Astral Chain (Nintendo Switch) Review

By Renan Fontes 04.09.2019 1

Review for Astral Chain on Nintendo Switch

Between The Wonderful 101 and Bayonetta 2, PlatinumGames' track record under Nintendo was already at an incredible high. While PlatinumGames would then go on to dedicate roughly two years to lesser titles (The Legend of Korra, Transformers: Devastation, and TMNT: Mutants in Manhattan), 2017's Nier: Automata proved that Platinum's overall quality was in no way waning. Directed by Automata's senior game designer, Takahisa Taura, Astral Chain is the fifth PlatinumGames title Nintendo has published - and it might very well be the best action game on the Switch.

With the exception of Nier: Automata and perhaps Bayonetta 2, PlatinumGames typically doesn't put much emphasis on their storytelling. This isn't to say their plots are unenjoyable, but it's clear that narrative takes a backseat to gameplay more often than not. While this is certainly the case with Astral Chain, it's more subdued compared to Platinum's other titles. Action is very much the title's core focus - to the point where the first mission opens with a bombastic motorcycle chase - but the experience as a whole is meant to be more methodical and slower paced than previous entries in Platinum's repertoire. Once everything is settled, roughly half of the game is dedicated to fleshing out the protagonist's moment to moment work life.

As an officer of the law, the main character naturally wouldn't be running around just fighting enemies. Typically, each File (the title's naming conventions for chapters/stages) begins with the protagonist inside of Neuron Headquarters where players can upgrade their weapons, purchase items, brief themselves on available information, take on side cases, or generally just prepare for the actual meat of the File. Even outside of Neuron Headquarters, a good chunk of the gameplay loop is dedicated to fleshing out the world of the story through non-combative means. Every so often, the protagonist will have to personally investigate cases themselves; talking to NPCs, collecting key words, and then deducing how to proceed in ranked Q&A sessions that grade how well audiences keep track of their investigation.

As expected of PlatinumGames, there's a ranking system in place ranging from D to S+. Interestingly, however, the title more or less locks audiences out of their full skill set until File 3. To get around crippling Ranks for the first few missions, the title actually begins in its equivalent of an "easy" mode by default. It's not until players complete the first File that they're actually allowed to play Pt Standard, the "normal" difficulty mode.

While this approach might come off as both confusing and disappointing, it's by no means thoughtless. Astral Chain is thematically richer than the average Platinum title. Although the protagonist themselves is silent, their twin sibling, Akira Howard, is not. Regardless of the gender players choose, their preferred character will remain silent while Akira ends up more or less with the story's main character arc, one that directly parallels the main character's growth over the course of the game.

Had the title opened with the main character already in possession of most of their abilities and techniques, Akira's arc would lose quite a bit of its value. Akira's insecurities are directly influenced by the player character gradually improving themselves over the course of the story. Coupled with the early loss of their father, Max, Akira's character arc more than makes up for the silent Howard twin's apparent lack of development. That isn't to say the playable twin is just a blank slate, though while they're often emotionless in cutscenes, they do emote quite clearly for the bigger moments and their personality isn't too difficult to make heads or tails of. As far as silent protagonists go, Akira's sibling is handled well enough. Even then, though, the supporting cast is fleshed out well enough to the point that the main character's silence isn't a major issue.

Both Jin and Alicia may be side characters who lose their plot relevance past the midway point, but both their arcs help flesh out the cast and set the stage for Akira's arc. This in itself is one of the smartest things Astral Chain does narratively. Just about every notable character arc ties into every other. Jin's insecurities set a thematic stage for Akira's character arc, which is directly tied to Yoseph's arc, which is in direct response to Jena's arc, which ends up tying into the main character's arc so that they can continue to influence Akira's arc for the finale.

This says nothing of how Max's presence looms over the whole story. Skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid any spoilers: Anyone who's played any video game with a father figure like Max will more than likely assume that he would die shortly into the story proper. As expected, Max does pass away fairly quick and - again, as expected - his death is used as a means to shake up the status quo while forcing the main characters into positions of responsibility that they may not necessarily be ready for.

Screenshot for Astral Chain on Nintendo Switch

The story an a whole follows a rather clichéd and "predictable" trajectory, but tropes and clichés exist for a reason. As generic as the plot might seem on paper, just about every minor and major beat is executed almost flawlessly. The story knows that it's dealing with familiar material; this is not something it tries to hide. Rather, the script uses everything at its disposal to make sure that these otherwise generic ideas are fleshed out, given depth and have that signature Platinum style. This in itself is something worth discussing. Aesthetically, Astral Chain is easily PlatinumGames' best effort. The world is vibrant with color, using lighting insanely well, and has surprisingly detailed cloth physics. It also features the studio's best modeled assets yet and is home to some truly inspired character design courtesy of mangaka Masakazu Katsura.
Even if the slower, investigative elements were no longer in play, it would still be difficult not to get immersed in the world of the game. If nothing else, Satoshi Igarashi knocks his first role as composer out of the park, giving the soundtrack a strong identity that's at times reminiscent of Nier: Automata's ambient tracks.

