Astral Chain Review (Switch)
Release Date: August 30, 2019
File Size: 9.8 GB
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
When I think of major new IPs from Nintendo, Astral Chain is not a name that immediately pops into my head. Sure, this 2019 release was spearheaded by PlatinumGames (known for multiple well-received third-person action games, from their two Bayonetta entries to Nier: Automata, developed for Square Enix), but it was still developed at the behest of and published by Nintendo, and went on to sell over a million copies worldwide within the first six months of its release–‘above expectations’ according to Astral Chain’s director, Takahisa Taura.
On top of that, its chain-wielding, sibling protagonists would seem to be a natural fit for a game like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and yet I almost never hear the Howard twins mentioned in comparison to fan favorites like Crash Bandicoot, Halo’s Master Chief, or Kingdom Hearts’ Sora. This may not be indicative of anything other than what players want from their favorite fighting franchise, but still, for whatever reason, it does seem to me as though Astral Chain has mostly flown under the radar where Nintendo is concerned since it landed on the Switch a year and half ago.
As for myself, it was always a game that looked tantalizing, in part due to its unique monochromatic art style (admittedly, a look that I wasn’t entirely sold on at first), but I didn’t actually get around to probing deeper into my intrigue until this past March. While Astral Chain may appear as though it should appeal to fans of other fast-paced, third-person action titles, such as the aforementioned Bayonetta games or Capcom’s Devil May Cry series (the original DMC was conceived by the minds that would go on to found PlatinumGames, after all), it is also fairly niche, and a clear departure—at least, from what I can tell—from anything that has come before it.
To be sure, Astral Chain clearly belongs in the third-person action genre. However, it contains enough ‘RPG elements’—a concept that is certainly broad enough to encompass many titles outside of the blanket term, ‘RPG’—in its handling of character progression and combat, that ‘action role-playing game’ strikes me as a suitable classification (arguably, if we’re being charitable) for its unique approach to hack and slash gameplay. Heck, Takahisa Taura even called out Pokemon as an inspiration for the alien-cyborg companions that accompany you on your journey through the ‘astral plane’ and the game’s eleven chapters (don’t let that reference fool you; there are no cuddly monsters to be had here).
Regardless, with these introductory remarks out of the way, let’s dive into what you ultimately clicked on this review to discover: How does Astral Chain fare?
Set in the year 2078, Astral Chain takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where human civilization is on the brink of collapse, the result of a meteor impact on Earth a few decades prior which has created a rift in the fabric of spacetime and caused mysterious wormholes, or ‘gates,’ to begin sporadically appearing on its surface. These portals, comprised of an unknown substance termed by humans on Earth as ‘red matter’, are passageways to an extradimensional realm, the ‘astral plane.’ Unfortunately, the astral plane is home to a hostile species of being—‘chimeras’—who continually and frequently invade the planet, spreading the red matter to devastating effect: it corrupts everything it touches, distorting the forms of objects and causing humans to go berserk, in a process called ‘redshifting.’
Understandably not content to go quietly into that long dark night, the nations of the world (who had earlier received warning of impending doom by an obscure group known simply as ‘the Prophets’) united to form a one-world government, ‘UNION’, along with the construction of a metropolis on an artificial island off the coast of Valparaiso, Chile, coined ‘The Ark.’ Here large swathes of the surviving population took refuge before The Ark voyaged out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean, believed to be far beyond the threat posed by the extradimensional gates and the corruption of red matter.
Of course, it wasn’t long before the bipedal apes of The Ark began to experiment with the energy that emanated forth from the astral plane’s earthly gates, using ‘astral spark,’ as they referred to this strange new resource, to produce high-tech state-of-the-art weaponry. And, equally unsurprisingly, red matter soon found its way into The Ark itself.
This is where you, the player, come in.
As part of ‘Neuron,’ a highly specialized police task force, you and your twin sibling (you select whether the protagonist you control is male or female; your sibling, regardless of your choice, is always named ‘Akira Howard’ and of the opposite sex) are the latest recruits and responsible for investigating any new reports of abnormal activity that might involve red matter corruption, the appearance of gates, or the presence of chimeras.
But there is a catch (and this is where the game is truly badass). The members of Neuron have each been granted ‘Legions’, chimeras who have been subdued and compelled to obey the commands of their human partners, thanks to the technological advances made possible by ‘astral spark’ and the ‘Legatus Unit,’ a device that psychically links you and your Legion by—wait for it—yep, the ‘astral chain’, a leash made of energy by which you can control the extradimensional alien-cyborg creature (whatever the chimeras are) kept attached at the other end.
