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Astral Chain Review: Gameplay Impressions, Videos and Speedrunning Tips

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistAugust 26, 2019

Nintendo

PlatinumGames stands alone for its unique games and ambition within its offerings, so it is no wonder its latest, Astral Chain for the Nintendo Switch, has been riding a groundswell of hype since its announcement in February.  

Astral Chain is the latest from the creators of games like Nier: Automata and Bayonetta, so it isn't hard to see some of the widely praised influences there in this stylish, anime-cop tale with humanity's extinction as the backdrop.

And that's just the beginning. The gameplay takes some never-before-seen risks that mostly land in a positive manner, and the surrounding worldbuilding offers an interesting break between bouts. 

If nothing else, Nintendo's Switch has another monster on its hands with the expected dips and peaks of a game willing to go against the norm. 

     

Graphics and Gameplay

The first thing that sticks out about Astral Chain is the visuals. 

One does not need to watch a trailer long to see the beauty there. The stylized anime look is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and perhaps the best-looking game to date on the Switch. It won't win over players who prefer a realistic look, but it's hard not to appreciate the details. 

Other than a vibrant color palette like a manga page come to life, the attention to detail is astounding. Shadows are realistic and constant. Ripples course over the ground where a Legion hovers above. The environments are varied and distinct, too. Once it all goes in motion, it is fluid and impressive to see. 

The sound design plays a role there, too. Lip-synching seems all out of wack, but the sounds are well done throughout. The audio feedback when properly executing timed combos or calling or severing the link to a Legion add needed layers to the experience, something even crisper in handheld mode with a headset like an Astro A10 to make it pop. 

Once players can get past the visuals, the second thing players will notice is the gameplay. 

There isn't an easy way to sum it up. Players control the on-screen character like they would another action game. But they also command one Legion out of five at a time, which is a monster hitched to an Astral Chain. Think a live-action Pokemon but the trainer is also in there mixing it up with enemies. 

It evolves from there. Players serve as a puppetmaster of sorts and can swap between any of the five Legions once unlocked.

The Sword Legion gets up close and personal. The Arrow Legion can fight from afar. The Beast Legion can let the player hop on its back, and so on. Each Legion has its own extensive skill tree, abilities it can learn and special traits. The Arm Legion can pick up big objects and toss them at foes, for example. 

But even at a more basic level, the gameplay is a joy to experiment with. Players control the character with the left stick and the Legion with the right. The chain itself comes into play—flick the Legion off in the opposite direction when an enemy charges and it rebounds off the chain and goes flying. Circle the Legion around an enemy and the Astral Chain snares it, capturing it for some freebie combos. 

It's all a great-feeling experience with plenty of depth and nuance on a per-enemy and per-encounter basis. That same line of thinking applies to exploring the world.

The only major hiccup with the latter is when the game tries to become a platformer. Using the Legion to hover to another platform, then whipping the chain to make a jump seemed as inconsistent as it gets, as did simply falling off legends—sometimes the character would wobble and step back, other times they would just run right off. This problem gets worse when there is added pressure from enemies or it is part of a big encounter. 

This isn't an open-world game. Rather, players jump from hub to hub. Though it has probably been a big part of the promotion, the motorcycle scenes are brief on-the-rails types with little replayability. Thankfully, exportation and some of the side quests are a little more in-depth with an assist from the IRIS system. 

The implementation of IRIS is fun, though nothing out of the ordinary. This game's version of detective vision can show events that unfolded in the past and assist with solving them, offer up info on characters throughout the world and can assist in solving puzzles. 

There are a few hiccups with IRIS. One is the voice telling the player when it is turned on and off each time the button is pressed, as if the dramatic shift in visuals wasn't enough of a clue. Those players who like to be thorough or double-check things should get ready to hear the voiceover with each press of the button. 

And on the visuals front with IRIS, while equally gorgeous to the world without the detective goggles on, things can get messy. The blueish hues don't play nice with the reds of the Astral Plane, and it can get incredibly tough to make out must-see details or what to do next, especially in the Switch's handheld mode. 

One thing that hasn't been getting a ton of attention but absolutely should is cleansing the environments. Players can guide their Legion over "red matter" spread throughout the levels. Some of it is there as a guide to help the player to the next area, but most of it takes some creativity or going out of the way to get, and players are awarded a score at the end of each File for cleanup rate. It's an unexpected, addicting diversion, almost with a Mario-coins feel. 

Exploring the world and solving puzzles is a nice diversion at times, but, ultimately, Astral Chain doesn't go overly out of its way to string all of the Legion's abilities together within a single boss fight or even levels. Maybe that was viewed as asking the player to recall way too much on the fly within one fight or level encounter. But although the various abilities seem to have massive potential for set pieces, they rarely come together in an all-at-once flurry. 

Even then, players who want to take their time exploring a strong world can do so. On the combat side, one playthrough didn't seem like nearly enough to fully capitalize on the cast of Legions, abilities and sheer depth. 

       

Story and Features

Where to start? Players pick one of two siblings (man or woman) and are part of a special police task force called Neuron. The threat to the last bastion of human civilization is an extra-dimensional threat called Chimera, which hail from the Astral Plane. To combat this, humans have weaponized beasts called Legions from that Plane via the use of Astral Chains. 

