Astral Chain Review: Sent from Another Dimension
SPOILERS: Minor boss and mission spoilers throughout this Astral Chain Review.
The story of Astral Chain is easy to pin down: melodramatic, genuinely hilarious and always over the top. The gameplay on the other hand, not so much. It’s combat has elements of Dragon Age: Inquisition, Diablo 3 and Final Fantasy XV, it’s case solving Detective Pikachu and the Batman Arkham series and it’s puzzles akin to Breath of the Wild Shrines. And then there’s everything else. The strangest customisation options I’ve ever seen, adopting stray cats, freeing a faery locked in a toilet, Lappy the Police dog and fighting off waves of interdimensional demons armed only with a police baton. It all combines to produce one of the most original games released in recent memory, almost as if Astral Chain was created in another dimension and sent back to ours to enjoy. And even if we don’t fully understand it, we still revel in its unquestionable glory.
Astral Chain Review
- Developer: Platinum Games
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Available: Switch, Switch Lite
- Played: Switch (Handheld and Console – both great, although better on the big screen)
Setting the tone
In Astral Chain you play as one of two twins recently enrolled into Neuron. Neuron are a special division of the Police Force created to combat invading Chimeras from another dimension. (The Astral Plane). It’s clear the Chimeric invasion started long ago as all remaining survivors have retreated to the Ark; a megacity in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Times are hard, but Neuron has a trick up their sleeve. Using plot McGuffin technology known as a Legatus (think Ghostbusters Proton Pack meets dog walking chain), Neuron have pacified powerful Chimeras turning them into Legions.
When Astral Chain starts your placed front and centre within its Universe. The opening cut-scene plays with no main menu (a la Breath of the Wild), no exposition and no generic voice over. It’s all directed impeccably, as the character customisation screen cleverly transitions from a clipboard. Moments later you’re racing towards a crime scene on a futuristic Akira-esque motorcycle. Information is blaring over comms while a tense electronic song booms in the background. It’s a masterclass in sensory overload, similar to something like Galactic Assault in Star Wars Battlefront 2.
The sequence concludes with you driving the bike into one lone enemy at high speed. A huge explosion ensues and you’re caught in the blast, yet the next shot shows your character rolling out the other side scratch free. It’s shown in such an unbelievable way that I genuinely laughed out loud. I laguehd again when the opening titles play, set bizarrely to the style of a 90’s sitcom. Within the first ten minutes I was completely uaware where Astral Chain was going. The tone is so bizzarre that I was constantly on the back foot. But over the next 25 hours, prepare yourself for some bombastic action, ludicrous comedy and many over the top set pieces. And to be brutally honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Over the top, but grounded
The story is convoluted, melodramatic and over the top, but utterly brilliant in a kitsch kind of way. Sure, there’s an invasion from another dimension and humanity is stranded at sea, but the plot generally feels grounded, only stepping into unbelievable territory towards the end of the game. This works for the most part because of the relationships between key characters. For example, the twins fight side by side under the watchful eye of the Neuron Captain who, being their father, is worried every time they step into battle. Not only is this relatable, but it adds significant weight to each encounter, as if one of your loved ones were heading out to war. Or at least that was the intention.
The emotional arm of Astral Chain unfortunately falls flat for two reasons. Firstly, your character remains un-naturally silent making it hard for the twin’s relationship to develop. And secondly, most emotional moments are always rushed over, as if they were added at the last minute. (Like when the twins visit old hangouts and reminisce about the past). In fact, other parts of the Astral Chain feel rushed too. At times fully voice acted characters turn mute, replaced only by text to read. Even when characters do speak their mouth movements are so out of sync I couldn’t take my eyes away. It’s clear that time ran out to convert the syncing from Japanese to English, which isn’t a massive issue. But it did stop me from being fully engaged in the high quality cut scenes.
“There are many big wow moments that allow you to get lost not only in Astral Chains plot, but it’s mesmerising world as well”
Minor gripes aside, I enjoyed the story. It lets you kick back, have fun and enjoy the insane blockbuster set pieces on show. (Which are just as over the top as Platinum Games’ previous game, Bayonetta 2). For example, when trying to manage the invasion of a rampaging Chimera, the focus was on spectacle rather than drama. And when sneaking outside city walls, I was completely grounded in reality. I was fully immersed and exploring the ugly side of the Ark – the shanty towns in the Chimera outbreak zone. While these are only two examples, there are many more memorable moments which allow you to not only get lost in Astral Chains’ plot, but in its mesmerising world as well.
