‘Astral Chain’ Review: A Sci-Fi Epic Worth Investigating
‘Astral Chain’ is a reminder of why Platinum is at the top of the Action genre. But does their new outing have the makings of a true classic?
Though video games have only been around since the 70s, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve hit something of a creative wall in the AAA space. With more games being released that are strikingly iterative, uninspired, or simply sequels and/or remakes, Astral Chain feels like a breath of fresh air in a sea of sameness. It’s not often that we get a sci-fi/action/detective mashup, but Platinum has managed to pull it off with such success that it’s shocking this version of Earth hadn’t been thought up before.
A Tale of Two Twins
The year is 2078 and humanity has all but collapsed. Otherworldly beings known as Chimera have begun hunting people down and dragging them back to their dimension, the Astral Plane. The residual effects of this dimension-hopping has resulted in the spread of a condition known as “red-shifting” where contaminated individuals suffer extreme pain and sluggishness. Those who were lucky enough managed to sequester themselves away from the rest of the world on a manmade ship called the Ark. This last bastion of hope has now begun to undergo countless attacks itself–and things are only getting worse.
Having grown up in this living hell of a future, the player and his/her twin (whichever gender you choose, your twin Akira will be the opposite) have decided to enlist as part of Ark Police’s specialized Neuron Task Force and defend the city from all manner of Chimera activity.
Astral Chain’s initial premise is bursting with potential. Though apocalyptic narratives are nothing new per se, seeing these events from the perspective of a special task force member is a refreshing twist (especially since police work is an integral part of the gameplay). The story itself, however, suffers from some pacing issues in the opening chapters that result in early dramatic moments not quite hitting as hard as they should. Many of the early story beats are also fairly predictable (though well-presented), and it isn’t until the final third of the game that the narrative feels like it’s running on all cylinders.
Where the early pacing issues hit hardest are in character development. Events in the first couple chapters rush forward too quickly for the player to truly care about their fellow Neuron operatives. Standouts like the lovably goofy Officer Marie Wentz ease the disconnect, but it really isn’t until the last few chapters that the player is surrounded by what feels like a really tight-knit, dependable crew. Luckily, the character dialogue and lore are both strong enough to make every moment worth it regardless.
The Latest in Sleuthing Technology
Astral Chain boasts three distinct types of gameplay: investigative work, downtime/side quests, and combat. Most chapters (or Files, in this case) are comprised of a bit of each, and it’s astonishing just how well these distinct modes complement each other.
As part of the force, one of the player’s primary duties is analyzing crime scenes and gathering information from civilians. For as much as the combat is the main focus of Astral Chain, these sections are easily just as enjoyable. Walking the beat by questioning locals and scanning a scene for clues feels remarkably intuitive thanks to IRIS, an all-knowing police database packed with advanced scanning technology. It lets players identify literally everyone on the Ark, makes navigation easier in low-visibility conditions, can be used to hack into security cameras and replay footage, and more. Arguably the best investigative moments, though, come from giving the Beast Legion (effectively a large cybernetic dog) a scent sample so they can guide you through the city and help you hunt down missing persons or clues.
Once all the clues are gathered, Astral Chain requires players to mull over each and establish a lead. Threading all of this together is a blast and encourages players to pay attention during the questioning process. Some of the better detective segments even incorporate mini-quests as a way to get clues from witnesses, like reuniting a nearby lost child with his mother or playing a guessing game with a group of local children.
Bite-sized quests like these are laced throughout the game and serve as both delightful breaks from the action and a chance to get to know the residents of the Ark a bit better. None of these take more than five-ten minutes at most, but they’re all varied and well-written enough to be worth pursuing every time one pops up. It’s through these quests that players get to know more about life both at the police station and across the expanse of the city. Players looking to get right back into the action can skip nearly all of these, but they’re easily recommended for those looking for some strong bits of world-building.
As one would expect from a Platinum game, the main attraction here is the flashy, combo-laden combat. As advertised, players fight every battle alongside a Legion, which is a Chimera that’s been tamed and kept under control via each wielder’s Astral Chain. There are five distinct Legions each boasting their own playstyles and special moves. Some (like the aforementioned Beast Legion) specialize in mobility, while others (like the Arrow Legion) specialize in long-ranged attacks. Similarly to competitive Pokemon play, consistently switching between all of the Legions is a must for optimal effectiveness.
Battles themselves are slightly reminiscent of Bayonetta in that they’re fast-paced, stylish, and have a high skill ceiling. Though controlling two characters might look intimidating at first glance, Director Takahisa Taura (possibly pulling from his experience on Nier: Automata) wisely streamlined everything by having the Legions attack autonomously once directed towards an enemy. A quick lock-on trigger makes this a snap and is a downright necessity for most fights due to Astral Chain’s somewhat unruly camera.
