Wireframe

Astral Chain review: a Platinum effort

By Jon Bailes. Posted

Walk around Astral Chain’s police station, or its Harmony Square, and you’ll notice how clean everything looks. This consumerist idyll of chatty vending machines, electronic J-pop melodies, and backlit advertising displays also implies a strict order, where citizens are gently herded by holographic barriers, and a discarded drinks can feels so incongruous you can’t help but pop it in the nearest bin.

It’s beautifully clinical, but at the same time unnervingly sterile. So when the rifts appear in this society, literally, as gaping red holes punched into that pristine surface, spewing forth warped creatures and dragging civilians into a nightmare dimension, it somehow feels fully deserved.

It seems you can’t maintain perfect order without a touch of chaos bursting through. Somehow, it’s necessary to balance the two. And this is where you come in. Part man (or woman), part commander of dimension-shifting monsters, all cop.

The titular astral chain links the law to its repressed opposite, with your rookie officer shackled to a ‘Legion’, an enslaved ‘chimera’ from the Astral Plane that might help stop society dissolving around you, as long as you keep it on a leash.

The surprising brilliance of Astral Chain is how it uses this setup to thematically unite all kinds of disparate objectives, making you play both everyday beat cop and superpowered action hero. Here, rescuing cats, collecting litter, and chasing down graffiti artists are as much your job as flying through a dimensional portal to take down some vicious fiend.

The game’s atmosphere is fantastic throughout.

In one mission, you have to destroy a colossal creature tearing up the city centre. In the next, you’re sent to help with the clean-up effort afterwards. But it never feels disjointed. As a kind of total action-adventure that constantly segues between exploration, environmental puzzles, platforming, and combat, it has parallels to the recent God of War, but with a streamlined cohesion that stops it feeling so overweight.

The result is a game of huge variety where everything somehow slots into place. Director Takahisa Taura brings aspects of his design approach over from Nier: Automata, with a playful willingness to impede predictability, using shifts of pace and perspective to keep the experience fresh.

As you gather more Legions, each with its own helpful abilities, they create potential for new forms of navigation, minigames, and detective work (handled in a more interesting manner than in Judgment, incidentally). It’s not deep or taxing – the game rarely seems keen to hold you up for long – but it’s so slick and seamless that even occasional busywork never feels gratuitous.

Besides, Astral Chain knows when to shift away from minor distractions to more sustained objectives, and has the perfect narrative mechanism in place. Entering a rift leads you to the Astral Plane, an abstract void filled with huge cuboids of floating rock that provides the game’s conventional challenge space.

Your own weapons are limited to a baton, pistol, and blade, but can be upgraded between missions for new techniques.

With the clutter of reality swept away, it serves purely to construct cunning arrangements of platforms and switches, or provide flat, open stages for more substantial battles.

And the battles are of course the key to the game’s depth, as Platinum’s latest system of flair and intricacy remains the centrepiece of the show. It’s not easy to grasp, as the game bombards you with instructions and piles on techniques with each new upgrade.

The control pad can seem overloaded with possible inputs, to the point that remembering what you can do and deciding when to do it can be paralysing. With a camera that misbehaves in tight spaces, the opening chapters can be a mess of air shots and pratfalls as you stumble between D-graded victories.

But in full flow, it’s as joyfully artistic and comprehensive as Bayonetta’s more immediate fighting style. You soon adjust to moving yourself and your Legion simultaneously and turn the chain itself into your biggest asset. ‘Chain jumping’ is a game-changer, as you fire your Legion towards a single opponent or weave it into a pack then yank your character in behind, knocking down anything en route.

Or you wrap an enemy in the chain to briefly immobilise them, or catapult them away when they charge towards you. Combined with more familiar Platinum flourishes – well-timed dodges enable quick counters, combos end in ‘sync’ attacks that combine the power of human and Legion, finishing moves can be triggered to refill lost health – and the unique abilities of each Legion, there’s incredible flexibility, and it eventually becomes second nature.

Legions will attack on their own, but learning how to combine your damage and theirs is key to quick victories.

The camera does still struggle, and you can sometimes lose track of your position in the mayhem of a large brawl. Platforming can also be needlessly fussy for a game that otherwise doesn’t place a premium on precise movement. But these issues do become less bothersome over time.

Once you’re spinning through the laser breath of a huge boss to wrap your chain around its feet, and especially when the S+ ranks start to trickle in, anything else fades into insignificance.

Astral Chain is Platinum’s most well-rounded game. Structurally, it nestles between Bayonetta and Nier: Automata, offering exploration and side quests within the confines of designated mission areas, and combining light RPG upgrading with expressive and rewarding combat.

But most of all, with its laid-back tone, variety, and human-legion partnership, it’s a thing all of its own. It’s a game created through carefully-ordered precision, with just enough joyful chaos to make it truly special.

Highlight

The five Legions are the stars of Astral Chain. Each has its own fighting style and sync moves, not to mention a little personality. But the fun often comes from deploying their individual skills in and out of battle, from severing wires and sniping targets to sniffing out hidden items and lobbing heavy objects around.

Verdict: 91%

Astral Chain is Platinum at its most daring and confident. A genuine pleasure.

Genre: Action
Format: Switch (tested)
Developer: PlatinumGames
Publisher: Nintendo
Price: £49.99
Release: Out now

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