Where ‘Ghost in the Shell’ meets ‘Xenoblade Chronicles’
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Genre: Hack and Slash
Developer: Platinum Games
Release date: 30-Aug-2019
As far as Nintendo platforms’ reputation in the RPG world goes, they have never lacked for imagination, charm, or fantastical action. The base for these stories are often repetitive. Common threads are Ordinary KidTM whisked off in a whirlwind adventure to save the world, or Small Town Guy/GalTM gets caught up in the wider political drama of nations etc. While it sounds otherwise, this is not a complaint from me. These base stories are great starting points, and have led to some of my favourite games of all time.
This bias towards what I believed Nintendo did well was ultimately what delayed my purchase of Astral Chain for almost a year. A game with cyberpunk-esque designed cityscapes where you play as a newbie cop operating in a megacity serving as the last bastion of humanity against the constant threat of invasion sounded cool. But would it be?
Eventually my choice was made for me after playing Nier: Automata and discovering that Platinum Games had also made both this and Bayonetta. Publisher be damned, at the very least I could assume before picking up this game that the developer would have guaranteed as many stylishly sleek action sequences as the Nintendo Switch would support.
The premise for this game is an interesting one. It is set in the not-extremely-distant future of 2078, and the last of humanity is living on an artificial island within the walls of a megacity called “The Ark”. Humanity was driven into this city by the appearance of creatures called “Chimeras”, beings from a parallel dimension known as the “Astral Plane”. Although the rest of the world fell long ago and the Ark is supposed to be ‘safe’, these chimeras regularly appear through wormholes to wreak havoc on the city. This is primarily done through the spread of ‘red matter’, a type of aura that surrounds the chimeras and corrupts everything that did not originate in the Astral Plane. This Red Matter turns humans into zombie-like creatures known as ‘Aberrations’ when they are over-exposed to it. The chimeras do also seem to enjoy wanton destruction and dragging civilians back into the wormholes - which is not an ideal situation for anyone.
Enter the Howard twins, the newest recruits to the Neuron Police Task Force. It doesn’t matter which twin you choose to play as, the other twin will always be named ‘Akira Howard’ and go through the same overall plot.
Officers recruited for Neuron are hired for their innate ability to synchronise with ‘Legions’, Chimeras that have been captured by humanity and enslaved via an astral chain to the officer. These Legions are hard to come by even in Neuron, if chimeras were easy to enslave I suppose the point of the game would be moot, so your team of field operatives is remarkably small. Think of a small team of deranged Pokemon trainers or, even more similarly, Drivers from Xenoblade Chronicles.
You are thrown into the action from the moment your character makes an appearance. As a matter of fact, the instant after you make your character selection you are thrown into a high speed motorcycle chase sequence to get to the site of an Aberration attack. The dramatic flair, sleek movements, and adrenaline-pumping action just screams Platinum Games before you can even steady yourself. Thankfully despite this opening feeling extremely high-stakes, with a lot of gunfire, impact, and swerving, I noticed about two thirds of the way through that thankfully the health bar was depleting more slowly than the beating I was taking (and crashing) would suggest. This was a scene-setting chase, not a difficult one. And it set the tone for the rest of the game quite well, in my opinion.
This is a pattern that becomes more familiar as the game goes on. You are called to the site of a Chimera or Aberration attack and investigate the site, often solving smaller cases along the way as you question locals. This balances the tone of the game out quite well, as well as adding some realism to the game. Sure some police do deal with dangerous stuff a lot, but a significant portion of the job will also be helping lost children find their parents and chasing down graffiti 'artists'. I chose to spend hours in this game collecting stray cats.
I will say the plot gets a little weaker in the later quarter of the game. The main villains become a little too 2D and 'we get it, you're bad', and there was one story thread they could have followed to drive home a grittier message that was abandoned in favour of a more cheerful message. But overall the early game, world building and scene setting around this rescues it in my eyes.
There are so many ways that this game succeeds in utilising the tools at your disposal, namely your Legion buddy/ies. Each Legion has its own abilities in and outside of battle, and just like Pokémon's type advantage system before it, these abilities have a varying degree of effectiveness against certain enemies.
There are very few outright hints in-battle, it is largely up to the player to figure out why their attacks are causing no damage or how to force an enemy to drop a barrier shield. This was frustrating the first time I encountered it on a very minor enemy, but once you get into the swing of having to figure so many enemies out rather than just hacking away at them it becomes quite fun.
To get around feeding you too much information unwillingly during gameplay, Neuron (Platinum Games) has provided a system called IRIS to the player. Think of IRIS like 'detective mode'. It works as a reality augmentation device that provides information on your surroundings. It can also be activated in battle for hints regarding your enemy. While I preferred navigating without IRIS on, I found it a bit dark for my taste, I can see why so many try to keep it on whenever they can. I just wish I found a way to mute the damn thing when I was turning it on and off all the time. It's not quite up there with Navi's iconic 'Hey! Listen!' in the Ocarina of Time, but it was still a very grating experience.
