Game review: Astral Chain is the best Switch game of the year
The latest Switch exclusive from the creators of Bayonetta is Astral Chain, a crazy sci-fi police epic with some of the best combat of the generation.
Most people were probably fearing the worst about Astral Chain – assuming they’d heard about it at all. After being announced out of the blue in February, and barely ever being mentioned again by Nintendo, it would’ve been perfectly reasonable to assume something was up, even when it’s the new game from Bayonetta and NieR: Automata developer PlatinumGames. We were certainly apprehensive before we started playing it but – surprise! – it’s actually one of the best games of the year.
To be fair to Nintendo, Astral Chain is not an easy game to market. It’s not a sequel or a licence, the story is Platinum’s usual sub-anime nonsense, and the gameplay is hard to get the gist of from watching a video or even from playing it during a short hands-on. It does have many similarities with previous games such as Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising though and so if you liked those you’re going to love this.
Astral Chain is a thickly-plotted affair and is set in the year 2078 when all that is left of humanity is crowded together on a man-made island, creating a new megacity that looks suspiciously like Tokyo. The world is being attacked by invisible interdimensional creatures called Chimeras, which a special police agency has learnt how to capture and force to do their bidding. You’ll guess where the story is going after almost the first cut scene but thankfully the game never takes itself too seriously and its goofy sense of humour is all part of the charm.
Capturing a Chimera involves decking it out in police armour and putting a leash around its neck, the literal astral chain of the title. Chimeras, referred to as Legions once they’re caught, can only exist in our reality for a short time (which can be extended during combat by landing attacks) so by default you use your transforming gun/baton/sword to defend yourself, which is perfectly practical for smaller encounters.
Most of the time though you’ll call in your Legion to help out, which will attack nearby enemies automatically. However, you can also move it about manually, for as far as the length of the chain will go, and make use of various special moves that range from performing a clothesline attack with the chain to wrapping enemies up in it for a short time.
Because this is Platinum you can also trigger a counterattack when you dodge an enemy at just the right time, as well as special moves when you call a Legion just before you’re about to be hit or simply at the end of a combo. Technically, there’s only one attack button so none of this is as complex as it sounds in terms of buttons and instead the main difficulty is crowd control and timing.
As you progress through the game the volume of options greatly increases, with five separate Legions to collect, all of which have their own abilities, from a dog-like one that you can ride as a mount to one with a bow and arrow that you can aim manually. Each Legion also has its own separate skill tree, can be assigned multiple special moves once they’re unlocked, and has a set of interchangeable buffs.
Platinum have thrown everything they can think of into the game and at times it feels like it’s going to collapse under its own weight, but it never does. Although some aspects of the gameplay are more fleshed out than others there’s nothing you wish wasn’t there and considering how much is in the game that’s a minor miracle. Especially as we haven’t even mentioned the crime solving yet.
Astral Chain spends a surprising amount of time on what is essentially police procedural work, following clues for the story mission but also tackling much more trivial cases in small open world environments, from catching bag thieves to delivering a young boy an ice cream (via a motion-controlled ice cream balancing mini-game). All the Legions can be useful in some way, from the dog following scents to another that can listen in to conversations from a distance.
It’s all charmingly silly but serves a serious purpose in breaking up the action and creating an unusually well paced action game, where you’re always raring to go when the action starts – rather than dreading yet another fight.
As well as exploring the city you’re also frequently dragged into the ‘astral plane’ from which the Chimeras hail. By strange coincidence Control, which is also out this week, also has an astral plane made up of huge cubes of what looks like black marble, although you’ll spend more time in Astral Chain’s version, where there’s a lot of pseudo-platforming as you make use of the Legion’s ability to jump you across wide gaps by pulling yourself along with the chain.
Considering its clearly limited budget the amount of content in Astral Chain is staggering. It’s not super long but we haven’t even mentioned things like hoovering up red matter with your Legion, hanging around back at police HQ with your colleagues, looking after stray cats, and trying to find paper for the toilet faerie (really). There’s also a local co-op mode that works for the whole game and uses just the Joy-Cons, where one person plays as a human and the other their Legion.
None of those extra features would matter if the combat wasn’t up to par, but it absolutely it is. There are few things as satisfying in a video game as dodging an enemy attack at just the right moment and it’s that feeling on which much of Platinum’s best work hinges. And yet Astral Chain isn’t all that difficult, even on the ‘Platinum Standard’ mode it initially tries to warn you off, and most will probably find it easier than either Bayonetta game.
It’s not beating the game that’s the achievement in Astral Chain but doing it with style. You can barge your way through most encounters with only a modicum of skill but getting a high score is much harder, as you have to maintain a keen situational awareness and plan moves and tactics several steps in advance. Getting higher ranked scores seems impossible at first but with every battle you learn a little more and when you’re finally able to see off a group of monsters without them even laying a claw on you the sense of pride is immeasurable.
To use the developer’s own grading system, Astral Chain still doesn’t quite get an S rank, as the camera can be very unhelpful at times (no wonder, given you’re essentially controlling two characters at once) and there’s only a few boss battles that match the highest standards of their previous games. But no Platinum game is perfect and this is still definitely one of their best.
You could also complain about a lack of visual variety – no doubt thanks to budget limitations – with the astral plane in particular getting a bit overfamiliar by the end. But if Platinum were given a bigger budget they’d also be put on more of a leash in terms of what they can do, and we’d never want to see that. So even if you’ve never heard of it before do give Astral Chain a chance because it’s the sort of video game that’s so good it reminds you why you play them in the first place.
Astral Chain review
In Short: Another classic action game from Platinum that’s so full of ideas it seems fit to burst and yet everything not only works perfectly but is filled with an infectious sense of goofy fun.
Pros: Fantastic combat system that’s easy to learn but very difficult to master. Huge range of upgrade options and unlockable abilities. Amusing police work sections and fun platform puzzling.
Cons: Camera can get very confused when there’s a lot going on in enclosed spaces. Not much visual variety in the setting.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 30th August 2019
Age Rating: 16
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