It's also worth noting that while PlatinumGames' fingerprints are all over the final product, Astral Chain does quite a lot to differentiate itself from its sister games, at least as far as pacing and presentation go. Every File features both Blue and Red Cases for players to solve along with whatever the main goal for the File is. Blue Cases are non-combat based and usually focused on bite-sized missions that can be completed rather effortlessly. They primarily exist to reward exploration while fleshing out the world of the game. Red Cases, on the other hand, are more often than not combat based (although not always) and are ranked once completed unlike the Blue Cases. Main objectives are also ranked, but they're technically considered Red Cases even though their waypoint on the map is yellow.

On that note, it should be mentioned how the title presents all these Cases. Every File will have a few Blue and Red Cases already on the map, but it's not unusual for completed Cases to cause chain reactions elsewhere, opening up new content that audiences would otherwise not have access to. More importantly, Red Cases are occasionally hidden from the map entirely and require genuine investigation to find. Thankfully, the main menu keeps track of how many Red and Blue Cases have been completed per File along with any in-File items players may have found.

More importantly, however, these Red and Blue Cases optimise the pacing of each File, especially since the game itself doesn't mark which Cases are mandatory. Audiences simply need to use their judgement and complete what they feel is necessary before moving on. Occasionally, they'll be locked into finishing the Cases in the area, but most Files do allow players to just skip the majority of Cases should they choose to do so. This is by no means a bad thing, as it makes replaying Files a far smoother experience. While most Red Cases will need to be re-completed every time players return to an old File, most Blue Cases can be outright ignored. The ranking system also keeps track of whatever the highest rank is per Red Case, ensuring that nobody accidentally wipes away their S+ rank with a B or an A on a replay.

Screenshot for Astral Chain on Nintendo Switch

File to File level design also stands out as some of Platinum's best. Although multiple Files make use of familiar settings, each File makes sure that there is at least one new environment to explore, if not even more. Most of the time, the title's solid level design simply makes it easy to understand where players are at any given moment, along with making Red Matter clean-up as painless and intuitive as possible.

There are even stealth sections at play that make use of the title's crouching. While stealth itself isn't too in-depth beyond the surface level, there's a considerable amount of variety at play during these stealth Cases that tend to make them incredibly fun to play through, especially when taking into account the Legion system. The playable Howard twin doesn't walk their beat alone. Rather, they're accompanied by The Legion. While using a Legion offers plenty of variety when it comes to stealth, it is in the combat where the Legion concept shines most. Over the course of the story, audiences will gradually build up their Legion roster. Starting with File 1, players have access to the Sword Legion and then gain access to the Arrow, Arm, Beast, and Axe Legions later. Each Legion has their own skill tree, their own stats, their own abilities and their own unique move sets.

The Sword Legion is the most balance and reliable of the bunch, emphasizing both speed and power. While it doesn't excel in either compared to the other Legion units, the Sword Legion is the only Legion that can be consistently in-play without detriment to the player. Out of combat, the Sword Legion can be used to "Blueshift" NPCs, curing them and awarding the playable twin with Neuron points that then factor into the File's final rank. Completing a File with enough points is also the only way the player character can level up to increase their health so it's important to be mindful of just about everything going on in any given File.

That said, getting consistent S+ ranks, end of File or otherwise, does require in-combat variety, necessitating the use of the other Legion units. While the Arrow Legion might seem underwhelming when first compared to the Sword Legion, it's able to make use of long-range combat far better than its brethren. Pressing L even turns the Arrow Legion into a proper bow & arrow that can then be shot at enemies or switches.

As far as offensive and defensive capabilities go, there's no going wrong with the Arm Legion. A bit on the slow side when compared to both the Sword and Arrow Legions, the Arm Legion pairs fantastically with Speed Star (a Skill the Legion won't actually have access to for quite some time). Its main draw, however, is the fact that it can be worn as armour. Upon pressing L, players don the Arm Legion as a suit of armour and can then pummel enemies with a brand-new set of combos.

