Astral Chain Review

Over the last twelve years or so Platinum Games has become one of the definitive studios still producing character-action games. Between the bombastic flair of Bayonetta, and their gleefully absurd adaptation of Kojima insanity in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, the studio has almost single-handedly kept the sub-genre alive. In the meantime, they’ve also dabbled with shooters (Vanquish), created a tokusatsu game (The Wonderful 101), and worked with Yoko Taro to create one of the most moving narratives the medium has ever produced (NieR: Automata).

Their latest title Astral Chain builds on this legacy, borrowing components from their previous titles to create a unique action game which levies the studio’s talent for creating stylish gameplay with RPG elements, puzzle-solving, and an anime-infused cyberpunk world. This medley of familiar parts comes together to create something that feels fresh and uniquely entertaining, with enough fundamental twists on the character-action formula to differentiate it from not only the rest of the studio’s catalog but from other similar titles.

Set in a dire future where a mysterious foreign entity known as Chimeras threaten to assimilate humanity, the remaining survivors have fled to The Ark, an artificial island constructed as a final bastion against the unending tide. You play as a cop selected for Neuron, a special task force aimed to combat this threat. Their weapon of choice are Legion, converted Chimera that are literally shackled to their handlers with technology that just barely contains their bestial nature. You and your sibling are selected for this program due to your unique high sync-rates with these familiars, but it isn’t long until you witness their brutal potential, as well as begin to detect that not all is well at Neuron.

As a member of Neuron, it’s your duty to track down the Chimera wherever they appear, in the hope of eventually beating back this enigmatic force. The story is broken up into twelve distinct cases, most of which are set in semi-open worlds. Levels generally contain hub areas that are filled with side missions, light platforming, and more than a few secrets. This side-content offers a welcome palette cleanser from the main story, with some varied and ingenious challenges that range from logic puzzles to gauntlets of platforming. In one case, you must unravel a riddle laid out by a troupe of identical brothers. In another, you must carefully maneuver cars on a freeway to unblock traffic. And since you are a police officer who is constantly hunting down otherworldly beings, investigating areas for clues is a frequent occurrence, necessitating tracking down witnesses and following tracks to discover malicious Chimera. While this often boils down to chatting with all of the NPCs in a given area, the process still offers a welcome excuse to explore the varying nooks and crannies of The Ark, fleshing out the besieged metropolis as a locale that fits well into the annals of cyberpunkdom. Exploration also has the benefit of offering additional materials to upgrade your Legion, consumable items, and cosmetics.

Unfortunately, not all of the exploration is equally satisfying. While traversing The Ark is almost always enjoyable because of available side quests and NPCs, being pulled into the Astral Plane, the world were the Chimeras originate from, can occasionally be tedious. There are sometimes lengthy sequences without combat amidst the backdrop of a unnerving cubist world that creates too much time between Chimera beat-downs without interesting puzzles or character interactions to break up the wandering. Still, the exploration is mostly enjoyable, making the game feel like much more than a series of hallways interspersed with combat arenas.

That said, the main course of the game is undeniably the combat, which blends style, substance, and a unique central mechanic to create a gratifying mishmash of elements. Your own character behaves as expected; you can perform basic combos by attacking repeatedly, and you can roll out of the way of incoming blows. You're armed with the X-Baton, a shape-shifting weapon that transforms between the long-ranged Blaster, a speedy police baton, and the slow but hard-hitting Gladius. However, once you are bound to your Legion, things become truly interesting. Connected to your begrudging companion by a chain, you can whip them around the battlefield, siccing your vicious minion on distant enemies. Your Legion will attack autonomously, but will always obey your orders instantaneously. You can also use the chain to grapple to your Legion to slingshot yourself around the terrain with ease. Alternatively, you can manually move them which makes it possible to wrap the chain around your foes, ensnaring Chimera for counterattacks. These tools allow you to become a deadly puppet master, combining the devastating attacks of your Legion with your own strikes to create an elegant dance of destruction.

These abilities are only the beginning, and as you progress, you will unlock entirely new Legion, each with special unique abilities. Fighting also grants you currency to upgrade your weapons, and experience points that can be spent on your Legion’s skill trees. Advancing in the skill trees improves Legion’s stats, giving them new command inputs while also gaining access to new abilities with cool-downs. You can also unlock sync attacks, which are powerful moves based on timing and can be used during combos when you perfect a dodge, and in other particular circumstances.

