By Chris Melchin / September 24th, 2019
|Release Date||August 30th, 2019|
|Age Rating||ESRB – Teen|
I won’t pretend that I have the most experience with the work of PlatinumGames. I’ve played several of Nier: Automata’s endings (although not all of them yet, I know I’m a bit late to that train), a bit of Bayonetta, and quite a bit of Infinite Space, as well as Okami from Clover Studios. That being said, Astral Chain still got my attention when it was revealed with its slick, shiny urban sci-fi presentation and exciting gameplay, and I jumped at the chance to review it when it came up.
Astral Chain follows the Howard twins, a brother and sister, one of whom the player customizes, names, and plays as throughout the game while the other is a major NPC named Akira. They and the other characters live in a city on a massive artificial island known as the Ark, which serves as the last vestige of humanity following the corruption of the rest of the Earth. The corruption comes from portals that started opening to the Astral Plane, which also produced monsters known as chimeras with a vendetta against humanity. The Howard twins join the Ark’s police force to help resist the corruption, eventually being recruited into a special division known as Neuron, specially equipped to fight against the chimeras themselves. They are paired with a bound creature called a Legion, which they control in combat to give them an edge against the corruption by becoming a Legionis.
The game is divided into 12 “files” – essentially chapters – and each one has several objectives known as Cases with a generally consistent chapter structure throughout. At the start of each file (after the first one) you’re at Neuron HQ, where you have the opportunity to buy field supplies, customize your outfit and legion colors, talk to your fellow officers, and replay previous files. Once you leave HQ, you’re usually sent to a mission hub, which varies depending on which file you’re playing. In the hub you can take on minor objectives which range from helping civilians, to capturing petty criminals, to closing any Astral Plane gates that you happen to find. I actually found myself liking how mundane some of these objectives were – one of them was taking ice cream to a child who’d dropped theirs – it gives a kind of grounding to the setting. One of the hubs is essentially a futuristic reimagining of Times Square, in addition to a variety of relatively run-down residential areas and slums. The whole world feels and looks lived-in, as well as having occasional little details that I appreciate, such as needing to wait for the light to change colors before you can cross the street, and the vending machines having diverse AI personalities that you can interact with.
Often the first part of the file’s main objective consists of gathering information, which is done by talking to civilians and completing any objectives they give you. Any important points they give you are compiled in your police notes, and after collecting them all you’ll need to summarize what you were told and use that to determine where you should go next. Some chapters, especially later in the game, take on a more linear, combat oriented structure, but many of the chapters start out more open-ended. There’s a lot to find in each area, such as buried and otherwise hidden items, stray cats, a special golden slime chimera, and toilet paper for the toilet faerie that lives in the bathroom.
Aside from exploring and talking to civilians, the other and probably most significant aspect of the game is fighting against chimeras and corrupted humans known as Aberrations. While the game starts out with fairly simplistic combat in the first couple chapters, starting out with the protagonist alone and then only giving partial control over your Legion, from the third chapter onward you have full control over both characters. Astral Chain was directed by Nier: Automata’s lead designer Takahisa Taura, and it shows, with the combat in the early chapters being generally similar to that game’s combat. However, once it gives you full control over your various Legions it starts differentiating itself.
The combat is the core of Astral Chain, and even with how I enjoyed the setting and exploration, the combat is what will make me keep coming back for postgame content. It’s incredibly fast-paced and has a lot of depth, but the options at your disposal never feel overwhelming, especially since it gives you each of the five different Legions one by one. The way the game uses the Astral Chain that binds you to your Legion is ingenious as well, with options such as wrapping the chain around enemies to bind them for a Chain Bind, stringing the chain across the path of a charging enemy to launch them back for a Chain Counter, and moving the Legion across a gap to have it pull you towards it in a Chain Jump. You have mostly full control over the Legion’s movement, pressing ZL to summon it, and moving the right stick while holding ZL to control it. You can also press ZL to have it attack the targeted enemy or return to your side, as well as using ZL for any Legion command attacks that it has learned and Sync Attacks that can be done after regular attack strings or certain other times. ZR, meanwhile, is used for regular attacks. There’s a lot of other things that can be done with the Legion that would take too long to list here, but the system is impressively deep and adds a great amount of nuance and possibilities both to combat and exploration.
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