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Astral Chain review
Exceptional
by Uneducated_Reviews

A game studio often develops a seal when making games through the years, depending on the studio these games could be bad or good. PlatinumGames has been building a reputation of making great action games with arguably unparalleled combat systems at least for the Hack and Slash genre, but what I truly appreciate of Platinum is that they’re never in their comfort zone and are always trying new things, the result could be a mixed bag but not many developers have their boldness to do different stuff and that is commendable. Astral Chain was a game I missed when it came out, I like quite a lot action games but I’m not very sure why I didn’t buy it, maybe because it is a new IP or the police theme didn’t appeal to me that much. After playing the first hour of the game I fell completely in its claws and it got me engaged from the beginning till the end, and every chapter and every detail reminded me why Platinum has its fame, reminded me of their motto: “Platinum maintains its luster forever”.

Invaders From Another World

Astral Chain’s story is set in the not-so-near not-that-far dystopian future of 2078 where planet Earth has been struck by a meteorite. This event opened the gates from a parallel dimension called the Astral Plane and give entrance to Chimeras, its aggressive inhabitants, along with a highly toxic Red Matter for human beings. This calamity almost caused the human race extinction as this Red Matter polluted 90% of the planet. However, not everything was lost, a group of scientists led by the brilliant but shady Yoseph Calvert developed the Ark, a massive ship that will hold a selected few of the last remnants of humans and save humanity from extinction. After some years of false prosperity, the Ark it’s attacked by Chimeras (an impossible thing), luckily, Yoseph Calvert also developed a secret branch of the police force called the Neuron task force, a secret elite group of police officers that can command Legions (an enslaved Chimera that can be summoned out of thin air) to battle, because Chimeras are invisible to the naked eye unless you are exposed to a massive but deadly dose of Red Matter or if you’re in control of a Legion, the only ones who can take care of this jobs are the Neuron force.

Your adventure begins just after you pick a male or female presenting protagonist, then you’re prompted to a highly stylized and pretty good-looking motorcycle stage to finally hack and slash your way on foot through streets filled with Chimeras. It is a solid kick-off to a mostly solid game. After the prologue that introduces you to this post-apocalyptic world and its colorful cast of characters, the story develops slowly between 11 chapters that are named after a word (complete with its literary definition). The story has its twists and turns but overall has a good flow that focuses on an event for every chapter to finally tie in with the main narrative. It sort of has a three-act structure, the first is good but things get a little off on the second one, as it has to cover more than a few plots and gets somewhat unfocused, but once the third act starts it just keeps a solid speed that keeps going up both for the story and gameplay. It is not the most groundbreaking story that you’ll encounter but it is pretty interesting and the writers made the right call of keeping it more personal and expanding it with the grander-than-life events that happen in later chapters. Platinum doesn’t shy away from doing stories with darker tones, but I think that after working alongside Drakengard and NieR Director/Writer Yoko Taro they got somewhat influenced by his style of writing, so I appreciate that sometimes I was genuinely surprised with some of the writing decisions on the story.

Depending on what twin you choose the other one will automatically be ‘Akira Howard’, and for what it seems the events develop the same but with another voice actor, a thing that I find pretty cool by the way. As for how the twin dynamic develops it dances the line between being somewhat predictable but not going all the way you think it will go at the very least, ultimately their saga pays off but their characterization (at least the male one) feels slightly shaky. As for the supporting cast, the police station has a colorful bunch of characters that range from stoic-angsty looking to light-hearted ones, although the majority of them are delegated to be an NPC with little to no impact on the main story but having a bigger role in side-missions. The ones that are more involved in the main narrative at least have a couple of fleshed out moments that develop their characters nicely and their arcs effectively intertwine with yours, the only issue is that by the third act most of them are practically erased from the main narrative and don’t take part on the main climatic event.

After ending the “tutorial” part of the game, you are introduced to Lappy, the police official mascot, and gives you a tour of the police station and appears a few times in other chapters. The thing with Lappy is that it’s incredibly funny and nicely written and the fact that they serve as an alter ego from another police officer which also is pretty fun to be around only gave it more charm points, it doesn’t impact the story that much but it’s worth noting it. Astral Chain plays a little with having more than one antagonist and even when one of them has clearly ulterior motivations they also have some moments where you kind of root for them or at least try to sympathize with their cause because their motivations and their actions transformed into more ambiguous ones, I’m not so fond of this type of antagonists but the writers did a good job on making them at least more human and relatable