As mentioned, the story is spread across eleven ‘Files’ (i.e. chapters) and the first involves an attack by chimeras that ends up robbing your fellow Neuron members of their Legions. Hence, it is left to you, _____ Howard (fill in the blank), to retrieve the other Legions and utilize their powers to combat the imminent threat of marauding chimeras as well as new menaces that reveal themselves as the story progresses.
With that brief summary of the narrative setup out of the way, let’s discuss my general takeaway upon completion of the eleventh File. As a sci-fi action game, there’s enough meat on Astral Chain’s bones to keep one interested throughout. While it’s undoubtedly a superficial (and silly) comparison, I kept getting ‘The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest’ vibes from the game’s dialogue and over-the-top drama, which is really to say, I could easily imagine my eight year old self (who spent countless summer afternoons watching that Cartoon Network reboot on ‘Power Zone’, the precursor to ‘Toonami’… Jesus, I feel old) completely mesmerised by the game’s storyline; my thirty-three year old self… not as much.
To be fair, the game’s writing and voice-acting isn’t bad but overall the story isn’t really that good either. There is one major issue involving the personality of the game’s main (and awkwardly silent) protagonist, which unnecessarily hampers the story somewhat, but more on that later. In a nutshell, the narrative and development of its cast felt shallow and cheesy. I don’t necessarily mind these so-called ‘criticisms’ of a game when there’s at least some charm involved but in the case of Astral Chain ‘charming’ isn’t a descriptor that I’d apply to any part of its script. Sorry, Lappy.
That’s not to say that these defined the game or were terribly outstanding problems for me either. At best, I was merely ambivalent about the game’s plot. There are a couple of really emotionally impactful moments, especially at the game’s conclusion, but all in all I just didn’t find the plot very captivating, which is a shame because I thought the premise was a decent starting point. Unfortunately, whatever did momentarily strike a nerve was too fleeting and surrounded by characters and scenarios that were too cliché and forgettable (save the ending).
That said, what epitomizes Astral Chain’s greatness is its action, and to the extent that the story supplements that enough to keep you playing into the next chapter, it succeeds as much as it needs to do so. To put it another way, given Nintendo’s reputation where the balance of story and gameplay is at stake, what’s really (far more) important is the latter.
And in this regard Astral Chain is a resounding win.
Insofar as combat goes, Astral Chain’s flashy beat ‘em up sequences are something to behold, and even more of a thrill to experience. Here the game excels on multiple levels: for one, as you are constantly juggling between your three primary weapons (baton, blaster, and gladius), along with the various Legions you acquire, its mechanics feel completely fresh and innovative. It takes some time to adjust to the controls, which, requiring you to move your character as well as the Legion you’ve sent forth, aren’t intuitive from the jump.
In fact, for much of my time with Astral Chain, playing on the game’s ‘Normal’ difficulty setting (‘Pt Standard’; there are two easier modes for casual players, as well as a challenging ‘Pt Ultimate’ setting), I simply mashed my way through battles with little problem, save for a few tests of skill towards the end. As long as you’re well-stocked with healing items and ‘AED Batteries’ (read: revives), you can manage to get through the entirety of the campaign in this blundering manner, though it’s a much less rewarding experience.
I mean, literally, you receive less rewards. Your performance in combat is graded after each encounter on a scale of D to S+, and depending on your efficiency—how quickly you disposed of the foe, how glitzy and diverse were your execution of ‘sync attacks’, i.e., special combos that you are prompted to enact at just the right moment during a melee blitz, etc.—you will collect points. The total number of points obtained during a File go towards increasing your police rank (and your wallet), which is somewhat equivalent to your character’s ‘level.’ When your rank increases so does the maximum amount of HP that you have on your health bar.
On your first playthrough, as you are still learning the nuances of combat and unlocking the five Legions that you recover over the course of the game’s 30-hour or so campaign, it’s impossible that you will score S+ at every available juncture. This is in part due to the fact that certain areas of each chapter require you to have a specific Legion on hand, and so won’t become reachable until the latter stages of the game. This means that, if you wish to come by all of the sidequests and enemies (and rewards that they contain), you’ll have to replay missions. This is a problem, but why precisely it is a problem I’ll return to discuss in a moment.
Once you have grown comfortable with the control scheme of Astral Chain, and moreover, have come into possession of each of the five available Legions, you’ll likely find that the game has opened up a great deal from the deceptively simplistic button-mashing action that it seems to entail at the start. Aside from the level upgrades that you can purchase for your ‘X-Baton’ (your main tool that transforms into the three weapons mentioned above) and ‘Legatus’, each of your Legions have skill trees that become gradually unlockable (given certain materials that you find along the way), as well as specific learned skills that they can be assigned (two at any given time), and ability slots that can be filled to grant some extra useful stat boosts in battle. It all makes for a welcomingly in-depth system of customization and understanding which combination of abilities and skills works best becomes necessary once you delve into the game’s 12th and final File.