And that's just setting up the baseline situation, folks. 

This is about what anyone should come to expect from a silly anime story (not a bad thing). There's a ton of silent nodding, weird humor and tropes. The plot seems to have the need to escalate upon itself constantly, so things get weird fast once beasts that can scale entire buildings start popping up. Players might never really be sure which characters to care about, as a big bad seems pretty relatable (also not a bad thing), but so do others. 

Maybe the most notable thing about the story is the silence from the main character. A silent protagonist can work wonders in the right setting (think Skyrim), but that isn't the case here. Players projecting themselves on to these characters don't work when the opposite sibling they don't choose ends up fully voiced for the duration of the game. It seems like a big missed opportunity to create two new strong characters, especially when games in this developer's past have had great standouts like Bayonetta. 

The silliness of the plot works a bit to overshadow some strong worldbuilding found throughout the game for those who care to look, so this isn't some surface-level story without depth as an excuse for some fun gameplay and pretty visuals. 

Besides combat, there is a ton to do, but that doesn't mean it is always enjoyable. That's where pacing issues enter the discussion. 

Some of this falls on the visuals, especially once the IRIS system gets involved. Especially in handheld mode, trying to discern what the detective vision is showing can really slow down a play session. 

There's a camera, for example. Running around snapping off selfies with characters is a nice option to have, and it's also cool taking photographs of extensive bios from character unlocks for players to read at the home base, which fleshes out the world. 

But it's a little bit like some of the side missions within Files—why are main characters with extra-dimensional beasts on their wrist dropping everything to help guide a dog back to its owner in the slums when they are facing the extinction of humanity? 

It's all in good fun and in the name of player agency, though. Having those features doesn't overly hurt the experience. What does are pace-ruining puzzles and some random stealth missions with the dreaded auto-fail functionality. They don't come up often, but when they do, it feels like the game biting off a little more than it can chew. 

Similar to nearly everything in the game, there is a good-bad balance with the tutorials. The system on its own is a tough sell: players control not only themselves but also one of five beasts with different abilities and skill trees while also juggling items, all in real-time. 

To the game's credit, the tutorial system is superb early on and does a good job of helping players acclimate to their surroundings and the not-so-intuitive default controls.

This prevents the first few Files of the game becoming disasters. But that barrage of tutorials early in the game tasks the user with quick on-the-fly recall once things start happening. There is simply so much going on that it wouldn't be too surprising to hear about players who got to the final few levels of the game and completely forgot features, like upgrading the character's weapons in a different menu from the one that upgrades Legions. 

That's where some more of the depth comes into the conversation here. Players can upgrade the weapons they hold on top of upgrading each of the five Legion's extensive skill trees. Not only that, there are items like drones that can be bought and help dole out damage in fights. There are also a variety of aid items that can not only restore health but prevent stuns and more. 

If Astral Chain sounds like an extensive game, that's because it is. There isn't an overwhelming number of Files to complete before getting to the end, but how long they take is almost entirely up to the player.

There are side items to explore and rather thorough customization possibilities, too. Multiple playthroughs on different difficulties (one even makes combat a breeze so players can enjoy the story) and the depths of these systems mean this is far from a play-once-and-put-down affair. 

        

Speedrunning Tips

Based on the above, it isn't hard to figure out why Astral Chain has some great speedrunning appeal. 

Mastery of combat, the multiple Legions and dissecting the best ways to combine all of the abilities is something only a small percentage of would-be speedrunners will ever accomplish. This smacks of popular speedrunning games of a similar ilk, like Bayonetta, but more complicated. 

Luckily, some early basics should help a would-be runner get off the ground. The type of run is going to change some things, as a 100-percent run while cleansing entire levels on the hardest difficulty would be a monster task (that speedrunners will admittedly have no problem with in time).

Cutscenes are skippable, for starters. From a world-navigation standpoint, there are entire sections of enemies players can just run past. Skipping out on all side missions, if permissible by the run itself, is going to be another key factor in run times. Typically, the game does a good job of showing what is necessary for moving the plot ahead. 

In combat, it's more of a player's choice. On paper, juicing up the first Legion (Sword) with as many points as possible makes for quick fights. The second (Arrow) is a bit handier in boss fights for doling out damage from range, though. 

Of note, Legion abilities are going to be a fixture of any run. The Auto Bind ability, in particular, is key—instead of taking the time to draw a circle with an analog stick around an enemy and entrapping it with the chain, a press of an ability button will do it, provided the player doesn't get hurt while the Legion does it on its own. That opens up bosses to big damage without a counter. 

Strategies for run completions are going to massively evolve over time, which should lead to an organic following in the speedrunning arena for a game already sure to live on for a long while. 

     

Conclusion

Nintendo

Astral Chain is exactly what gamers have come to expect from PlatinumGames—and then some. 

There isn't quite anything that looks or plays like Astral Chain on the market today, which is another boon for the Switch's library. Thanks to detailed difficulty settings and plenty of non-combat things to accomplish, this is one of the more robust games released in 2019 so far. Hardcore players and speedrunners will get a kick out of the depth, but a broader crowd can pick it up and play without any hassle. 

While it isn't without hiccups, Astral Chain is an achievement as a standalone release that won't have problems standing the test of time, but those who pick it up wouldn't mind if it becomes the first in a series, either.