Astral Chain Review

Astral Chain Review

PlatinumGames veteran Takahisa Taura steps into the director's chair for this Switch exclusive.

In Astral Chain, the world beyond the gate hums with a strange sort of energy. It's an abstract world, half digital and half material. All red and black, with polygonal platforms of obsidian silicon and jagged bursts of crimson crystals. The whole place is brimming with monsters, and the air is thick with the power that makes them. But I'm safe, and powerful, here, with my own pet monster-my Legion-at the end of a chain. We fight in concert, beast and blade, cutting through every creature foolish enough to challenge us. My monster moves like one of my own limbs, and I move like one of hers.

In the pantheon of important modern game designers, Takahisa Taura might not be a name you're familiar with. Taura, who has worked with PlatinumGames for the past decade, was one of the lead designers on Nier: Automata. His work was to translate the ideas of scenario writer and director Yoko Taro into systems that fit both Taro's eclectic style and Platinum's pedigree of sharp action. His work paid off, and Automata's combat was a slick, hypnotic alchemy of the high-energy action Platinum is known for and the darkly thoughtful role-playing games Taro is known for. Working largely in the background, Taura is responsible for helming the moment-to-moment gameplay in one of the best games in the decade.

I mention Taura because Astral Chain, PlatinumGames' latest, developed for the Nintendo Switch, is his directorial debut, and a familiarity with his output immediately makes the game more legible. As an imminently playable action role-playing game, one which combines cyberpunk and anime sensibilities with intuitive but challenging combat, Astral Chain feels like an extension of the design language Taura worked to build in his collaboration with Taro. And while this game doesn't quite reach the same heights of excellence as Nier: Automata (what game does, though?), it's still an enthralling ride.

In Astral Chain, you play as a police officer in a megacity called the Ark, the apparent last vestige of human civilization. You play as one of a pair of twins-either the male or female character, with you naming your own and the other becoming a character named Akira, leading to weird situations where only one of you ever gets named in dialogue, y'know, Akira and, uh, Whatserface Howard. The fact that no one knows your name apparently not an impediment, you quickly join up with an elite special unit called Neuron. As a member of Neuron, you're equipped with a special piece of machinery that lets you bond with a Legion, an otherworldly creature you need to learn to cooperate with to do everything from fight to investigate crimes to simply navigate complex space.

That's help you're going to need, as monsters from the digital-y other world-the Astral Plane, as it's called-are invading the Ark in bits and pieces, overrunning zones of the city with creatures called Chimeras that wreak havoc and turn normal people into monsters themselves. Your Legion is a Chimera too, actually, just one that you're able to bond with and harness. Your power is the power to use the enemy's weapons against them. You wield your Legion at the end of a spectral, glowing blue chain; they're both a prisoner and a pal attached at all times to your wrist. In doing so, you unravel a cliched but interesting enough anime plot about monsters, human evolution, and family. Nothing exceptional, but it has the same over-the-top sheen and joyful presentation as just about everything Platinum does.

The joy of Astral Chain in the dispatching of monsters, not people. | Nintendo

The joy of Astral Chain is in the pursuit of harmony. With the exception of a few more precise moves, you don't control your Legion, exactly. Instead, especially during combat, you just guide it. It attacks automatically when within range of an enemy, and while you can tell it what opponent to focus on, I always found that it had a bit of a mind of its own. As a normal human fighting alongside a supernatural creature, you have to figure out the precise timing necessary to pull off joint attacks and perfect dodges while keeping both of you focused and in fighting shape. It's a lot to juggle, especially on less-than-optimal Joy-Con inputs, but when it flows it feels sublime in a way few combat systems do. As your abilities and your Legion's grow during the game, and as more types of Legion partners become available to you, the combat's possibility space continues to expand, and it never stops being immensely satisfying.

Outside of combat, your Legion helps with more mundane tasks, like jumping over long distances by pulling on your chain and catching perps. It's here, in these non-combat spaces, that Astral Chain feels considerably weaker. Investigating crimes as a cyberpunk police officer is cool but often mildly tedious, and the world doesn't have quite enough spark of a personality to make it pop. What's more, the complex control scheme, a comfortable necessity in high-speed combat, here just gets in the way. And it never feels good to be a police officer, especially when your interests veer away from the supernatural at any point. When you start using your Legion to, say, catch street thugs or arrest a graffiti artist in (thankfully brief and incidental) side quests, the game stops feeling like a bizarre cyberpunk riff on Digimon and becomes something altogether more sinister.

But what makes the game distinctly a game in the mold of Takahisa Taura's previous work, and what might find it deeply frustrating to some long-time Platinum fans, is that Astral Chain is both very much an action game and very much a systems-driven role-playing game. Like Nier before it, Astral Chain is thick with stats and character upgrades, a ballooning system of moves and abilities to learn and install to simplify or enhance combat. Also like Nier, it's built with accessibility to more casual fans in mind, with an option to switch to an automated form of combat that guides the player through it so they can soak up the world's story and vibe without troubling themselves with the complexity.

There's a city to save. | Nintendo

So while Astral Chain has a satisfying amount of intricacy, it's held back from reaching the virtuosic intensity of a Bayonetta or a Revengeance. You can, if you want to, focus on upgrades that make the game's dodge mechanic simpler, for example, or grind stages at higher difficulties for the experience points necessary to level up your Legion to make it a major threat. It's a hook into the action that makes the game more legible to a wider audience, but it will also feel, undoubtedly, like a compromise to some players. Platinum's output is known for targeting the hardest of the hardcore. This game doesn't, and while it's absolutely better for that, some level of depth is almost certainly lost in the process. Old school Platinum this ain't.

What it is, though, is one of the best action-RPGs I've played in a long time. It's an evolution of Nier: Automata's best ideas about action design—the emphasis on an AI-driven partner, the streamlined combat that seesaws between approachability and depth—placed in a weird, arresting game space. It feels like the type of game that doesn't get made anymore, the sort of thing you'd find on the import shelf of a game store circa 2005. It's brimming with personality, and when you and your Legion are in sync, it absolutely sings.

Astral Chain is the directorial debut of Nier Automata designer Takahisa Taura, and it proves that he's a creator worth paying attention to. Part melodramatic anime, part overly complicated Tamagotchi, it's an eminently playable action role-playing game that delivers the pleasure of good teamwork in a way few singleplayer games accomplish. Building on action design ideas seeded in Nier, Astral Chain encourages you to bond with your beloved pet cybermonster both on and off the battlefield. Then, it teaches you how to fight as one.

4/5

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