Astral Chain Is a Greatest Hits Collection of Great Action Games

A motorcycle chase through a dark, empty tunnel — that’s the opening to Astral Chain, the latest third-person action game from Platinum. Put another way, it’s an on-rails shooter segment with you, a futuristic police officer, blasting away weird mutants on the road. It only lasts a couple minutes; the real action kicks in as your bike crashes into an urban battlefield. The monsters are everywhere and you need to beat them down with Bayonetta-like combos, dodges, and occasional gunplay. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, though. You quickly a Legion — a fantastical creature of your own that fights by your side — which you control in tandem with your custom character.

But wait, there’s more! And more… and more, and more. Astral Chain is a rocket packed with explosives that just won’t stop going off. If the first 30 minutes aren’t jarring enough for you, then the next six hours will be. The game is a mishmash of tones (sometimes self-serious, often absurd) and ideas (clearly borrowed from anime and other games). It’s far too eager to show you just how much stuff is crammed into every corner. But, beneath the buffeting tutorials, there’s still a very solid action game. You just need to give it time to sink in.

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Different people will have different levels of patience for that. Astral Chain makes a strong, early case for itself with a very striking art style, at least. Everything has a shiny, pseudo-cel shaded look to it, without the “plastic” feel that often entails. There’s a bounce to Astral Chain — a liveliness — that lends it character. That especially shows in how doggone ridiculous it gets at times.

Once I finished the introductory mission, and returned to police HQ, I swung by the restroom (that’s a thing you can do). Inside I found a “bathroom fairy” that needed some spare toilet paper in the next stall. After a later mission, a teleporting mascot (some sorta cyberpunk McGruff the Crime Dog) gave me a tour of the facility. I’m pretty sure there’s an entire mini-game where you care for cats? A vending machine insulted me…

The hodgepodge of comedy has nothing to do with the main story. The A plot is basically serious, albeit total nonsense. Those strange creatures, Chimeras, have destroyed most of the world. All that reminds is a tiny artificial island. You’re one of the only people who can fight back, naturally, and there’s a big conspiracy with a shadow council. Shades of Neon Genesis Evangelion and NieR: Automata are impossible to ignore. And it’s worth nothing that Astral Chain was directed by Takahisa Taura: one of the designers on Automata itself.

Astral Chain Review

 

The game doesn’t reach the philosophical heights of its inspirations, though. To many, that will be clear from the whole cop thing from the get-go. Astral Chain is pretty effusive about police in general — or at least it’s weird, often goofy version of them. The only “corruption” it’s interested in is performed inter-dimensional, bug-eyed monsters, not real-world fascist institutions. Although it does wrap itself in the trappings of those high-minded ideas. Fairly early on in the game, a major character literally says “We will become as gods.

Even if the story wasn’t a confused mess of proper nouns, though, it would be hard to keep up with. The never-ending new features don’t stop for story time. You have upgrades to learn about. There are controls to master. And Astral Chain never uses just one button press when three will do. Seriously, it’s a lot to load into your brain just remembering how to control your Legion and your own character at the same time. Then add in slow-motion sword cutting, team-up attacks, swapping weapons mid-combo, flashy finishers: It’s more than my tiny mind can usually process.

But, slowly and surely, I’m getting the hang of it. The avalanche of attack types hasn’t “clicked” for me like it has in so many other games. It’s just getting easier as I give myself to the game’s kitchen sink approach. Enemies I absolutely wasn’t prepared to fight before make more sense once I unlock new abilities (which makes me wonder why they were introduced to them while hamstrung in the first place).

Astral Chain Review

 

It doesn’t hurt that I’ve begun to map the mechanics to other, arguably better action games one by one. There are NieR and Bayonetta, of course, and those games’ ability to slow down time with a perfect dodge. That’s in here. So is the “cut things in a specific line” from Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Strangely enough I even sniffed out some very specific nods to Monster Hunter. One massive Astral Chain boss stunned me out of combos with an ear splitting roar, in a way that looks jarringly similar to that series. Not to mention the healing system — complete with temporary health items that expire at the end of a mission and quick chugging animations — is straight out of the Monster Hunter Item Box.

All together, these little details don’t amount to a game with a very clear vision. If anything, I’d say Astral Chain’s greatest weakness is too hard to tell what’s happening. That goes for the overall game and the moment-to-moment action. The filigreed golems you fight are too messy and nondescript. That’s not great when combat is mostly reactive (dodging, countering, etc.). But noticing each little nod, and discovering every new, surprising direction the studio took Astral Chain, is enjoyable all by itself.

It takes a whole lot of work and time to get used to this collection of influences. But the parts that work on their own are strong enough to keep me going so far. Now if only I could get this tasty, wacky blend without all the cop flavor.

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Steven Strom

An obsessive writer broadcasting to you live from the middle of nowhere. Thinks cute things are good, actually.

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