When PlatinumGames’ frenetic Switch-exclusive action title Astral Chain was first revealed, I may have been a tad bit dismissive.
Hotpants Cop! I mean Astral Chain… #NintendoDirectE3
— Z. (@hipsterplease) June 11, 2019
But that was then. Now, having played the game pretty heavily for the past week, I’m more than willing to admit that my idle derision was unwarranted.
Don’t get me wrong; Astral Chain does have booty shorts and weird jiggle physics, breathless villains and animalist armored familiars, but there’s much more to this game than meets the eye. And, honestly, even the parts that do meet the eye, specifically the character designs by acclaimed manga artist Masakazu Katsura, aren’t exactly shabby.
Taking place in a dark future where humanity teeters on the brink of extinction, Astral Chain puts the player in control of a member of the Neuron task force. This special police division helps protect the survivors of the Ark, a sprawling megacity, from the inter-dimensional threat of invading Chimeras.
Our heroine—or hero, as you can pick either the male or female sibling—is one of the adopted twins of Neuron’s captain, Max Howard, but that’s not the only thing that makes the duo special. They are also able to command Legions, weaponized Chimeras literally chained to their masters.
After an early mission goes sideways, dragging the Neuron agents into the Astral Plane where most of their Legions go rogue, it becomes apparent that you alone stand against the Chimera menace. This is accomplished primarily through combat, but I was thrilled to find Astral Chain is more than a mere brawler.
Each chapter offers a number of available “cases.” While red cases are, predictably, combat-heavy, blue cases are centered more around environmental puzzles and NPC interactions. This makes for a nice contrast, adding shades of the procedural Professor Layton to the otherwise Bayonetta-inspired over-the-top combat. (There are also hints of Pokémon X and Y‘s “Pokémon-Amie” mini-game in that—and I’m not making this up, folks—you’re occasionally expected to clean and groom your Legions. You know, like any respectable pet owner.)
This is further helped along by a cast of genuinely interesting characters, from the officers that trained alongside your father to the random civilians just trying to go about their day while otherworldly demons stalk the streets, snarling traffic and snatching away the unwary. Your right-hand man (or woman) is your twin, Akira, and your shared history (and your very DNA) serves as a handy plot device as the game progresses, but even the enigmatic Jena Anderson, your principal foil early on, displays more depth and earnest motivation than you’d likely expect in an action title.
Of course, there’s also the perpetually sneering commander Yoseph Calvert, cagey hacker Hal (who you predominantly interact with via his flying drone), and the super fan service-y Marie Wentz, Neuron’s office manager and resident overly-endowed nerd girl. Even as cringe-inducing as that character could otherwise be, her rough edges are *ahem* smoothed out thanks to her own alter ego, departmental mascot Lappy the crime dog.
Many of the remaining members of the cast are far more monstrous, from the run-of-the-mill Chimeras that serve as easy cannon fodder to its more challenging (and sizable) bosses. This is where your Legions prove to be an ace in the hole.
Though you’re initially limited to the blade-handed Sword Legion, you’ll soon recapture Legions in all their fearsome forms. The Axe and Arm Legions are powerful but slower, while the Arrow and Beast Legions sacrifice strength for accuracy and speed. Like your character herself, they level up, exchanging the Gene Code harvested from defeated Chimeras to unlock nodes on their individual skill trees. This adds stronger new attacks and additional resilience to their already impressive array of special abilities.
Despite its action-heavy slant, Astral Chain actually rewards methodical gameplay, with Sync Attacks, regularly prompted by an onscreen flash, proving particularly effective against mightier foes. Unfortunately, for a game that lives and dies by its controls, sometimes it’s a bit less responsive than I’d like.
But first, the good news.
An active Legion has a visible timer that lets you know how much longer you can keep it out in the world fighting the good fight, and you can easily release and recall a Legion using L and R, with L+Y allowing you to change you active Legion. Your character attacks using ZR, with ZL serving as the Legion’s Sync Attack button when prompted. You can even hold ZL and use the Right analog stick to move a Legion independently, which is helpful both in combat and during investigations.
While the Left stick mostly dedicted to character movement and navigation, the D-pad is employed to cycle through your weapons, letting you switch from martial attacks to gunfire on the fly. The + and – buttons are purposed to bring up IRIS (think of it as this game’s answer to Batman’s Detective Mode) and the in-game menu respectively.
Sounds good so far, right?
Well, things get a little hairy when you realize that clicking down on the Left analog stick is used for both dashing and crouching. Similarly, the Right is also used for camera controls and locking onto enemies. This means, when there are multiple baddies onscreen and you’re trying to dispatch them as efficiently as possible, it’s far too easy to end up with the camera focused on nothing in particular as you are pummeled from just out of frame.
Oh, and there’s no jump button. I don’t know why this bothers, but it does. It just feels like you should be able to jump independently. Sure, most of the very limited platforming is linear and accomplished by moving your Legion to a platform and then using the Astral Chain to cross the gap, but there were times when I needed, desired, and flat-out yearned for the ability to properly jump.
Honestly, it seems as if Astral Chain has a bit of overall wonkiness when it comes to character movement. It’s easy enough to get the player or her Legion in the right place on the battlefield, but getting both is almost too much to ask for. I spent far more time than I’m willing to admit desperately trying to use that titular Astral Chain between the two to ensnare enemies, only to have my Legion hesitate on the horizon, neither going left nor right to complete the maneuver.
Oh, and also I fell off of the poorly presented precipices of the Astral Plane into the yawning abyss. A lot. Yes, my Legion was always there to pull me to safety, and the damage sustained was generally minimal, but it got rather old after a while.
In summation, Astral Chain has thrills and chills… and, unfortunately, some spills. It’s got action and adventure and police investigation and the occasional heaving anime bosoms. But perhaps most importantly, it has a story—one that’s more than worthy of the overall positive attention that it seems to be garnering. There are some minor inconveniences and some touchy controls under certain circumstances, but it’s exactly the kind of game that keeps you coming back, despite its flaws.
You could say I’ve become tethered to this title. Actually, no; please don’t say that.
But do play it. Astral Chain is another epic Switch release that’s not to be missed.
Review materials provided by Nintendo of America. This post contains affiliate links. All hail Lappy.