Thoughts on Astral Chain
Sometime last winter, I finally caved in and bought myself a Nintendo Switch. It may’ve been an impulsive purchase, I’m not going to lie, but I don’t regret it one bit. This little device really comes in handy during the slow night shifts, and I had plenty of those lately... So, needless to say, I played a bunch of games on the Switch this year!
My plan was to eventually come here and write a post with multiple short takes on some of them (like I’d recently done for some movies). However, after finishing Astral Chain, I felt this game deserved a post all of its own. Yes, it’s that good. (What a privilege, I know, being featured like that here!)
Anyway, instead of doing what I did the last time I shared my opinion of a game (where I listed 5 positives and 5 negatives), I’ll be going with a more classic approach for this one. Taking inspiration from my boy Ranton, I’ll touch upon three major aspects of the game: the Story, the Gameplay, and overall Fun!
What the hell is Astral Chain?
Astral Chain is a game exclusive to the Nintendo Switch system, and it’s created by PlatinumGames – the Japanese studio best known for developing Bayonetta and NieR: Automata games. Now, I haven’t played either of those two (yet), but I know what that means: I can expect fast action and fun combat. And Astral Chain didn’t disappoint! This is an action game with fast, innovative combat mechanics. It's also a story-driven game, in my opinion, with some heavy anime vibes to it. And I mean heavy.
The game even hits you with its own anime-style opening after the prologue chapter. I'm not joking...
If you’re not a fan of that, however, I wouldn’t worry. I’m not a huge anime fan myself (and by that, I mean I don’t watch any), but I fully enjoyed Astral Chain. Yes, it gets silly at times, and things are often over-the-top, but that’s part of the fun here. I had no trouble embracing it, though I do feel like certain story elements suffered because of it. Which brings me to our first major point…
The year is 2078 and things are fucked. Earth is reduced to a single island, whereas everything else on the entire globe is corrupted and destroyed by some alien matter from the astral plane (whatever that is…). So, while people smarter than you are trying to figure this shit out, your job as the player character is to protect humanity’s last bastion from those nasty astral intrusions.
Your character, however, isn’t some hardened warrior, but rather a rookie police officer who gets recruited at the beginning of the game into a special unit called Neuron (which is kind of a big deal, but we’ll get back to that later).
At the start of the game, you choose to play either as a male or a female officer, and whichever option you don’t pick will end up being your twin sibling – Akira Howard. And Akira is an important part of the story, just as much as the player character (if not more so at times). So, right off the bat you can expect some family drama as things develop, but I think Astral Chain handled it well. I found the twins rather compelling as the main characters, and their motives quickly became my motives in the game!
You can take selfies in the game, btw.
Now, the developers decided to go with the silent protagonist in regards to the player character, which I’m not sure was necessary, but that didn’t bother me as much as some other things… To name a few, due to the anime formula, I felt like some characters acted more like roles than actual people. In their defense, though, they were at least consistent in their roles, and I suppose the whole approach did serve the story well enough, but it also made it painfully predictable. Next to that, there were also some pacing issues in the middle act, and the bad guys are a bit underdeveloped, but I’m not shitting on the narrative. Despite these issues, I found the story very much enjoyable, and it kept me invested the whole way through.
Ironically, that same anime element that troubled me with some aspects of the plot is also what added to my enjoyment of the story. Sounds contradicting, but here’s the thing: Astral Chain makes up for the cartoony and flat moments by offering you a ton of badass ones. The action cutscenes in this game are pure hype! And they’re done in this spectacular, over-the-top fashion, which probably wouldn’t have worked within a non-anime universe.
So, when it comes to the story, there’s a bit of a trade-off happening within the game, but I ended up liking the end-result. So, Thumbs Up, I guess!
I don’t know if I would be saying the same if the gameplay was bad, though, luckily…
Holy shit, the combat in this game is good… It’s engaging, it’s stylish, it’s rewarding, and just the right amount of challenging!
You can use a pistol, a baton, and a greatsword to battle enemies. Oh, and also a chain!
At the start of the game, there are 3 difficulty settings to choose from, and I suggest going with the hardest one offered – the Pt. Standard, which I’m pretty sure is actually Normal (you unlock Hard Mode after beating the game). Anyway, the first two difficulties make the fights way too easy, which results in combat sequences ending too soon, and that’s just not cool. The combat was easily the best part of the gameplay for me, so I wanted to keep that shit going!
Another advantage of Pt. Standard is that this mode rates your every mission. This tends to be annoying in some games, but I found it fun and encouraging in Astral Chain. Because the scoring system values efficiency and style most of all, it made me get creative with the combat mechanics, while it also drove me to be good at it. You get fewer points if you repeat the same combo over and over again, so it conditions you to experiment, and it does so in an unobtrusive way.
The game also doesn’t punish you too hard for taking damage or using healing items. What’s more, I think the scoring system encourages using items during combat! As stated, it’s all about efficiency and style, and that creates a great flow and makes the combat so damn fun.
Now, what makes combat particularly special in this game is something called the Legion. Remember when I said that your character becoming a part of Neuron is a big deal? Well, the reason that’s important is because, as a Neuron agent, you’re given gear that allows you to see the otherwise-invisible enemies from the astral plane. Furthermore, you’re given your own astral creature to control and use in battle! That’s what the Legion is: a chained and subdued enemy that you control!
Having to control both the player character and the Legion may sound messy in terms of gameplay, but PlatinumGames have done it right! Also, as you progress through the game, you’ll gather different Legions, which all have unique abilities and combos. They’re also all upgradeable and customizable, and so is your character! And as if that wasn’t enough, as the story develops, these Legions start showing personalities of their own, while also somehow becoming a part of your character. I don’t know… all of it just clicks. It’s great stuff.
Other than the combat, there are more elements to the gameplay, such as detective work, neighborhood cleanup, stealth sections, interacting with your squad and doing side-quest for them (often in a form of some mini-game).
Some of these activities are fun, some not as much, and again, there’s a slight problem with pacing of the overall game. Most chapters in Astral Chain are structured the same way and it gets old at some point. Still, the game keeps things interesting enough to keep you going. The stale routine never completely put me off and, in a way, it helped me get a better grasp of this world and what was it that my character was fighting for.
Lastly, I should mention there are many optional challenges throughout the game that reward you with customizable items (such as different uniforms or colors for you/your Legion). There are perhaps too many of these challenges, and some are very specific (and rewarding), while others are vague and tedious. I didn’t much bother with them, but I was always glad whenever I accidentally completed one… By the end of the game, I think I got a little over 50% of these challenges done, and I was satisfied with that.
Simply put: Yes. Why? Because this game wants you to have fun. It rewards you for playing around with its mechanics, and it doesn’t punish you too hard for faltering. Instead of blocking your progress or setting you back when you fail at a task, the game simply urges you to do better, and I love it for that. There are so many games I feel do this wrong and either come off as too easy or too hard. For me, Astral Chain hits that balance between challenging and fun just perfectly.
Did I mention there are a few high-speed motorcycle sequences in this game?
Oh, and the music! Astral Chain has a damn good soundtrack. Some themes get repetitive outside of combat, but they never fail to adrenalize you during battle (especially the boss fights!). The music also adds a lot to the cutscenes – those two combined really motivate you to give it your all once the game puts you in control…
So yeah, this game was a blast for me! I really wanted to replay it immediately after finishing it, and that’s something I don’t find myself saying often. Being short on time, however (and with a bunch of games still waiting to be played), that probably won’t happen… Still, Astral Chain was good enough to make me want to wish it. I’m pretty sure that deserves a 9/10 from me.
All right, I think that about covers it…