It’s hard to know what to expect from a game with a title like Astral Chain. It’s a name that calls to mind things like astrological and arcane philosophy books. But in reality, it’s the latest release from Platinum Games, a studio best-known for stylish action games like Bayonetta, Vanquish, and, more recently, Nier: Automata, a collaboration with idiosyncratic director Yoko Taro. Astral Chain is full of thrilling action sequences, but in most ways, it’s completely unlike any other Platinum game.
Really, it’s unlike anything I’ve played before. It’s a cyberpunk police anime about an interdimensional invasion that blends action, puzzle-solving, platforming, and detective work. There are plot threads about stray cats and the future of humanity, and your main weapon is a powerful being that’s tethered to you by a chain. Astral Chain is equal parts weird, exciting, and endearing, and it’s one of the most refreshing games of the year so far.
Astral Chain wastes no time. The opening credits roll by while you ride a motorcycle across a busy futuristic street, explosions going off around you. It’s intense and thrilling before you even know what you’re doing. The game puts you in the role of one of two twins — you choose whether you play as the male or female sibling — who are part of an elite police force in Ark, a sci-fi megatropolis located on a human-made island in a future where humanity is on the brink of collapse. Oh, and the city is also under attack: strange creatures called chimera keep appearing, pulled in from what appears to be a different dimension. It’s an odd and often confusing setup, but it also allows the game to constantly shift around, sending you to different places doing very different things.
The game is divided into a few different parts. There’s the combat, which has the stylishness you’d expect from a Platinum title — even if you just mash buttons, you’ll look cool — but with a very specific twist. Aiding you in battle are creatures called legions. They’re kind of like a cross between a pokémon and a weapon, and they’re tethered to your body with an ethereal chain that stays strapped to your wrist at all times.
You’ll unlock multiple legions throughout the game, each with different skills and abilities, and you can swap them in and out via a weapon wheel-like pop-up menu. One is basically a floating suit of armor, while another is a metallic dog creature. You can toss them out in battle, and they’ll fight autonomously. You can also chain together attacks with the main character you control. It takes some getting used to; controlling two characters at once can be clunky at times, especially when there’s a lot going on. But it also helps give Astral Chain a very distinct feel.
At other points, you’ll have to do your regular job of being a cop, heading into the city to investigate everything from missing persons to subway bombings. You’ll search for clues and talk to witnesses, and you’re aided by an AR system that picks out points of interest. You also get help from your legions. The dog-like creature can track clues via scent and then dig things up, while the armor is strong enough to lift heavy objects from trapped victims. It’s like having a partner who does whatever you say. They can even eavesdrop on problematic witnesses.
The game is spread across a handful of very different environments. In between missions, you can hang out at the police station and train, change your outfit, or relax in the break room and talk to a sentient vending machine. Most of the investigation sequences, meanwhile, take place in various districts of Ark, from malls to city squares. And then there’s the whole interdimensional menace, which will regularly pull you into a glitchy world full of strange monsters, lots of platforming sequences, and environmental puzzles that make use of your legions’ myriad abilities. There’s a nice balance between intense, all-out action and the more cerebral moments.
On their own, none of these elements are what I’d call great. The combat is interesting, but it can feel awkward at times. The platforming and puzzles are generally very straightforward, and the investigations are linear so it doesn’t always feel like you’re figuring things out on your own. But when you put them all together and quickly jump between them, it just feels right, which makes it easier to ignore the flaws.
It helps that Astral Chain’s world, as weird as it is, feels fully realized, filled with all kinds of clever worldbuilding details. There are the talking vending machines, holographic crosswalks that force you to obey the law, and cars that look like they’re about to start hovering above the street. The game’s tone fluctuates as often as its playstyle. There are serious, melodramatic moments involving death and destiny, but also lighthearted scenes starring police mascots in dog costumes. Also, one of the precinct’s toilets is haunted.
Astral Chain tries to be so many different things that it can be hard to describe what it actually is. But that’s also what makes it so interesting. It’s flawed and confusing, heartfelt and electrifying. It’s the kind of thing you can’t put a label on — or a name that lets you know what you’re in for.
Astral Chain is available now on the Nintendo Switch.
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