Astral Chain review: PlatinumGames action with a detective spin

When you think of PlatinumGames, you probably think of over-the-top, high-energy action games. The likes of Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance start with the dial at 11, and only raise the stakes from there. Astral Chain—a joint effort from Platinum and Nintendo—comes, in large part, from that same school of design. It’s got acrobatic combat against hordes of interdimensional demons, this time with semi-autonomous demon servant fighting alongside your character, with all the opportunities for balletic melee action that come with that.

But Astral Chain is also surprisingly restrained—the action is PlatinumGames through and through, but it’s probably only about half of the actual time you spend in the game. The rest of the time is spent investigating cases, gathering clues, and helping out the locals. It’s a game where you’ll fight a lizard-ish monster the size of a building, and then find yourself buying a fresh ice cream for a kid who dropped his.

As much as I enjoy the energy and excitement of a character action game, this balance is a welcome one. The different sides complement each other wonderfully, ensuring a wide variety of things to do and stemming the fatigue that can come with even the most expertly-crafted action game.

Taking place in 2078, Astral Chain envisions a future in which humanity is on the brink of extinction at the hands of “Chimeras”. These demonic beings—invisible to the naked eye—come from the Astral Plane, and have taken a liking to tearing gates through to our dimension, attacking and kidnapping people, and spreading an infection known as “Red Matter”. The last remnants of humanity live in a megacity called the Ark, but even this isn’t safe from the Chimeras.

Humanity’s last hope rests in Neuron, a special police task force set up specifically to deal with the threat of Chimeras. Their secret weapons? “Legions”: Chimeras that have been subdued and forced into servitude, assisting their Neuron masters with everything from investigations to travelling to the Astral Plane itself to fight Chimeras on their home turf.

You play as one of two twins, both of whom are new Neuron recruits. Whichever one you choose essentially becomes a player stand-in silent protagonist, while the other twin assumes the role of Akira Howard and becomes the main driving force of the story. More than just a way of letting you choose the gender of your character, the twins setup becomes crucial to the overarching story. That story is essentially the same regardless of which twin becomes Akira, but Platinum and Nintendo have gone as far as recording different voice both male and female voice tracks for both “versions” of Akira—and given how extensive Akira’s voiced dialogue is, that’s no mean feat.

Regardless of which twin you choose, you soon find yourself playing through the daily life of a Neuron officer, which is as much about working the beat as it is about fighting Chimeras. Typically, each new mission begins with some sort of investigation routine: talking to witnesses, gathering clues, assessing crime scene damage, and what have you. Most of this you’ll handle yourself—your character was a regular cop before joining Neuron, after all—but your Legion also comes in handy. You only have one such servant at the start of the game, but as the story moves along, you get four more, each with their own unique abilities that prove invaluable during investigations. The Beast Legion, for example, can track scents and dig up buried evidence, while the powerful Arm Legion can lift heavy objects out of the way and open certain sealed doors.

Inevitably, your investigations wind up leading to some sort of Chimera conflict that can only be resolved by fighting. This is where Astral Chain is a PlatinumGames game at its purest; there’s an emphasis on acrobatic movements, a wide array of different attacks, and a powerful dodge move that can cancel just about any other action and opens the window for strong counter attacks if you time it just right. Combat, then, is all about racking up stylish combos while being aware enough of your enemies’ and surroundings to be able to dance circles around their every attack with your dodge.

That much is just PlatinumGames DNA at this point, but the Legion adds a whole new element to Astral Chain‘s combat in the form of a partner. When summoned, the Legion will usually just attack the nearest enemy on its own, but you can also control it directly by holding ZL; knowing when to let it just do its thing and to take the reigns is key. 

Naturally, your growing assortment of Legions have different combat applications, too. The Arrow Legion is an effective ranged fighter, handy for taking out skittish flying Chimeras; the Axe Legion is a tank that can shield you from damage; and so on. Sometimes, encounters through up situations that specifically require one or another Legion—like a tether between two enemies, making both invincible until it’s cut by the Sword Legion—but for the most part, you can stick to your favourites if you so choose.

It doesn’t take long before the regular, run-of-the-mill Neuron investigations start to give way to bigger mysteries, pulling Astral Chain‘s story in some fascinating directions. Admittedly, a lot of the twists can be seen coming from a mile away, but the game still manages to pull out some genuine surprises as well. Suffice to say that there’s more to Neuron than meets the eye.

While the overall plot is a riveting one, Astral Chain does suffer somewhat when it comes to characterisation. The choice to make the player-controlled twin a silent protagonist is an odd one; this isn’t an RPG, and you don’t really get much opportunity to exert your own personality through your character. What you’re left with is a protagonist without any real sense of identity. The supporting cast pick up a some of the slack—the other twin most of all, who has almost enough personality for the both of them—but even then, they tend to be archetypal and one-note.

Don’t let that discourage you, though—the main character might be a blank slate, but Astral Chain itself just oozes personality. The art style is slick as all hell, channelling influences from both cyberpunk and film noir to create a unique, captivating aesthetic that fits the tone of the game. 

In its action-heavy bits, Astral Chain is PlatinumGames to a T; in the investigation side of things, it’s bold new direction for the developer that works better than I could have expected. The result is a game that’ll have you on the edge of your proverbial seat from start to finish.

Recommended

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.