When I was a kid, there was a much-acclaimed studio called Treasure.
Treasure was astonishing. They would put out these amazingly well-tuned, well-designed action games that always involved far more detail put into them then so many of their contemporaries. For many companies, just having a gimmick was good enough and everything else was window dressing. But that wasn’t good enough for Treasure, who believed that the ‘window dressing’ deserved to be more than that. They wanted the world to be as endearing as the gameplay, even if the game was just a one-off. Even if it was just a platformer, they wanted to give the world a history and personality. They wanted the characters to be well-designed and likable. They not only wanted the action to be tightly constructed, they wanted the world the action took place in to be WELL constructed.
The reason I’m telling you all this is because Astral Chain reminded me so much of a classic Treasure game in its execution, that I couldn’t help but splurge. You’ll understand why below.
What Is It?
Astral Chain is the latest opus from the current king of stylish action games, PlatinumGames Inc. This time around they are working directly with Nintendo, who requested a new IP for the company from these hallowed artisans of artful violence. After having put out the critically acclaimed NieR: Automata in 2017, that game’s director Takahisa Taura was given the reins for an original project. The result takes heavy thematic ideas from various classic cyberpunk anime like Ghost In The Shell and Appleseed, and various ideas recycled from Platinum’s sadly canceled Scalebound. The result is bright, stunning, and utterly insane, and the character designs by Masakazu Katsura is the cherry on top.
The story takes us to the 2078, where humanity may be on the edge of oblivion. A few decades in the past, the planet started to face an invasion from extra-dimensional beings known as ‘Chimeras.’ These creatures cause wanton destruction, drag humans into their dimension (the Astral Plane), and spread a corrupting rot known as ‘red matter’ which causes insanity, sickness, and transformation. Worst of all? They’re completely invisible to the naked eye.
Quickly causing havoc and nations collapsing overnight, humanity eventually retreated to a walled-off super-city dubbed The Ark. However, the Chimera cannot be held completely at bay. In order to combat them, a special police unit called Neuron is founded within the Ark’s law enforcement apparatus. These Neuron members are armed with the one weapon that can tame or defeat a Chimera: Legion technology, which tames a Chimera to it’s master’s whim and then used against other Chimeras.
You play one of the Howard twins, either a boy or a girl. Having been raised by their foster father and veteran cop, Max, you are a new Neuron recruit on on your first mission. As you can probably guess, that mission doesn’t go as planned, and both you and the other Legion users (Max included) are sucked into the Astral Plane. The effects of this extra dimension cause extreme weakness in humans both psychically, and over the control of their Legion, who break free and go completely berserk. Max decides to stay behind in the Astral Plane and hold the berserk Legion off to buy some time as the others flee back to the Ark. During the retreat, the player encounters one of the berserk Legion and manages to tame them with their Legion technology. Furthermore, the Legion production facility is under attack and heavily damaged.
This leaves the player as the only person who can use Legion, and the only person who can fight the Chimeras. And with that, the game proper begins.
Why Should I Care?
Although this game has many wonderful touches, the main attraction is most definitely the action.
The flow of the gameplay usually goes something like this: You begin at Police HQ where you are given your mission by Commander Yoseph. Then, after doing a little bit of maintenance and upgrading of your equipment and your Legion (more on that in a bit), you make your way to the area of mission proper. Often, you will first need to do some routine police work, like taking statements from civilians (who sometimes offer side-missions), gathering evidence, assessing clues, and then doing battle with the Chimera(s) responsible (and not always in that order). Sometimes, this will also entail going into the Astral Plane, where you will have to fight a crap ton of lesser Chimeras and eventually one or two bosses (and not always separately).
Being that this is PlatinumGames, you would expect a stylish and heart-racing combat system, and this time is no different. Your character is equipped with a weapon that, depending on the setting, can work as a short sword, broad sword, or a pistol. You can switch through these different modes on the fly, and each is stronger or weaker depending on the enemy.
The other major weapon you are equipped with is your Legion: a tamed Chimera that acts as your familiar, which can both defend, attack and help you traverse the landscape. They are connect to you via a collar and a chain (hence the game’s title), which can be used to bind enemies into place to make them somewhat easier to pummel. The Legion themselves, however, operate mostly independently of you: You can control their general movement, order them to use specific attacks and skills inherent to their Chimera type (a sword type, an archer type, etc.), and they are occasionally necessary to traverse platforms or barriers. But other than that? They operate completely autonomously from you, and as you use them more and more often, they will begin to sync up with your fighting style making your collaborative attacks more effective. This particular mechanic is a hold-over from the canceled Scalebound, and though it seems daunting at first, you will quickly and instinctively master it with time.
But outside of the combat, there is plenty of other things to love. This game is filled with optional content, both lore-wise and play-wise. There are several side-missions to take, and only a few of them are actually explicitly revealed pre-mission. These are as varied as playing with the local kids, tracking down a lost pet(s), stopping a shop-lifter, and even wearing the costume of the police mascot to cheer people up. These range from the heart-warming, to the downright surreal (like the toilet fairy, which is a sentence I just wrote).
And lore wise? There’s a lot of optional story content to discover. These include things you can pick up in the over-world, files you can read on your character’s PC, and various media you can find. There’s also all of your various fellow police officers who have their own backstories, personalities, quirks, and personal story arcs to follow. This is a world that truly feels alive.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
You know all of that stuff I said about Treasure at the beginning? Well, everything I just described in this review is how an old Treasure game used to feel: well-tuned gameplay, great world building, so many little side-attractions that enhance the over-all experience. I view PlatinumGames as perhaps the new, or at least one of, the inheritors of Treasure’s mantle.
That is not to say, however, that this game is flawless. It most certainly does have its faults. Graphically this game is beautiful in design, but there were points where I would encounter flat or muddy textures. There’s also a good deal of pop-up in the overworld (though this rarely happens in high-enemy areas). Special disdain needs to go towards the camera: being a stylish action game, the camera can be your best friend or your worst enemy…and though usually quite compliant, I did encounter points where the camera angle resulted in an untimely death. Considering how difficult this game becomes later on (again, much like a Treasure game), the camera can be especially finicky during intense combat. There are also some platforming segments that, though visually effective, occasionally have poor depth perception that can result in you jumping towards a platform only to land a meter too close or too far.
But in spite of these flaws, I adored my time with Astral Chain. I’m glad that Nintendo is now branching out to new IPs, and is more open to appealing to older crowds. PlatinumGames have made another opus, and the only problem is that it seems to end much too soon.
Again, much like a Treasure game.