Like the Arm Legion before it, the Beast Legion fundamentally changes how the game is played. By pressing L, players can not only ride the Beast Legion, but attack while on top of it. It's worth noting that comboing on top of the Beast Legion really isn't a viable option, but the Beast Legion's insane speed makes riding it a great way of fleeing from hazards. More importantly, the Beast Legion functions like a slightly stronger and faster version of the Sword Legion, albeit one that can't hover, keeping it locked to the ground - an understated but important balancing solution to make note of.

Last but certainly not least is the Axe Legion, the final Legion players will stumble upon during the course of the story. The Axe Legion is unlocked quite some time after the fourth Legion is captured. Although it's noticeably the slowest Legion by far, the Axe Legion can break barriers, detonate obstacles and shield the player with an energy field. The Axe Legion is also far and away the strongest of the Legions, making it incredibly useful for endgame boss fights. All that said, the Legion system wouldn't even be worth discussing if the main combat weren't already fantastic. Through the X-Baton, players have access to a fast-paced Baton, a weaker Blaster that can shoot from long range, and an incredibly powerful Gladius that's offset by its relative slowness. All three weapons can be immediately switched on the fly with a press of the D-Pad, giving players plenty of combat variety even without their Legions.

Screenshot for Astral Chain on Nintendo Switch

Of course, it's not as if the game can be played solo from this angle either. Solidarity is a theme the story keeps relatively low-key, but it's one the gameplay actually pushes front and centre without ever needing to say a word. The only way to stop the Chimera conflict is to work together - effectively the main gameplay gimmick. Pressing ZL in battle normally only triggers the equipped Legion to appear, but the player character will occasionally flash while pulling off combos. Should a player press ZL as soon as the player flashes, they'll trigger a Sync Attack with their Legion that can be chained into another combo or another Sync Attack. While the most reliable Sync Attacks will be available through standard combos, upgrading the X-Baton and going through a Legion's Skill Tree will unlock new Sync Attacks that make use of pause combos and directional inputs, greatly widening combat's depth with each inch of progression.

The Legatus, the device that stores the player's Legion, can similarly be upgraded. The Legion has a "Limiter Max" that affects how long they stay in combat. Playing well and avoiding damage ensures that they won't be going anywhere any time soon but fighting recklessly while inadequately dodging will drain them fast, forcing audiences to fight alone while their Limiter gauge replenishes.

Interestingly, the Legion can also be directly controlled in and out of combat. Moving the Legion is done with the right analog stick, allowing players to interact with the world while also moving their Legion. The physicality of the chain binding the player and Legion together also means that any Legion can be used to wrap up any foe, locking them in place. Moving the Legion and then pressing ZR also triggers the player to leap to their Legion which leads to some light platforming elements later on.

Astral Chain also features an achievement system of sorts through the Order menu. Keeping track of 185 different Orders, each Order unlocks new content whether it just be an item, clothing, a colour palette, or a new voice for IRIS - a detective mode of sorts that can be used to measure distance, see in dark areas, and analyse different NPCs. While most players will stumble upon a decent chunk of Orders, the most rewarding ones are typically the hardest to obtain.

That said, the difficulty curve isn't too demanding, at least not on Pt Standard. The player can unlock quite a few AED batteries to revive them in battle, something that doesn't heavily penalise a player's score. This keeps Pt Standard challenging without feeling overwhelming. Pt Ultimate, on the other hand, removes the AED batteries entirely, enforcing mechanical mastery above all else and offering action veterans a rewarding challenge.

It really is the sheer variety at play that keeps the experience so compellingly fresh from start to finish. There's a gradual build up to obtaining a full skill set, and the fact that the main story ends on a literal emotional high point only to pivot into a content heavy post-game is really the best of both worlds. Astral Chain is the new Platinum Standard.

Screenshot for Astral Chain on Nintendo Switch

Cubed3 Rating

10/10
Rated 10 out of 10

Masterpiece - Platinum Award

Rated 10 out of 10

Home to an incredibly immersive world and the best combat on the Nintendo Switch, Astral Chain is a must-play not only for fans of the genre, but the medium as a whole. It is a title that understands the importance of balancing gameplay, story, and style without ever sacrificing substance for anything else. It's more accessible than most PlatinumGames titles without ever having to compromise its core mechanics. The slower start may alienate potential fans but sticking with Astral Chain leads to a surprisingly thematic script, incredibly deep combat, and what might be Platinum's best game to date.

Developer

Platinum Games

Publisher

Nintendo

Genre

Action Adventure

Players

2

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  10/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date 30.08.2019   North America release date 30.08.2019   Japan release date 30.08.2019   Australian release date 30.08.2019   

Comments

Dang thats some pretty crazy praise.  Ulitmately how good is the story, is it one of those that makes you think and stays with you after, or just pretty good and ultimately forgettable?

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