All the different options would undoubtedly be overwhelming if they were presented upfront, but the RPG progression makes it so that the new techniques are unlocked at a reasonable pace. All of this complexity adds a great degree of nuance to each combat encounter, and the various special attacks and different weapons are given unique importance due to the myriad of enemy types. In particular, the Legion's unique abilities all differ greatly. The Sword Legion lets you slow down as you line up powerful sword strikes which can interrupt enemy attacks, while the Beast Legion's ability lets you ride on its back for improved mobility.

Although Astral Chain doesn't provide players with a large list of combos like other games in the genre, the wide range of different Legion actions makes it always feels like you have a wide array of tools at your disposal. In any given fight you have to micromanage your Legion's sync rate, making sure that you occasionally remove them from combat to so they don't overheat, take care of pesky enemy types that buff other Chimera, watch you own health bar, and weave through enemy attacks to ensure that you get a good grade at the end of each encounter. The powerful sync attacks allow you to dynamically create cinematic moments, which are as fun to perform as they are dazzling to behold. The cel-shaded anime aesthetic ties in nicely with the overblown spectacle, elevating the impact of your blows. There are also command inputs that let both you and your Legion do special moves, which can even be chained into sync attacks, adding additional complexity and more options to the combat.

As can be expected from a Platinum game, there is a degree of responsiveness to the movement, allowing you to cancel out of combos with your dodge to create balletic pummelings. However, my largest gripe with the combat stems from the lack of invincibility frames during dodge rolls, which often make battles against larger foes somewhat frustrating. Perfectly timed dodges don't always allow you to actually evade attacks, usually necessitating whittling down you enemy from afar while carefully pulling back your Legion as your enemy is about to strike. Still, this is a somewhat minor complaint in the grand scheme of things. Astral Chain sits neatly at the intersection between striking aesthetics and rewarding skill-based gameplay, its Legion based combat successfully creating a multitude of cool and rewarding moments.

While the action gameplay is almost entirely successful, the story can be more of a mixed bag. Although there are some bombastic set-pieces, the narrative is uneven and dragged down by awkward character writing, a silent protagonist, and weak plotting. Still, parts of the story that fully lean into the action-packed zeal of the gameplay manage to deliver some convincing hot-blooded spectacle, and there are even some more thoughtful undercurrents that forces you to question the practices of the desperate government body. There are also quite a lot homages, which ranges from smaller allusions (Jojo's Bizarre Adventure) to large plot similarities (Neon Genesis Evangelion), which I personally found endearing, but some may see as mere plagiarism. The nightmarish techno-future also bears resemblance to other cyberpunk fiction like Neuromancer and Snowcrash, with skilled hackers, anti-government factions, and living quality disparities that give the world a defined sense of place.

Beyond all of the dismal happenings that define The Ark, there are also quite a few charming excursions. Neuron's dog mascot, Lappy, makes many enthusiastic appearances at your base, simultaneously startling the protagonist but also bringing cheer amidst the gloom. Many of your fellow operatives can be quirky and endearing, and while there isn't a lot of deep character development, your compatriots make it worth checking with them between missions. The soundtrack, particularly the more ambient/electronic tracks, also does a great job at setting the mood, clearly identifying the world as one that is foreign from our own. 

Astral Chain feels like the culmination of Platinum Games’ work, combining sleek character-action gameplay with well-defined progression mechanics, a striking world, and more than a few memorable moments. Controlling your Legion in tandem with your own character gives the gameplay a unique and empowering cadence and makes the player feel like a masterful puppeteer. Combat is tight and has a lot of potential for variety, thanks to the abundance of different moves that can be used by you and your Legion. Some unpleasant forays in the Astral Plane, an occasionally unhelpful dodge, and a dearth of combos hold the game back slightly, but despite these shortcomings, combat still feels robust and exploration is a welcome change of pace. Overall, Astral Chain is a wonderful synthesis of stylish character-action, RPG elements, and a novel central hook that manages to tread new ground despite its many points of influence.