I was all of ten minutes into Platinum Games' latest when I realised I was in for one hell of an insane ride. From the epic Anime theme song to the incredible character designs and stunning combat effects, there's just so much to love. Platinum Games have crafted yet another genre-defining action-packed experience that, if played right, will lead to another stellar franchise for the veteran developers.
Right from its opening moments, Astral Chain assaults the player with a cacophony of visual and audio delights as you hack, slash, blast and investigate your way through a beautiful world on the brink of complete disaster.
As a newly minted member of NEURON, a shady governmental organisation, it's up to you to rid the world of the deadly Chimera invasion and Red Shift that threatens to destroy Earth and all of its inhabitants.
What I assumed would be a standard action-adventure quickly turned my preconceived notions on their head as Platinum Games has crafted what I believe is their most well-paced and varied game to date. While the game certainly has a massive helping of the action the studio has become prolific for, Astral Chain offers far more variety and moments of respite between the more significant set-pieces than any of the studios' previous efforts.
Being a Platinum Game, obviously, combat is at the forefront and boy oh boy, is it something. While it may seem simple at first, once you've unlocked a handful of Legions, the combat offers a deep and rewarding loop that involves managing your Legion cooldown and complementing its attacks with one of your three primary weapons. Players are equipped with a police baton, a pistol and a massive two-handed sword that looks like it was ripped right out of Final Fantasy VII. While that may seem like a small selection of weapons, when combined with the five Legions and their respective upgrade trees, the flow of combat feels unmatched on the Nintendo Switch. The action is handled rather excellently too. Players use the ZR button to perform basic attacks and ZL to perform Legion attacks. Pressing ZL will send your Legion careening towards your target while you move into position to complement its attacks with your own. While performing combos, the player character will flash, indicating a coordinated attack opportunity where the player and Legion perform a variety of impressive moves.
The variety of powers between the five Legions leads to a huge amount of experimental opportunities. Say, for example you come up against some tricky flying chimera. You could swap to your pistol and call out your Arrow Legion to attack the enemy from a distance, or you could send your Sword Legion flying at the enemy for an up-close attack followed by pressing ZL and ZR in tandem to use the chain to pull yourself to your legions side in the air where you can dole out a dazzling aerial beating.
The cadence of combat is borderline therapeutic at times as you alternate betweeen different Legions, weapons and attacks to find the best solution for any given battle and hit all of the cues for coordinated special attacks with your Legions. Hitting your legion button at just the right time to extend a combo and perform stronger attacks kept me grinning like a Cheshire cat throughout the thirty-odd hours it took me to get through the story, and its multitude of side quests.
The harmony between man and machine is borderline perfect in its gameplay execution, and that isn't limited to the combat. Each of your Legions has special abilities which will help you navigate the world and solve some fun if at times easy puzzles. I expected Astral Chain to be a combat-heavy affair, and it delivers in spades. What did surprise me was the expert level pacing as you're tasked with solving a variety of cases and tasks along with your main objective. One level could see you tracking down a thief one minute, to buying a towering ice-cream for a crying child the next. These side-quests and tasks do a great job of keeping combat exciting as you're not just going from one battle to the next ad nauseum. During any given case, you'll have the opportunity to wander around a larger city area, helping the residents and other police officers. You'll talk to people and gather information and are even quizzed in a fun little debrief where you have to answer questions based on the evidence collected. Of course, being a Platinum Game, you're graded on everything from these conversations to a final battle rating after every major encounter. On the easy difficulty, you won't be graded and to be honest, Astral Chain is much more fun on the higher difficulty as you're forced to use all of the tools at your disposal to ensure victory.
Astral Chain could be one of the best looking games on the Nintendo Switch and features some phenomenal art direction throughout. From it's heavily Anime-inspired characters to the plethora of particle effects that cascade across the screen during battles, it is a sheer joy to behold. Enemy design is excellent too, with big beastly bad guys that would look right at home in Bayonetta. While the game is gorgeous, there is a fair bit of repetition in the environments as you mostly travel between Earth and the Chimera world. It would have been great to see a bit more variety, but what is there looks excellent. The graphics engine keeps up with the action for the most part but does occasionally hit a few stumbles. When the action and particle effects pick up to the point where you may be questioning if someone slipped a tab of acid into your morning coffee, it's easy to forgive these inconsistencies.
With your Legions being the star of the show, you can upgrade them with new abilities, and improve basic stats with a small skill tree for each. As you upgrade your primary weapons and Legions, you'll unlock bigger and better combo opportunities that will even lead to you being able to have two legions out at the same time if you're quick enough. In between missions you'll head back to NEURON HQ to upgrade, take on side quests and customise your character and Legions. One part of the game I wasn't a big fan of is cleaning the Red Shift contamination off of your Legion in a menu. To do so, you have to hold ZR and move a cursor over the contaminated parts until it chips all of it away. After doing this for the tenth time, I couldn't help but wish there was a faster way. Hell, I'd even pay hard-earned credits to put my Legion through a car wash if possible.
Astral Chain just does so much right. I can't remember the last time I encountered such a solid first entry in a new IP. The story and voice acting can at times come off as a bit hokey and incredibly predictable, but when a game is this much fun to play, minor story stumbles are easily forgotten and forgiven entirely. Perhaps the biggest miss-step the game takes is the cursed silent protagonist, and here it feels out of place and is quite frankly a bizarre decision for a story where the protagonist is so heavily featured and integral — having NPCs ask you questions and then act as if you've answered sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise superb experience.
If you even hold a passing interest in action or hack and slash games, the combination of gorgeous visuals and art direction, when partnered up with the glorious combat make Astral Chain one of, if not the best new IP I've seen from Nintendo in years. If you own a Switch, you need to play this game now!
+ Stunning character design and Anime feel throughout.
+ Pulse pounding score filled with songs that would be at home in any modern Anime.
+ Fantastic pacing.
+ Gorgeous graphics and presentation.
- Objective markers not always easy to locate.
- Not all voice acting is equal.
- Silent protagonist feels out of place.
- Story is a bit nonsense and very predictable.