It didn’t take long to get into a good rhythm of going in close to deliver a few blows, quickly rolling out of the way of an attack, changing Legions for a different approach and diving back in. This natural chemistry is enhanced all the more by flashy team attacks where a variety of stunts can be pulled off depending on the Legion and the weapon the player is wielding (be it a light sword, heavy sword, or gun). Deeper combos can be unlocked further down each Legion’s individual skill tree, providing a tempting incentive to try and collect as many Gene Code Points as possible (which are earned by completing missions and side quests, taking down enemies, and recycling around the city when possible).
The drastic differences between Legions lead to a welcome diversity of approaches to combat. For instance: After an extensive gauntlet of tough battles, I was forced to face a major boss at 1/3 of my health without any healing items. Despite this, I was able to use a combination of my gun, my autonomous Arrow Legion, and plenty of evasive maneuvers to take the boss down from a distance. It might not have been the most optimal way to go about the fight, but the fact that it was a viable option made the depth of Astral Chain’s combat system that much more impressive.
A Whole New World
It’s hard to believe something this pretty (and that isn’t a first-party Nintendo game) is running on the Switch. Though the little hybrid lacks the raw horsepower to implement things like anti-aliasing around character models, the technical feats that PlatinumGames has accomplished here are nothing short of stunning.
Not only do Masakazu Katsura’s character designs pop off the screen with surprising clarity, but the art direction in general perfectly conveys the story’s drearily optimistic sci-fi aesthetic. The police station is a trove of technological eye candy that truly seems like it could exist 60-odd years in the future. Sci-fi tones are everywhere, from the customizable holographic HUD, to the endearingly creepy talking vending machines, to the enemy holograms that players can fight in the training room. It’s clear that extra effort was made to detail the remains of this dystopian civilization in a way that comes off as fully realized and believable.
It’s a shame, then, that the Astral Plane is so uninspired by comparison. Whereas the gaudy sheen of neon lights and a healthy amount of location variety help keep the real-world environments feeling fresh, the lack of environmental detail and any distinguishing landmarks results in the Astral Plane always looking the same no matter when it’s visited. The area does at least manage to stand out from a gameplay perspective thanks to environmental puzzles that make use of the Legions’ abilities in (mostly) satisfying ways. In terms of visual design, however, it’s quite disappointing that this vast dimension from which the Chimera hail is only comprised of a single backdrop with some slight variations in terrain. For as much time as the player spends there, it never manages to elevate beyond a simple eerie setting to fight Chimera and solve puzzles. Compared to the rest of the game, the lack of environmental storytelling here is jarring.
While its visual design has its highs and lows, Astral Chain’s score is sonic euphoria. The way mellow exploration themes ramp up once an encounter occurs is not only seamless but a genuine joy to listen to (as an example, listen to the progression from Ark Mall to Ark Mall/Combat Phase). Every electric guitar-infused battle theme elevates the organized chaos on screen into something seriously dire. Naofumi Harada’s use of a choir in some of the game’s most memorable boss themes is equally as masterful. And yet, lead composer Satoshi Igarashi’s electropop-laden background music heard at the police station might just be one of the most loopable tracks from any video game, period. On another audio-related note, there’s a absolute wealth of voiced dialogue here. It ranges from great to poor (the voice of the male Akira is especially grating), but by and large it does nothing but enhance the already cinematic experience.
A Planet Worth Saving
Like many of Platinum’s games, Astral Chain doesn’t feel quite like anything else out there. It’s fairly long for an action game (20-25 hours depending on side quests) and dips its toes into several different genres over the course of its runtime. Some are more successful than others (the half-hearted top-down puzzle sections in the Astral Plane don’t quite make sense), but the overall result is an experience that rarely lets the player get tired of doing any one thing for too long. The addition of difficulty settings that can be changed at the start of every chapter and loaded save (including an “Unchained” difficulty option for those purely interested in the story) is also welcome for players who want to get their feet wet with the combat before cranking things up a notch.
What shortcomings Platinum’s latest outing has in poor pacing and predictable story beats is more than made up for by the game’s final chapters. Even so, this isn’t the type of game that necessarily requires a overall stellar story to succeed; it simply needs deep and visually impressive combat, a memorable cast, and a fully realized world that keeps players immersed and eager to keep explore. Astral Chain has all of this in spades and then some.
‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos
Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.
There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.
Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.
That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.
Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.
By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.
‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running
Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.
In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.
Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.
This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.
Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”
Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.
Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.
At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.
That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.
“Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”
It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.
Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.
‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off
The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.
Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.
Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.
The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.
To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.
In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.
On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.
By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.
Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.
Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.
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