Astral Chain: A Link to the Awesome

Astral Chain is an action game developed by Platinum Games and published by Nintendo. It released August 30, 2019, cost $60, and is a Nintendo Switch exclusive.

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To show you my knowledge of over-the-top action titles, I once confused Bayonetta as a character from Devil May Cry. Yeah, it’s not exactly my strong suit… and my initial reaction to Astral Chain’s trailer was lukewarm. But in the months leading up to its release, I kept hearing about Platinum’s impeccable reputation, and I started to reconsider it. By the time I watched the Nintendo E3 Treehouse footage, $60 somehow slipped out of my pocket and a copy of Astral Chain ended up at my door. It all happened so fast.

Basically, the cart that I put into my Switch was an interactive cyperpunk anime. The video you see below is 100% the opening trailer for the game. Was it really Nintendo who published this and not, like, Crunchyroll?

I unironically love the story. I say unironically, because it seems like many reviewers are ashamed to enjoy a stylish anime thrill ride. Just own it, guys!

In the future, humanity finds itself on the brink of extinction as interdimensional monsters cross over from their home, the Astral Plane, into ours. As a member of an elite police force, you begin taking the fight back to their turf. Despite the story taking off at breakneck speeds, the game taught its mechanics well and allowed me enough wiggle room to learn how it worked. Once the combat clicked, I started doing amazing combos — I’d chain the enemy up, then pop off shots with my gun, then follow up with my Legion, then deliver a finishing blow. Cue adrenaline rush.

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“Yeah, take that!” — Me, every 30 seconds while playing this game.

After the tutorial ended, Astral Chain fell into a routine of slice-of-life cop tasks followed by heavy action sequences. These alternating gameplay styles complimented each other well — the high notes felt more exciting, and the quieter moments were welcome respites. The pacing of these beats always felt long enough to feel developed without droning on and losing my attention.

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The main hook for Astral Chain is your otherworldly Digimon Legion that fights alongside you, assists your investigations, and in general helps you be a good neighborhood cop. There are five total, each with their own battle style and overworld abilities. The Beast Legion is speedy, rideable, and can follow a scent trail (but best of all, you can pet him). The Bow Legion, on the other hand, allows you to fire shots at a distance, both for taking out enemies and activating switches, Zelda-style. Since the game throws several different enemies at you, it’s best to learn what each Legion can do and change often. It’s a balanced approach between combo rushing and thoughtful planning, and it always kept me on my toes.

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The most wholesome side quest in the game.

As cool as fighting monsters felt, I actually enjoyed the slower-paced investigation segments more. Each one puts you in a small sandbox with side quests to distract you. I was doing everything from finding a kid’s lost cat, to donning Lappy (the police’s dog mascot suit) in order to cheer up my fellow officers. These tasks, menial as they may seem, helped me feel immersed in Astral Chain’s world to a degree that I wouldn’t have been otherwise. If you’re a fan of the monastery parts of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, then boy do I have an action game for you!

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My problems arose when Platinum threw in so many gameplay elements that some felt unsatisfying. On paper the platforming in the Astral Plane would’ve been fine… but the chain controls was just a little too fast and unwieldy to make precise jumps. And I loved the idea of a quiz at the end of each investigation, but some questions were too vague, leaving several options to be technically correct. I know some people didn’t enjoy the stealth segments, but I found them inoffensive. The story, as exciting as it was, didn’t effectively have motivations for the villiains, nor make fulfilling arcs for the side characters. Your twin character was interesting, but your character is silent and feels out of place. They got close to a great story, but they didn’t quite reach it. Fortunately, the main loop of combat and investigation provided a solid foundation that Astral Chain’s flaws ended up as brief annoyances.

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Even better than the gameplay, however, was the art direction. Platinum managed to establish a gritty, realistic tone without washing out the color. The cel-shaded style with the contrasting blues and reds never stopped impressing me. Never have I been so pleased to look at at fake cyberpunk ads. The animation reminded me of what Power Rangers would’ve looked like if they got a bigger budget. The characters had dynamic, striking poses that showed the effort when they ran or struck an enemy, yet each animation still felt responsive.

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And the UI is one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. Combined with the power-trip combat, this game itself is like a slick anime protagonist, slicing through games with less memorable art direction. I can’t believe this game looks as good as it does without any noticeable framerate drops. It’s by far one of the best-looking games on the Switch.

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In an industry where companies rarely make new IPs, I gotta respect Platinum Games for going out there and experimenting. And just as they took a risk, I went out of my comfort zone with a new genre, and it payed off for the both of us! Astral Chain is an unexpected but welcome addition to my Switch library that does well in balancing out my platformers, adventure games, and JRPGs.

Fantastic job, Platinum, you’ve certainly caught my attention! So how about we work on a Nier: Automata Switch port now, eh?

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