Holographic Cat and the Raven
Comedy in video games is a difficult pursuit, yet Platinum Games make it look effortless. The highlight is arguably one of the best video game characters ever put to code; Lappy the Police Dog. A member of Neuron wears this huge mascot outfit to educate kids and induct new Cadets. When it’s your turn to take a tour of the Police Station, Lappy appears out of nowhere and continually startles your character. One minute she’s gone, the next she’s there, each time with an inventive reveal. There are other comedic moments too, like every Police Officer pretending they’re unaware of Lappy’s true identity, or where an upset child pleads to his mother “I wish Lappy was here”. Me too little man, me too…
Outside of humour, the game is quite frankly bizarre. Within each level there are rare collectibles, two of which take the form of stray cats and toilet paper. You’ll go from intense Chimera battles to rolling a tin can towards a cat luring it close enough to “rescue”. Or finding a random port-a-loo tucked away with reams of toilet paper to plunder. You have to collect all toilet paper to free a trapped faery in the Police HQ toilet, like you’re playing a crude version of Pokemon. (Probably called ‘Poo-kemon’). Things get even stranger when customising your character; a holographic cat mask, a perching raven or every toddlers dream, a cardboard box over your head. None of this makes any sense, but you can’t say it’s not original.
Combat has two aspects. Using ZR to attack and ZL to send out your Legion. The Legion auto-attacks, but you can issue commands with X and Y. Holding ZL and using the right-stick moves your Legion, adding strategic elements and a few ingenious uses of the chain. You can bounce enemies back like they’re on the ropes of a wrestling ring, or even bind them to the ground by literally wrapping them in chains. If these actions are successful, there’s a small window to use a sync attack with your Legion. For example, the Beast Legion smashes your weapon into the ground sending out a large shock-wave. Each one of these roughly forty animations is fluid, flashy and always impressive to watch.
It’s your choice how to tackle combat: the weapons you use, the Legion and additional equipment, like missile drones, shields or grenades. But its clear the developers want combat to follow a certain path. If you play on any other difficulty than easy, each encounter is ranked, with higher ranks awarded for variety. As a result, encounters involve cycling through Legions, triggering abilities, activating sync moves and repeating. Overall, it’s an incredible package with strategic elements like Dragon Age: Inquisition as you move your Legion in battle, Final Fantasy XV sync attacks and Diablo 3 ability cycling. Because you’re constantly multi-tasking, each encounter is insanely hectic and more importantly insanely fun.
“Astral Chain challenges you to think about its systems on a much deeper level.”
As with Diablo 3, build options are in Astral Chain. Abilities drop from enemies at random, Legion stats can be boosted and there’s new commands for each Legion to learn. At higher levels the upgrades are tied to a rare material, creating a lite-grind in the end game. By this point Astral Chain challenges you to think about its systems on a much deeper level, which I personally loved. That is, once I’d conquered the initial steep learning curve and endless systems to learn. If that sounds too intense, all of this is completely optional in Unchained mode. Here, combat is assisted, ranks are absent and builds take a back seat. It’s a simple addition, but many games leave this out. I’m just glad this amazing game is open to as many people as possible.
Police Officer Simulator 2019
Astral Chain makes you feel like a Police Officer due to its many Red and Blue cases. Red cases usually involve combat, such as arresting inner city gangs or rescuing civilians from the Astral Plane. They’re simple, but engaging due to the addictive combat. Blue cases follow a more traditional Police Officer route. You’ll go from retrieving a kite from a tree to buying a huge ten scoop ice cream for an upset child. (You have to keep the scoop tower balanced like an upbeat version of Death Stranding). Even picking up litter or using your Legion to clean up Red Matter contamination are part of your daily duties. In both instances, cleaning an area was always cathartic. It was as relaxing as of hoovering up junk in Luigi’s Mansion 3.
Some cases include another key aspect of Police life; crime scene investigations. Similar to the brilliant Detective Pikachu, you explore a semi-open world area and gather testimonies. Other times you use IRIS, which is basically Detective Mode from the Batman Arkham series. A key feature of IRIS is the ability to replay CCTV footage. When Re-watching past events and piecing together each subtle clue I was convinced I was playing a completely different game, perhaps a Police Officer Simulator. The many side cases are not only intriguing, but provided a perfect palette cleanser in between the hectic battles. It all feels masterfully paced too, only dragged down by a handful of filler cases.
Astral Chain Review – Final Thoughts
Astral Chain is exactly the type of game that reminds me why I love this medium. It’s original, genuinely hilarious and simply fun to play through. I was constantly reminded of the Golden Age of single player campaigns during the many outstanding set-pieces. These missions not only created memorable moments, but fun, inventive and unique gameplay too. In the same way I’ll always remember crossing ‘The Bridge’ in Halo 2, I’ll remember chasing a rampaging Chimera, exploring the Ark and balancing a huge ten scoop ice cream during delivery to an upset child. It’s rare for a single player campaign of this caliber to exist in today’s gaming climate, making Astral Chain feel even more refreshing.
But as with most, Astral Chain isn’t perfect. It has small issues with filler cases, rushed character development and a steep learning curve. Whether or not these issues affect you depends on your interest in the story or your preferred play style. On one end of the spectrum is Unchained mode which abandons the obsessive rank chasing and completionism. And on the other, a high difficulty mode that requires perfection for top ranking. But whichever way you chose to play, make sure you do just that. Astral Chain is undoubtedly a must play for the Nintendo Switch, one that I hope reaches other platforms soon. This is a game that nobody should miss out on.
If you’re still on the fence, let’s put the question to Lappy the Police Dog: “Lappy, would you recommend Astral Chain?”
I couldn’t agree more.