 Between its Sci-fi extravaganza and its deeper, darker, more introspective moments about identity and other stuff, the story also gets somewhat topical with some of its subdued discussions. There is a zone that has been long forgotten by the Ark’s government that is the poorest and has the highest criminal tendencies, the game never says that those “criminals” are bad people just by pure virtue and even enforces the idea that they don’t have another choice which is a good thing, as still in this day and age, a lot of stories tend to simplify this issues by mostly saying that poor people just need to work to not being poor, which is a highly problematic message. Still, the game tends to let some things unsolved or rather undiscussed, like the fact that Legions are chained by force against their will, I’m sure if the developers took their time to show you this slave imagery as unpleasant, one could infer that they knew that slaving a being for any reason isn’t good so maybe they let the player choose what to think about it, or maybe not, I think I read somewhere that this won’t be the only Astral Chain game so maybe this matter will be tackled in a sequel.

Combat Phase

The real meat, bones, and metal of Astral Chain is its fast pacing yet simple combat. Similar to other action games like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry your character delivers fast and devastating combos with different combinations, the unique feature of Astral Chain that differentiates itself from other games of the genre is the Legion system. Aside from your character, you can summon a Legion that will attack any enemy that you’re targeting and move on their own to the next target till they’re eliminated. Legions are more powerful than yourself but they can’t be used endlessly, each time you summon a Legion they appear with a timer that goes from 100 to 0 (you can increase their summon time with permanent upgrades) and that number decreases slowly by itself or each time you or your Legion get hit, if the timer reaches zero, your Legion will be dismissed and you’ll be unable to summon it after the timer slowly refills to 100, so ideally you want to dismiss it manually when you get as low as 10 or so.

In RPG-like fashion, Legions (or Stands as I like to call them) come in the variety of melee, ranged, and tank, they can be upgraded and equipped with different abilities and skills that can be easily adapted to your playstyle, this Legion system compensates the otherwise simple combat as you only have one attack button and that’s all, you also have three weapons for your twin from the beginning: a speedy but not much powerful baton, a slower but powerful sword and a gun that is the weakest but on many times it will be the only weapon that can reach for certain types of enemies. What makes the combat so addicting and rewarding are the Sync Attacks, after you complete a fixed chain of attacks with your weapon of use everything will slow down by a fraction of a second and you’ll be prompted to press the Legion summoning button to do a powerful attack, these synced attacks can also be triggered by evading and when meeting certain conditions if you keep upgrading a Legion. Synced attacks are quite flashy and have the most pretty animations in combat so is not only rewarding to pull them off but also just to watch them.

Being a smooth fast-pacing game, when you almost drain your opponents of HP you can make a finisher move along with a synced attack, if you pull it correctly you’ll refill your HP and your Legion its timer, so the game incentives you by trying new stuff and keeping you safe if you play your cards correctly. I think Bayonetta 2 it’s still the peak of action combat for Platinum as it is smoother and more complex, yet the simpler combat in Astral Chain along with its Legion action can be almost as satisfying. You can stick out with one Legion if you want but a commendable thing for Platinum is that you’re urged to use different Legions for specific situations, to give an example, there is an enemy that shoots projectiles, flys, throws you strong air currents to push you and keeps disappearing, you can kill it with your ranged Legion but if you use the Beast Legion you can render its invisibility useless and even pierce through their air currents attack, this is just an example but many of the enemies will be harder or easier to beat depending on the Legion you’re using, the game gives you some hints for a few enemies but you’ll need to experiment by yourself if you want to discover the most efficient way to kill your enemies and get their famous True Platinum score. This implementation is not perfect, as you need to upgrade your Legions individually so you will probably tend to use a specific type, nevertheless, it is a good way to keep things interesting.

In typical Hack and Slash game fashion, you can enter a frenzied state where your attacks and speed are overpowered by a limited time, however, they chose to let you acquire this power till the later parts of the game, in a way it is a weird decision because for most of these games it is a crucial part to enhance your gameplay but in the other way I think they decided to give the player so later in the game to use it as an incentive to play the endgame. While the focus of the game is the action parts of it, it has some variety that comes with side questing and puzzle-solving, this could be a matter of taste but not doing combat could be either a hit or a miss, as it might spice things a little at the cost of feeling a little like an obstacle to its “true” gameplay.

