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Astral Chain – Review
A Bloody Storm Of Cool
It’s a great time to be a niche Japanese studio. From Arc System Works dominating the fighting game scene to Nier Automata being a serious Game of the Year contender (and winner according to some reputable sites), it seems like more unique experiences are finally getting their time in the sun.
Astral Chain is a game that, is simply oozing with its appeal. With a combat style equal parts stylish and steep in its learning curve, Platinum Games has definitely shown they’re very much in peak form with this stylish character action game.
As a game for the Nintendo Switch, Astral Chain follows the trend of aesthetic over visual fidelity. The game looks great, with an art style full of bold colors that read great on both handheld and TV mode. Admittedly, at first I wasn’t too fond of the bulky armor worn by the game’s protagonists. However, once you get to customize your character and lose it, you see that the character models are actually quite decent.
The world itself is also visually gorgeous, with plenty of neon lights and holographic signs for that techno-future feel. It’s got that great “not too distant future” vibe going for it, and it works it well.
If anything, the game’s at its weakest design-wise in the Astral Plane, a series of stages where everything just kind of looks bog-standard “extradimensional plane”. But even then, it’s not weaker by much, and still looks infinitely more imposing than many other game locales I’ve had to slog through.
In essence, it’s the little things that make Astral Chain’s look so appealing. It’s very anime, in that even side characters have memorable traits instead of looking like background characters. The world looks like the high point of futurist anime art, and it’s an absolute delight to be in.
Gameplay in Astral Chain is very much about two halves. I’ll try to break it down here to the best of my ability.
When it comes to combat, Astral Chain is absolutely phenomenal. The Legion-based combat will take some getting used to, but successful mastery of the game’s timing-based Sync combos make you almost wish you had some kind of style announcer lavishing you in praise.
The important thing to remember about the combat with Astral Chain is that it’s not just you you’re controlling. Over-reliance on either the Legion or the player character will often have your moves feel clunky. However, investing in the sync moves for your Legions will allow them to flow into each other much better.
The Legions themselves are amazing, too. Each of them plays differently, and you’re required to not only know all five of them but actively swap between them as certain ones are required for certain enemies.
I highly recommend picking a favourite to spoil though, as higher-level upgrade materials can be sparse and a high-level Legion is more valuable than several weaker ones.
While the combat sections of the game are by a mile the game’s strongest feature, the game is far from simply being a bunch of cool action scenes. Levels contain investigation portions, side quests and even platforming.
I bring this up because compared to the fighting, many of these segments seem not quite as fleshed out. There are a few segments where you have to ride Beast Legion across some platforms and the Legion controls like Agro from Shadow of the Colossus, if they were going through a divorce and had a lot on their mind and also really wished it were more like the platforming in Ultima 8. Suffice to say, much of the legion based platforming is not fun.
Several of the game’s boss fights can also seem daunting at first, but I’ve chalked that up to the game having a slightly more bizarre set of expectations for the player. In essence, once you’ve understood the importance of both you and your Legion, you’ll see just how many of the game’s problems are built around having one particular legion that can solve it with ease.
I feel like by borrowing side quests from more open-world games, Astral Chain has done a lovely job of respecting the player’s time. I’ve done missions with a straight run for the boss as well as also missions where I’ve stopped and chatted up every NPC to complete the side quests. Combining this with the ability to skip to the parts of the game that you want on replay, it really does allow you to just play the good parts of Astral Chain. It’s a nice touch, because more games should let you play the part of the game that’s actually fun.
Unlike Devil May Cry, playing Astral Chain also lets you access the harder difficulty immediately after clearing it on the Platinum Standard. If you so desired, the missions you beat can instantly be replayed on the harder difficulties.
Similarly, you can also tone down the difficulty. The game gives you an out at the end of every Mission to change your difficulty, which is a nice touch.
On the topic of collectibles, Astral Chain has quite a few. Despite being a serious police story about serious police, the game has you seeking out stray cats and toilets, with one being hidden on every level. There are also alternate Color schemes for you and your Legion, which can be awarded for various feats.
I shouldn’t like this as much as I do, but I kind of love the idea of the cats and toilets. They’re not overtly goofy, but they’re just out there enough to be worth a good chuckle. They’re also incredibly difficult to find, and as of right now no site has any guides posted on how to get all the cosmetics despite it being two weeks post-launch at the time of writing.
While the game may not start after ending like, say, a Monster Hunter game, it is very nice to know that the game has plenty to offer after it’s “finished”. It’s also great to have a playground to test your new Legions in, though the game does also give you a training room for this.
One of the fastest ways to not enjoy Astral Chain is to go in expecting Nier: Automata. While the two games seem similar at first, Astral Chain is quick to establish itself as an action game first, compared to Nier’s message-focused approach.
That being said, as someone who was on board with Astral Chain on the premise of Stand Cops, the game did not disappoint. The action sequences are great, the sheer video gamey-ness of the plot is well set up and the cues it takes from anime are just present enough to be seen without seeming too forced.
The heights of the highs when playing Astral Chain far outweighed its drab lows, and I can’t think of many complaints I had at the start of the game that didn’t feel resolved in some way or other towards the end.
If I had to make some nitpicks, I’d wish that the secret Stand Police weren’t paid in trash. For whatever reason, rather than give you money, many side quests pay you in items that can be recycled for cash, but it’s not a great look for your protagonist constantly hauling around bags of broken equipment and torn caps.
Astral Chain is essentially a playable anime. However, unlike the games that try to do this with questionable gameplay quality, Astral Chain goes the mile to make sure the anime portions are as good as possible.
Its world is lovingly designed to make sure there’s never a point with nothing to do, be it fighting space demons, picking up litter or helping a guy find the local burger joint.
While I doubt it will ever push the numbers of a mainstream triple-A release, I’m glad to report that the game is very much good, and fans thirsting for a quirky character action game with RPG elements should have a good time with this one.
It’s a game that can really Stand Proud of its achievements, and I hope the development team has some Great Days ahead of them for it. Because this game is Fighting Gold.
Review copy purchased by the reviewer