What? 12th File? Yes, after defeating the final boss, a post-game chapter becomes available, consisting entirely of combat missions (‘cases’) that really put your mastery of the game’s action sequences to the test. There are around 71 one of these, ranging in difficulty from what amount to the game’s ‘easy’, ‘normal’, and ‘hard’ modes, and your inventory is locked, meaning that you can only rely upon the items given to you at the outset of the case or that become available as you advance.
Here the developers really throw the kitchen sink at you and then some. There are probably something like 20-25 ‘R3 cases’ (the missions featuring the hardest difficulty setting), and in these you face off against waves of enemies, oftentimes multiple chimeras at once that in the main game were individual boss fights. From start to finish, a case can take anywhere from 10-30 minutes, depending upon your expertise, and always looming over you is the possibility that one wrong move or moment of impatience can immediately result in your death, forcing you to restart the case from the beginning. If this sounds like a challenge that might cause you to grow incredibly infuriated, take it from me: it can be incredibly infuriating. But it’s also tremendously fun.
Of the roughly 70 hours that I spent with Astral Chain, probably a third of that time was spent on File 12. I didn’t complete it—not even close—finishing a handful of the R3 cases before finally owning up to the reality that I didn’t have the time, patience, or adroitness to conquer the remaining challenges. It did, however, give me immense respect for the persistence and attention to detail required of both the player who succeeds at the task and developer PlatinumGames in constructing something so formidable, unique, and exhilarating. If it wasn’t for File 12, I honestly think I would’ve had to downgrade my rating; but this portion of the game, despite my utter incompetence, really highlighted why Astral Chain’s brightest spot, its combat, shines as gloriously as it does.
That’s not to say that I don’t have my complaints with the combat or other aspects of the gameplay though, so let me briefly address those issues before we move on to the game’s presentation (and my one other chief complaint that I hinted at earlier).
Like many action games since 1998’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Astral Chain employs a lock-on function to make targeting opponents more precise. The issue here is that a slight flick of the right joystick changes targets, and as the right joystick also controls your camera, in adjusting the latter I often found myself locked on enemies that I didn’t intend to fight, and more frustratingly, they always seemed to be those furthest away from the action. It resulted in some cheap and vexing deaths that had me cursing at the screen on more than one occasion.
Frankly, both the targeting system and the occasionally perplexing angle of the camera felt atrocious at times, a misfortune made more profound because personal failure otherwise always feels fair and obvious insofar as I could pinpoint where in my technique blame ought to be placed. These issues don’t negate everything else that I loved about the gameplay but they do tarnish it.
Stepping outside of combat, much of your time in Astral Chain is spent exploring its levels, usually some linear section of The Ark’s sprawling metropolis or the bizarre alien-world that is the blocky and monochromatic astral plane. In these segments you wander around, talk to bystanders, use your Legion to collect ‘solid corruption’ (the red matter) scattered about, and complete an abundance of mundane, horribly boring fetch quests.
It baffles me that in this day and age (or rather, in 2019 when the game was released) developers still think that they can get away with lazily filling the content of a game with side quests like, ‘carry this stack of boxes across an area without them toppling over,’ or ‘help this poor sap find his dog,’ especially when the dog is less than a 100 meters away and its owner does nothing but feign concern while completely standing idle. And make no mistake about it, seventy-five percent (if not more) of these sorts of side quests or ‘cases’ in Astral Chain are such filler. There’s a few decent minigames thrown in here and there to spice things up (assuming that you don’t dislike minigames) but for the most part I would’ve preferred to ignore these menial chores altogether.
Except, if you wish to get the highest mark on a File, for example, to increase your police rank—and your HP—you have to complete a fair number of these stupid cases (or maybe you’re OCD like me and have to talk to every NPC and help them out with their dumb requests). Worse, if you miss some, and you probably will, you’ll have to go back and redo some portion of that particular File, which inevitably sometimes feels like time wasted. It’s extremely annoying to search high and low for all of the ‘red matter cases’ (these are the errands that affect your rank), only to finish the File and realize that you’ve somehow missed one or two.
Those are my biggest quibbles with Astral Chain’s gameplay. I would consider them substantial shortcomings and yet in spite of them I still had a blast from beginning to end. If anything, that should tell you that while not perfect (is any game truly flawless?), what the game gets right it does so in spectacular fashion, and even my opprobrium for these points is easily overshadowed by the aspects for which I could almost endlessly sing the game’s praises. Among the game’s high points is without a doubt Astral Chain’s presentation.
