‘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.
‘Coffee Talk’ Review: The Best Brew in Town
Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.
It’s 9:00pm. The rain just started coming down softly a few minutes ago, and the street outside is reflecting the lights above it. Neon signs shine brightly in the distance, although it’s hard to make out the words. You unlock the doors to the coffee shop and wipe down the counters in order to get them clean for the customers. The rain makes a soft sound as it hits the glass and passerby speed up their walking pace to avoid it. The bells chime as a tall, green orc walks in and sits down at your table in silence. You wonder what their story is…
I wanted to set the tone for this review because of how important atmosphere and audio/visual design is in the world of Coffee Talk. While it’s easy to boil the game down as a visual novel-type experience, it’s honestly so much more than that. A unique cast of characters, incredible user interface, and a mysterious protagonist combine to form the most enjoyable experience I’ve had this year on Switch.
Coffee Talk is beautiful because of how simple it is. The entire game takes place within a single coffee shop. As the barista, you’re tasked with making drinks for the patrons of the shop as well as making conversations with them. The twist is that earth is populated with creatures like orcs, werewolves, and succubi. The relationship between the various races is handled very well throughout the story, and some interesting parallels are made to the real world.
Making drinks is as simple as putting together a combination of three ingredients and hitting the ‘Serve’ button. If a unique drink is made, it will be added to a recipe list that can be referenced on the barista’s cell phone. This is where the awesome user interface comes in, as the phone has a series of apps that can be accessed at any moment in the game. One app houses your recipe list, another acts as a facebook for the characters in the game, one allows you to switch between songs, and the other houses a series of short stories that one of the characters in the game writes as it progresses. It’s one of the coolest parts of the whole experience and helps it stand out from other games in the genre.
Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.
Coffee Talk cycles between talking with customers and making drinks for them. In the beginning, they will ask for basic beverages that can be brewed on the fly. Later on however, they may ask for a specific type of drink that has a unique title. These drinks often have certain descriptive features that hint at other possibilities in terms of unique dialogue. If the wrong drink is made, you’ll have five chances to trash it and make a new one. If the wrong drink is made, don’t expect the customer to be pleased about it.
The gameplay really is not the focus here though; it’s the characters and their stories that take center stage. An elf with relationship issues, a writer that can’t seem to pin down her next story, and an alien whose sole goal is to mate with an earthling are just a few of the examples of the characters you’ll meet during the story. There are tons of memorable moments throughout Coffee Talk, with every character bringing something unique to the table. The barista develops an interesting relationship with many of these characters as well.
Even though serving the wrong drinks can change some of the dialogue, don’t expect any sort of options or branching paths in terms of the story. It’s not that kind of experience; the story should simply be enjoyed for what it is. I found myself glued to the screen at the end of each of the in-game days, waiting to see what would happen in the morning. The first playthrough also doesn’t answer all of the game’s questions, as the second one is filled with all kinds of surprises that I won’t spoil here.
Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone who loves video games, not just visual novel fans. There are characters in the game that I’ll certainly be thinking about for a long time, especially when the setting brings out the best in them. Don’t pass this one up.
‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted
There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.
There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.
Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.
But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.
Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.
Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.
Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.
‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!
Shovel Knight: King of Cards
King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.
Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.
All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.
Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.
It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.
The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.
It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?
Shovel Knight Showdown
Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.
What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.
Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.
Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.
What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.
With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.
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