After you finish the tutorial, every chapter will follow a similar pattern, you enter a previously explored or new zone at daytime or nighttime (depending on the way it was the last time you were there) and need to make an investigation, these investigations consist in talking to bystander NPCs to acquire key-words and once you fill a percent meter, you’ll be able to talk an officer and being questioned for the clues you’ve got and see if you were paying attention, if you succeed and answer every question correctly you’ll be awarded an S+ rank but each time you get a wrong answer your score will decrease. These investigations were my least favorite part of the game as they never get really interesting in terms of narrative or gameplay and some of them could get a little bit lengthy. After the investigation (or sometimes before it), you can take side-quests that can range from, taking out some enemies in an arena-like fashion, fetching quests, mini-games, and so on. For the most part, side-quests are fun to do even when many of them don’t aport much to the story, so pacing for every chapter will definitely be benefited by omitting investigations and just let you chose freely to hunt down quests or go straight down to the main story.

When you inevitable arrive at the Astral Plane you’ll be entering the puzzle parts of the game, these parts have some reminiscence of the shrines in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild but mostly on an aesthetic level, as its puzzles aren’t as deep, they tend to be more in the vein of God of War games, where you need to push a block or hit different targets at once without thinking too much, nonetheless, these Astral parts serve as a change of air from the Blade Runner inspired but less hostile streets of the Ark. My only complaint about the Astral Plane parts is that they all look the same, some levels have a couple of different platform segments but aside from that they are massive cubic structures with a red atmosphere there’s not much variety, maybe a little diversity with the color scheme would make differentiate these parts from one another, although narratively speaking it wouldn’t make much sense if they were different I think, so probably I’m in the wrong here.

There’s a couple of extra segments that aren’t that prominent but are worth mentioning, the first one is the motorcycle stages, if I recall correctly there are just only two in the main story, one at the very beginning of the game and the second one in the later parts of the game, these portions aren’t as polished as the main combat but they look so good and are quite fun that it is a shame that we didn’t get more of these, they reminded me a lot of the tunnel motorcycle battle in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, they have similar kinetic energy.

The other segments are the stealth ones, I don’t know why many developers tend to have stealth stages in their games when stealth isn’t the main focus of the game and Platinum is no stranger for these types of inclusion, I like that a game gives you versatility and surprises you with different flavors but, I think stealth it’s hard to do it right even for stealth focused games, and despite not being badly implemented in Astral Chain it didn’t add much to it either, so in a game where you are promised to have fast action battles, the least you want to do it’s try to sneak on enemies. The game lets you choose to go full action on these few missions but if you choose to, you won’t be getting a good rank so you’ll mostly stick with the stealth way.

Overall the game has a good challenge on the Platinum Standard difficulty, which one can infer is Normal. Regular enemies can hit hard and boss fights could get intense if you’re not reading their pattern attacks, my only issue with its difficulty is its health items usage, the game gives you a lot, from recovering small to full health. You can assume the responsibility of not using many or any but I don’t like when developers let me chose that kind of liberty, although being honest I didn’t use many of them in the main campaign till the very last fight which was incredibly hard in comparison with the previous boss fights, granted after you hit the third act, boss fights have a pretty high curve in terms of difficulty but the last boss had another one that at some points I was considering if the game was challenging or unfairly punishing, either way, it was a fun and tense battle, and maybe my Legion usage wasn’t the correct so probably there are many players out there that can obliterate that fiend in a matter of seconds.

After you beat the game and the credits have been rolled you will unlock the final chapter of the game that serves as an epilogue for many characters and it also comes with a couple of surprises, one of them is the endgame, which are missions focused on hack and slash your way through shorter versions of the stages in the main campaign. This is a cool reward that goes full-on to exploit the biggest more enjoyable aspect of the game that is its combat. The game took me around 30 hours to beat, this time was achieved by doing many but not most of the side missions, so overall I think Astral Chain is worth your money even when you only do the main campaign, however, for what I have seen on different forums, depending on how good you are with the game you could easily mark a similar hour number with the endgame missions, granted they don’t have a story (for what I have recollected) but having so much extra content when already having a lengthy campaign it’s always good.

Hidden in the options Astral Chain gives you the possibility of splitting the Joycons and play it co-op, I don’t know if the dynamic between twin and Legion change or if you can play with two Pro controllers (a scheme which I highly recommend as maneuvering your character and Legion at the same time can feel a little bit uncomfortable with the Joycons) as I couldn’t test any of this by myself, but it surely is a pretty nice addition that in a way feels like an old school hidden option of the SNES era.