I don’t know how much money was spent in the production of Astral Chain but in terms of its visuals and sounds, I’m certainly inclined to categorize it as a ‘AAA’ title. With character designs handled by manga artist Masakazu Katsura, the game perfectly nails its unique fusion of anime and realism, with one area showcasing a bustling Times Square-inspired entertainment center, teeming with swanky neon lights, billboards, and massive monitors, while the digital world of the astral plane is a rather drab yet strangely alluring domain that boasts of… various shades of red. Graphically, the game looks great, though it predictably takes a hit when playing in handheld mode. Still, this is a worthy tradeoff considering just how smoothly it runs, whether or not the Switch is docked, and this is all the more impressive given the frenzied amount of moving parts that frequently appear onscreen.
The game’s soundtrack is another source of delight, lead composer Satoshi Igarashi drawing from genres such as (in his own words), ’metal, electronic, and orchestral music,’ with an aim to create tracks that were both ‘modern and cool, with a touch of something inorganic and mechanical about it.’ I’d have to say that the result was a knockout, each tune really capturing the mood of the scene, whether you’re in the game’s central hub, the police HQ, or watching one of the many electrifying cutscenes that fill you with an insatiable urge to kick some chimera tail. Even the theme that plays while I was logged into my task force computer had me bobbing my head. And then, of course, there’s the obligatory lament, ‘Fragments of Hope.’
In speaking of the game’s audio, the voice-acting in Astral Chain also deserves praise. While I preferred to experience the narrative with the original Japanese voiceovers, the little that I played with English dubs selected (the first chapter) actually sounded pretty decent too. Undeniably, Nintendo games don’t typically impress too much on this front, but I was pleasantly surprised with the effort that seemed to go into each event, every spoken line capturing the moment well enough whether it was to express angst, dread, sorrow, or jollity. Here too, Astral Chain delivers. Well, almost.
Earlier I hinted at one major issue that I had with the game’s hero, namely, that he or she never speaks. By and large, and unlike one member of our staff, silent protagonists in video games don’t bother me in the slightest. I can’t recall ever wishing that The Legend of Zelda’s Link or Dragon Quest’s Hero would cut the act and break their vow of silence. But in Astral Chain, the main character’s muteness comes across as merely awkward, as if he or she suffers from a medical condition that goes completely ignored throughout the story, diminishing their personality to the point of it being non-existent.
I found it to be a baffling decision on the part of the developers because your sibling, whether you choose to play as the female or male Howard, is given ample speaking time, meaning someone went through the trouble of recording dialogue for each; yet, for whatever reason, PlatinumGames wholly excluded speech wherein your selected character is concerned. If the aim was to give the player a greater sense of filling a particular role, of actually walking in this character’s shoes, it didn’t pay off, at least not for me.
There is a lot more that I could have covered in this review—photo mode, the cool custom outfits that you can acquire (and a gazillion other superfluous unlockables), cooperative play (allowing a second player to control the Legion, which I truly can’t imagine being much fun for either participant), your IRIS device (a scanner that targets people and places to elicit more information), and toilet faeries (seriously)—but I think I’ve said enough at this point to answer the question that I posed at the outset and to render my verdict.
I feel that my position is somewhat precarious. For every little thing that I loved about Astral Chain, there was probably some fault that I could find with it. In the preceding paragraphs I mentioned my indifference towards its plot, complained about its targeting system in combat, and criticized the timidity of its lead star. All of this put me on the fence after I had watched Astral Chain’s credits roll and spent an additional thirty hours with its post-game content, constantly vacillating between whether or not I felt this to be a really good game or one that merits SwitchRPG’s esteemed label of ‘Great.’
As a side note, this is actually not unlike the situation in which I found myself while writing my last review. In that case, while there was arguably less that I could find objectionable with the game itself, I ultimately had to settle upon the feelings that it elicited, and at the end of the day, it didn’t sit with me quite in the way that I believe ‘Great’ games ought to resonate with a person (this was in the face of anticipated abuse from a certain Gio Pimentel—feel free to let him know on Twitter if you find this bullish behavior towards me as unwarranted as I do).
Back to the point; for me, Astral Chain—despite its flaws—prospers on two points that are as salient as they come in the medium of video games: originality and fun. When a game exhibits both of these elements to the degree that Astral Chain does, not a lot of effort is required to look past its blemishes. Thus, in the final analysis, I have to go with my gut: Astral Chain is a gem. It also deserves far more attention than it has received, obliging me to conclude with two asks: 1. If you haven’t played Astral Chain, go buy it! 2. The Howard twins… Smash Bros... Sakurai, make it happen!