Astral Chain – Fast or slow, this one is pure Platinum

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From the makers of Bayonetta comes Astral Chain, a police action title in the vein of every shōnen anime ever, plus a bunch of video games. Shades of Bayonetta, Bungie’s ancient action title Oni and a few more besides live inside this intense action thrill-ride. Honestly, we weren’t expecting anything else from developers PlatinumGames. See also: Nier: Automata, Vanquish, Bayonetta 2, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

Isn’t this how Pokémon starts?

There’s a fairly familiar premise involved here. You are one of two twins – male or female – recruited to wield a Legion for specialist police unit Neuron. A Legion is a tamed denizen of the Astral Plane, a dimension attempting to break through to our reality. Invisible monsters (known as Chimeras), mass civilian casualties, and you as the sole hope of mankind?

Your father is there, but he goes missing early on. There’s a strange police crew of odd types who would make suitable Gym Leaders. There’s a Professor Oak sort, if the good Prof was willing to let his charges risk life and limb to… wait, that actually happens. It’s just a little more adult here. Even so, it feels like a Pokémon plotline to us and we’re all Officer Jenny.

You’re dropped in the deep end, fighting off these invisible monsters with some fairly high-end police gear; but then you get your Legion assistant and the whole game changes. Depending on your difficulty setting, you’re either in for a roller-coaster of awesome no matter what you do (recommended for newbies to Platinum titles) or a roller-coaster of awesome that calls for actual skill, timing, and tactics. We prefer the second option but the first is nice too. There’s enough spectacle here to float a Coliseum or two.

Quick on the trigger

But to get to that spectacle, you’ll have to develop a little skill. Prime is player control of their character, as well as their Legion. The Legion can be summoned for short bursts, where it’ll fight on its own, but it’ll also take direction. Tactical movement of your Legion in and out of combat, summoning or dismissing it at the right time, and controlling your police-person while you’re at it, are all skills that quickly develop. Combat feels clunky at the outset but that fades fast. PlatinumGames know action games and what seems difficult at first rapidly becomes second nature.

Eventually, you’ll be balancing your character movement with Legion movement in a battlefield. This is tricky to do at first because you’re holding at least four points in your head — your and your Legion’s location, as well as the location of the two (or more) enemies you’re fighting. Predicting where those enemies are going, where you should be, and how to synergise with your Legion will account for most of your early errors. Syncing those movements, to the point where you’re a dodging, slashing, shooting, ass-kicking machine with a similarly badass Pokémon ripping through enemies seems out of reach at first. Platinum has done their hone-work here, though. You’ll pick it up, even if it’s by osmosis. And if you’re not skilled enough for that, there’s always Easy mode.

Slow down there, bucko

It’s not all explosions, bright lights, and high-speed chases. There’s some lite RPG-style upgrading and crafting. There are more than a few sedate sections where you’ve got to slow down and actually be a police-person. This means the odd investigation, helping civilians, and generally being… well, law-abiding. There are even side-quests to explore while you’re out saving the world from the invisible threat with your enslaved member of the Astral Plane.

You’d think that an adrenaline-fuelled rampage like this would suffer from these sections. You’d think incorrectly. The breaks in the action, indeed the general slowing down of Platinum’s usually all-frenetic pace, give players a chance to appreciate just how much detail the developers have crammed into Astral Chain. It’s not just the scenery, though that looks as good as ever. Movement and animation have been refined to a fine point, which seems like an almost pointless exercise. You’ll only see some of these details if you’re slowing the game down to a frame-by-frame shot and yet… they’re there. You won’t see all of the effort that went into this one, but you’ll see more than you would in, say, Bayonetta. Human eyes aren’t fast enough to keep up so it’s neat to be able to slow down now and again.

A teeny little roadblock

Lest you think it’s wall-to-wall perfect, it’s… not, really. Players can (lightly) customise their character, whether it’s the male or female twin. However, whichever character is picked is rendered mute for the duration of the game. We get the idea — you’re supposed project yourself onto this blank canvas — but the storyline and character interaction would flow a whole lot better if the developers had kept control of the story and actually voiced the protagonist.

And then there’s the voice acting. It sounds as though most of the dialogue is a straight translation from Japanese. There are ways to do this and make it flow naturally but that typically involves quite an extensive rewrite and some parallel planning. That hasn’t taken place. It’s not a dealbreaker, though. Some of the dialogue will sound clunky and wooden but not to the extent that it’ll have an impact on your enjoyment of the game. And if you’re enough of a pedant that it does, you’ve got bigger problems than a shy-of-perfect action game.

Astral Chain Verdict

Astral Chain, broken down, is Bayonetta slowed down and with all the sex stripped out. The result is a fast-paced game that gives you space to breathe and appreciate the beauty around you – before asking you to kick a bunch of said beauty in the face as hard as you can. There are downsides – the voice acting is a little wooden – but the combination of nigh-perfect, imaginative combat, excellent music, gameplay variety and balanced storyline make Astral Chain a must-play for Switch owners

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