The minds behind Nier: Automata and Devil May Cry unite for Astral Chain, a futuristic character action game in which your partner is a cyber-demon. Should you link up with it, or cast it back to the dimension from whence it came?
With its Japanese action-anime inspired visuals, fluid and visually striking combat, a story and setting which flirts between grounded and ridiculous, Astral Chain could be picked as a PlatinumGames joint a mile off. The scaffolding is already here for a similarly frenetic Japanese action-adventure game from the developers of Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Nier: Automata. However, as a game that imbues Platinum’s familiar fast-paced combat with frills and additions that form the basis of a hyper-stylised cybercop-centric world, Astral Chain proves to be interesting as an experimentation space for the developer.
Your partner is a demon, you see. Although, partner is perhaps too optimistic, which we’ll get into. Astral Chain sets itself within the confines of a solitary walled city, the last metropolis of man known as The Ark, sat precariously on the husk of a dead Earth. To make matters worse, the barrier between the realities of Earth and the Astral Plane seems to be breaking, allowing all manner of interdimensional nasties to wreak havoc on the city, the population living in a constant state of fear of being kidnapped through ‘gates’ which appear at random, and with increasing frequency.
As newly-promoted members of high-autonomy-cybercop department Neuron, you and your sibling (the opposite gender of whatever you pick at the outset) join the department’s response team, and the main differentiator here is that while regular cops have guns and batons, you get a demon on a leash. So far, so PlatinumGames. Known as a Legion, your new demonic buddy can be summoned at will from a device worn on your character’s wrist.
But, and here’s the thing, it’s not a given that your Legion actually wants to be your ally. Legions are creatures of the Astral Plane, and part of Neuron’s research involves their capture and enslavement, literally chaining them up with collars around their necks. Your first Legion writhes in anger at your side, and an early story moment of the game involves you briefly losing control of it, whereby it immediately attacks you. This relationship is uncomfortable – while the threat from the Astral Plane is real and affects the innocent, the actions of Neuron are shrouded in mystery and questionable intent. It’s weird enough that during side missions we were arresting members of the public for ‘anti-government’ activities, but enslaving an enemy, turning it into a weapon, and making it fight its own kind? That sounds like a war crime!
The game toys with the concept of psychological synchronisation between the character and their Legion. In an interview, game lead Takahisa Taura said, “In the beginning, they’re not as obedient as they get later on… When the player first gets the Legion, the player and Legion operate as two separate things. But as the story progresses, since the player and the Legion are synchronised together, they begin to fight as one.”
This idea of synchronisation and obedience begs the question: is the Legion coming around to your side as the story progresses, or is it just becoming more broken in the face of absolute control? It’s a fascinating idea to explore.
Combat itself is a beautiful promise that doesn’t always fulfil itself. If you’re able to get into a flow of dodges, blocks and Legion moves, the damage numbers just fly off enemies and Astral Chain achieves the kind of combat fluidity that PlatinumGames is renowned for. You can allow your Legion to engage enemies with an automated series of attacks, or take a more hands-on approach, positioning them to pull off special moves. Some of the most compelling uses of the Legion are based in moving them on the length of chain that links you both. Fully loop your Legion around an enemy and you’ll chain it to the ground, allowing you to wail on it or focus on other targets. Hook your chain around a variety of enemies and you’ll be able to fly along it, ping-ponging off them and dealing damage along the way.
This is further elaborated on via an expanding collection of Legion types – there’s a sword Legion, a bow Legion, an ‘arms’ Legion. Each are specialised in ways that change both their uses in combat as well as a Legion’s abilities to uncover secrets. Switching between Legions is done through a radial menu which allows you to swap on the fly, letting you adapt to ever-changing combat situations and enemy types.
However, the game’s control scheme takes some getting used to, with some questionable button placement. One example is a mechanic that locks you into place sitting just next to one that allows you to jet forward to the location of your Legion. Design like this makes the control scheme feel like a minefield that can blow up in your face and ruin the flow of combat in a moment.
“The story mode is filled with the usual anime melodrama, and pulls ideas liberally from legacy shows such as Neon Genesis Evangelion and Akira…”
Perhaps the biggest let down of Astral Chain is the base story and world. The story mode is filled with the usual anime melodrama, and pulls ideas liberally from legacy shows such as Neon Genesis Evangelion and Akira, but there just isn’t the same amount of freewheeling fantasy and style in the narrative that has been present in past Platinum titles. Levels progress with a fantastic pacing – you’ll be completing smaller missions within a larger scenario as you battle your way to a final boss or rogue Legion, but the environments themselves can leave something to be desired. Abandoned malls, faceless concrete labyrinths of urban sprawl… there’s not a lot here that really captures the imagination or leaves a lasting impression. Travelling to the Astral Plane is a striking early setpiece, but you’ll go there so many times that eventually even that place, with its bizarre endless geometry, starts to feel stale.
Astral Chain still manages to succeed in its visuals and combat to the point where you’d never question that it’s a PlatinumGames title. The new addition of the Astral Chain itself is fantastic and adds a dimension to the game that sets it apart, but the narrative and world in which the game is housed is a little disappointing, and nowhere near as confident or memorable as past releases from this studio. For a quick tour in a demon-beset cyber-city of the future, Astral Chain is fine, but it won’t be remembered in the same way as Bayonetta or Nier: Automata.
Astral Chain is available August 30 for Switch.