 30fps, even while docked. The character animations are great, but the environments are largely bland. The city environments are fun, but the Astral Plane environments are all the same shade of red. The voice acting is largely solid and makes some otherwise cringeworthy lines come off well. With that said, the lack of voice acting for the protagonist feels distinctly weird and noticeable. The music is excellent and really shines in some of the intense moments.

All in all, Astral Chain is a solid and enjoyable action-RPG. It suffers from a lot of Platinum Games' most common problems, such as poor instructions for basic gameplay and an over-reliance on minigames, but the charm and enjoyment of the core game more than make up for that once you get past the rough opening. It's not quite up the highs of a Bayonetta or Nier Automata, but it's worth playing for fans of the company or those looking for a fun action-RPG on the Switch.

Score: 8.0/10

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