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‘Astral Chain’ Review: A Sci-Fi Epic Worth Investigating

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.

astral chain

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.

Unchained Action

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.

astral chain

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.

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5 comments

Rogerio Andrade August 29, 2019 at 12:46 pm

I do understand that videogames can be used to tell good stories, but I always think about the story in videogames as something that must be just a support of the gameplay, and not the opposite.
That said, it´s very hard, in any genre or gameplay mechanics, to come with a story that fits well in a game, for the simple fact that, in order to have a product that can be called a “game” it´s necessary to always present challenges for the player. So, I never expect the pace and writing of the story in videogames to be in the same finesse level of what we see on movies/theater or literature. These media are purely contemplative, while in videogames, the story must rely on the player´s skill and intervention to be revealed.
I´ve seen a lot of criticism towards Astral Chain and Fire Emblem 3 Houses story/writing… Having personally played both games, I must say that these problems don´t annoy me a single bit. I try to see the story in these games just as something to support the gameplay challenges that the game offers me as a player and a consumer. At best, I feel like watching an seinen anime when playing videogames, never expecting something too deep or elaborated.

Reply
Brent Middleton August 29, 2019 at 1:46 pm

Hey Rogerio, appreciate you taking the time to comment! I actually think your view on story in games is quite similar to that of Patrick Murphy, our Films Editor.

I think the primary difference between us here is that I’m naturally someone who loves good narrative design in a game. You mentioned Fire Emblem: Three Houses. While some (perhaps like yourself) might like the game primarily for its tactical gameplay, I absolutely love it for its characters. The way they’re written, their support conversations with others, how they grow into their own over time; it’s all really well done. With a case like Three Houses, the battles actually support the character and world building aspects of the game for me (as opposed to story supporting gameplay, like you proposed). It’s really just a matter of what you care about.

In terms of the pacing issues, take a look at something like Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Its story obviously won’t win any awards for innovation in storytelling or exceptional writing, but it was told well enough and at a good enough pace that key moments usually left an impression when they were supposed to. Because the opening chapters of Astral Chain feel rushed, I wasn’t able to be affected by events in that same way. When they happened it all felt rather hollow and lackluster.

I get that story/writing quality doesn’t bother you in a game; I’m sure a ton of people feel the same way. It especially makes sense in the context of Astral Chain, since this is an Action game first and foremost. But when Platinum puts so much effort into trying to tell a compelling story full of drama, highly-produced cutscenes and plot twists, I think it’s worth factoring that part of the game into the overall discussion.

Reply
Patrick Murphy August 29, 2019 at 8:36 pm

You’ve got me pegged when it comes to not caring about story in games, for sure. And yet…in a weird twist, I absolutely love the characters in Three Houses; unlocking supports and paralogues are definitely huge incentives for me playing each house.

Still, I expect this to be a momentary lapse. No doubt Astral Chain will have me back to my dialogue-skipping ways in no time.

Reply
Rogerio Andrade August 30, 2019 at 6:28 am

Thanks for taking your time replying me.
Nice points, Brent. At the end of the day, as consumers, we all have different approaches and expectations towards the same games. I personally think that´s awesome that videogames reached such level of design and production that people may look each production in a different way and enjoy them in different ways. Some play for the storytelling, some play for the skill challenges. Some for both.
By the way, your review was a pleasant read. I personally think that Astral Chain is a great game and it´s good to se writers giving attention to this game.

Reply
Brent Middleton August 30, 2019 at 7:58 am

Glad you enjoyed the review Rogerio! I completely agree; it’s great that we can all enjoy games in different ways. Thanks for such a fun discussion about a great game.

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