Shouldn't Basic Movement Feel More Basic?
Even outside of battle, the uses that Legions have seem endless. The Beast Legion can track your targets with crazy precision, the Arm Legion can lift, pull, open, and throw around heavy objects, the Arrow Legion can shoot items far off in the distance, the Sword Legion can cut through pretty much anything, and the Axe Legion can (weirdly) blow stuff up.
I am aware that up until now, Legions sounded very much like a carbon copy of Blades from the Xenoblade Chronicles series. But there are two major differences. The first is mostly a thematic difference, Legions do not speak and are strictly unwillingly bound to their Neuron officer. Legions are more similar to circus animals, whereas Blades have personalities and preferences they make known to their Driver.
The second difference is in the control of these entities bound to the protagonist. In XC you do not have to worry much about what your partner is up to, most of their actions are AI derived. But in Astral Chain, Legions are bound to you unwillingly. They are unlikely to take up any actions themselves, and most of their movements outside of basic attacks must be controlled by the player. This simultaneous control of both the player character and the Legion was something I found very difficult in the beginning, especially after playing XC so soon before it. Whenever I tried to switch between Legions, or jump across a moving platform during battle, I would take damage. Or fall.
This did make it very satisfying when I started to get the hang of it though. Each new Legion acquired presented a new challenge, and I got there eventually. I never did learn to like the Arm Legion, though.
The platforming throughout the game was a surprising challenge from a title that seemed at first to be the antithesis of a platformer. To make it over any of the many large gaps you come across you have to direct your Legion over and have it yank you across the opening using the astral chain. This requires some getting used to, as I incorrectly gauged how much space I needed several times and overshot where I thought I was going to land. This difficulty was added to as different obstacles appeared in later levels and more requirements needed to be met.
The challenge of the Astral Chain battle system is in the control of the Legion. As mentioned above, I had varying degrees of success. There were some Legions I ended up using in battle only when I absolutely had to, Arm and Beast, whereas Arrow and Sword were by far my two favourites. Axe sat somewhere in between.
Thankfully you don't have to direct your Legion to cause destruction, that seems to be the only activity it actively enjoys participating in. It will happily use general attacks to blast/hack away at any enemy that comes within range.
But it isn't with general attacks that you achieve the damage required to do more than whittle away slowly at your enemy's HP. In true Mortal Kombat fashion, there are special 'Sync Attacks' that you must learn to pull off. The most basic of these are attacks you have to time with a flash of your equipment, and doesn't take too long to master. The more complicated ones require a certain movement of the d pad and other button presses you have to start memorising if you want to make use of it.
The most useful of these attacks activate the extremely flashy cutscene attacks that Platinum Games are known for. These dynamic cutscenes are completely worth it for the graphics and 'wow' factor alone, but also come in handy when you are being overwhelmed as you are completely invincible during them.
I did not mention this before, but there is also only a certain length of time that you can have your Legion active. If you exceed this meter's time limit you will have to wait significantly longer to call your Legion back into battle. While the protagonist isn't COMPLETELY useless by themselves, against a boss you will need to keep your Legion around.
The Graphics and Sound
While there are technically better and more realistically rendered games on the market, the art choices in this game combat the Switch's relatively low graphical prowess with extreme success. The chances of a hyper realistic game being played on the Switch actually meeting its potential are low. But with anime and cartoon-style games like this and Breath of the Wild, which also got attention for its artistic style despite not quite having the same standard as games on other consoles, the Switch can really come into its own.
And the design is cool. The futuristic Ark reminds me of a mix between the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series (the police theme helps too) and the Appleseed movies. This leads to some fantastic imagery that I'll be pining for when I move on to another game.
One thing that consistently escapes me when playing games is the soundtrack. I have no ear for any kind of music, so generally for me I either ignore it or it annoys me. This is why I haven't spoken much about it in my reviews so far, it's not usually a factor in my gaming. But Astral Chain did something different, it shocked me.
The soundtrack, to my untrained ear, sounded like proper songs and background music. Not just something stuffed in the background to fill the silence. After a bit of digging I found Platinum Games' official blog. And in this blog was an entry from the composer Satoshi Igarashi that explains what makes the music so catchy, punchy, and thematic better than I ever could. There are also a few soundbites from the game in there that I would suggest people who actually know music should listen to.
The Take-Home Message
This is a sleek, impressive game. The concept is strong, and supported by an amazing soundtrack and stylistic choice.
Character development could be better in places, and some characters could have been used to greater effect. Why bother designing a cool and intriguing character like Kyle Merkulov among a fairly basic cast and hardly use him again? And even though I think the plot gets a bit too 'Ok I'm evil, come get me' at the very end, I honestly believe this is me nit-picking because the rest of the game is so strong.
The controls were satisfyingly challenging, but without making me want to rage quit, which was also a plus.
Play this game if:
You like thrilling action sequences
You like to try new things, because you likely haven't played a game like this before
You can play games with a JRPG style
All images are screenshots taken from the press kit available here
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