The Holy Order Of The Digital Hermit

PlatinumGames not only excels at making fast-pacing combat action games but also excels on their art direction and presentation, and I believe Astral Chain is their most visually striking game yet. Cyberpunk and Futuristic aesthetic have been having an uprising these last years, and I couldn’t imagine how difficult is to create a world that has unique traits while maintaining that aesthetic, let alone to stand up among the others, but Astral Chain manages to do just that. Its ultra stylized world reminds you of the Blade Runner world but making it less hostile and more habitable, so habitable in fact that some of its applications like street lights, sports courts, and corridors feel like real places. This also applies to the zones of the unprivileged, the way its more cramped streets and shops are depicted felt (sadly) too real. The saddest part is that the Ark isn’t completely explorable and by playing each chapter you can’t roam freely because there will be always a barrier that stops your progression, this isn’t an open-world so this is to be expected. To make a little variation you can visit areas in daytime and nighttime (even areas altered by destruction), then you can see how the Ark changes depending on the hour of the day, this decision feels economical but not cheap.

Character design has a striking uniqueness that could be missed as “anime aesthetic” but as with many Japanese works, it goes beyond that. Officers look like authority figures but they have some details here and there like the tie that make them more relatable or to the very least, like a figure you can trust. Other characters like the antagonists also have unique qualities, without spoiling, one of them has a long white coat stained with dirt, but the pattern of the coat has some features that remind you of a straitjacket, this can be interpreted as many things, the one that comes to mind first is that this character has some mental issues but it also could be as if they have been free from this jacket to roam free. At first sight, many characters may look cool and nothing more but if you look a little further you’ll find a lot of depth just by looking at their designs. It is no surprise that characters have a lot of personality as Platinum hired the manga artist Masakazu Katsura, I’m not familiar with his works but one quick look at what he’s done and is easy to see why Platinum hired him.

In classic PlatinumGames fashion, the game is filled with enemies, mini-bosses, and bosses. Every one of them has a stellar and inventive design, even when many of them are re-skinned enemies, they manage to make them more versatile because they tweaked some parts to make them less repetitive, and it pays off. One of the beauties of Hack and Slash games is inventive enemies, and Astral Chain makes it just right. Although this repetition isn’t completely clean, as many of the NPCs have the same face of your character or your twin, with the same hairstyles and color, it isn’t a big issue but sometimes will break your immersion, especially if you’re doing a sidequest with an NPC with the same features as yours.

I never thought much of graphic design in games, for many years it has been an afterthought for developers but in recent times they have improved their game by giving us clean and legible menus and navigation screens, however a place where I actually do care is the main HU. Back in the 2D consoles era, HUDs were always clean and non-existent, you mostly had your HP or your score, but entering the 3D era developers started to put more info along with an intrusive design that kind of make the whole screen muddy. This also is a thing that has been rectified in the last generation and we now even have HUDs that activate when you are in combat so you can contemplate the game’s world without having an ugly or unnecessary graphic in-between. Ironically enough, aside from the mini-map and a few other things, I didn’t hide many of the elements of the HUD, that’s because Astral Chain not only high ultra-stylized pretty looking visuals but it also has one of the best looking graphic design I have seen in a game, it is simply beautiful, it goes accordingly with the police-futuristic theme and it is pretty legible, it also is implemented when inputting a finisher, the way it is executed gives a lot of weight to actions. I hope that in the future we can play seamlessly without HUDs but if we don’t have many options, I hope that they are made like in Astral Chain.

Music is the final touch that gave the game its strong personality, as many Sci-fi works it has their fair share of synthesizers and electric guitar sounds but, it never falls as generic, many songs have an ethereal feeling to them and then change into a more heavy and pumped-up version of them. The theme when you enter the ‘frenzied’ state is also very unique and it makes all the sense to be like it is, it breaks the current song as you kind of break the game with your overpowered attacks.

The Only One

After finishing Astral Chain I was pretty happy with the time I had while playing it, it was satisfying, fast-paced and for the most time, it was fun. If I was required to condense the feeling of the game it will be “Heavy Metal the game”. It is not perfect but it is undoubtedly a great game, in more than a way it feels like a culmination of Platinum gameplay, mechanics, storytelling, and art direction. In terms of gameplay, it doesn’t reach the finesse of the likes of Bayonetta but it is still a blast to have. Playing this in 2021 and not when it came up, make me feel a little guilty, Hack and Slash games aren’t as popular as before, so bad sales could destroy a potentially great follow-up to a game, although capitalism is the main problem of them all, but we’re not here to make political and necessary discussions, we’re here to escape to a pretty bad reality but still a better reality than ours and that is what Astral Chain is, a true and complete form of escapism.
«Just one more turn»
«Can’t stop playing»
«Time-tested»
«That ending!»
«OST on repeat»

Other reviews2

Was very excited for this game just for it to kind of disappoint me. Doesnt mean its not a good game, just not for me.
«Disappointment of the year»
«I could make it better»