Astral Chain (Nintendo Switch) Review


The Nintendo Switch is an awesome console, a fact made all too clear by its astounding library of games. The only “problem”? There are so flipping many good games that I couldn’t begin to afford them all, let alone play them!

Naturally, I have, in fact, been able to sample a decent selection of titles, one of which being the phenomenal Astral Chain. Thanks the generosity of my grandparents (who gave me a Walmart gift card for Christmas 2019), I was finally able to experience Platinum’s latest hit.

Often humorously referenced for its portrayal of “anime cops”, I quickly learned that Astral Chain was so much more than I had previously possibly imagined. Ride along with me today as we dive into this character action staple.

Astral Chain

Developer: PlatinumGames

Publisher: Nintendo

Release date: August 30, 2019


Gameplay

While Astral Chain is formally referred to as an “action-adventure hack-and-slash”, I believe the most suitable description is “Bayonetta meets Luigi’s Mansion”. At this point, I already sound like a crazy person, so allow me to explain the meaning behind this bold proclamation.

First, let’s start with the catalyst for the gameplay to get in the right mindset. As an officer for the ARK police force, using advanced Legion technology and plenty of your own skill, your goal is take to down the antagonist Chimeras while also aiding civilians along the way. Roleplaying a friendly neighborhood police officer was a neat experience.

The basic gameplay loop is so dang satisfying. While the main hook is action combat, a good chunk of the game sees you exploring cities and other environments. The sheer desire to leave no stone unturned, opening chests and solving cases, is what most felt like Luigi’s Mansion to me. The slower, more methodical sections of the game were surprisingly quite fun.

Sometimes, I was able to play little minigames that deviated from the impending doom presented in the overarching plot. Whether I was handing out balloons to passerby or rearranging vehicles in the road—everything will make more sense in context—these diversions were always welcome.

Funnily enough, you’ll even have to answer the occasional multiple-choice quiz reviewing what you learned during your detective stint in each case. (I didn’t always do well on these “tests”, on account of I’m stupid.) This is something that sounds way more boring on paper than it is in practice.

That being said, I should probably spend a bit more time discussing the combat given its prominence. What’s really neat about Astral Chain is that you control two characters at once: Akira Howard and his or her respective Legions.

While the combat is relatively combo-lax, there’s a lot you can do with your Legions once you get the hang of things. I felt so flipping powerful as I zipped about and bashed enemy dudes from behind with the help of my trusty creature companions. More skilled players will surely derive even more fun.

You’ll eventually gain access to five legion types: Sword, Arrow, Arm, Beast, and Axe. These mesh perfectly with your three “X-Baton” weapon forms: Baton, Blaster, and Gladius. Each legion has its own unique attributes that not only deal deadly damage but also help you progress through certain environmental challenges.

While the standard enemies are no cakewalk, things really heat up during boss fights. Every single boss provided me with a genuine sense of awe. After all, who was I to dare oppose such a behemoth? These incredibly varied encounters can be relentlessly tough, but I always appreciated the challenge.

In fact, I’d describe the entire game as exactly that: challenging. Due to the overwhelming weight of each attack animation, I had to be extremely deliberate and precise in how I approached even the simplest of enemies. One minor misstep could result in me taking on crippling amounts of damage.

Thusly, the risk versus reward during combat is absolutely spectacular. I could, say, move in closer to dispatch enemies more quickly, or I could attack from afar to better ensure my safety. My choice is either earning a higher rank or not dying as easily. Internal conflicts like this got my heart pumping.

Luckily for plebs like me, you can stock up on items as a safety net before jumping into the action. The multitude of healing and combat aids at my disposal served not only as a crutch when things got tough but also as a fun way to spruce up physical altercations in general. Grenades, for example, packed a big ol’ punch when unleashed on unsuspecting enemies.

While Astral Chain was often frustrating as all heck, I found it immensely to overcome the many obstacles the game threw at me along the way. This was a rewarding experience through and through, and one that every action game fan should have the pleasure of partaking in.

Content

Astral Chain is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the heftiest games I’ve played in my entire time. When all was said and done, I squeezed [number] long hours out of this $60 triple-A package. If that’s not value, I don’t know what is.

The story is divided into 12 “files”, each of which took me upwards of two hours to complete. With each section requiring such an excess duration to complete, it’s easy to see where my overall number came from. (The twelfth file in particular soaked up at least five hours.)

This sheer bevy of content is spectacular in theory, but it’s a bit more nuanced in practice. While I definitely liked getting my money’s worth, there were some moments throughout the game—most notably at the end of the sixth file—when I really just wanted it all to be over with. By the time I reached the twelfth file, the post-credits epilogue, the length was starting to get to me again, but I was able to push through without too much strife.

With each file consuming so much of my time—and the save system being somewhat unclear—there were also periods when I’d leave my Switch in sleep mode for days as I came back intermittently to knock out the story and finally quit. I admittedly didn’t like having my console tied to one game for so long, even if the Switch’s portable nature mitigated the nuisance considerably.

On the bright side, I can’t say it was the gameplay that drove me crazy, as it never felt too stale or drawn out. The desire to reach the conclusion mostly came from my personal aversion to spending ridiculous sums of time on a single video game. What can I say? I’m a busy man.

But you know what? One I was finally done with everything, I had finally come to terms with the length and realized I genuinely enjoyed my time with the game. Could some of the fat have been trimmed for a more streamlined experience? Absolutely, but I’m plenty happy with what we got.

There are various cosmetics to unlock as another means of extending your playtime. To be quite honest, I acquired very few dress-up items throughout my tenure and have very little desire to seek them out now. I didn’t even know where to begin when looking for these enhancements, so I figured it would be healthier for me to move on.

In theory, I could squeeze even more value out of this title by playing through again as the male Akira Howard, but I promise you that’s not happening any time soon. I only just now recovered from the first playthrough.

Controls

As I mentioned earlier, Astral Chain is surprisingly lenient in regards to combos. Even so, I feel that there still lays a fair bit of complexity within the controls for diligent players to study and (eventually) master.

What sets Astral Chain apart from its contemporaries is the ability to control two characters at once: the player character (Akira Howard) and their Legion. With the legion controls mapped to the left analog stick/triggers and the player controls on the right analog stick/triggers, I quickly got the hang of things.

That being said, you do have to a juggle a lot of buttons at any given time, whether you’re patrolling the streets or in the heat of battle. Outside of the legion and player character movement I mentioned earlier, you can also change weapons, view notes, and snap photos with the directional buttons.

Under particularly high-stress enemy encounters, even so far as 50 hours into game, I’d sometimes accidentally enter camera mode instead of changing weapons, which really messed me up. Again, it didn’t take me long to adjust, but it’s worth mentioning.

The only time I truly disliked the controls was in co-op mode. I dunno…it never felt totally “right” to me. Allocating one Joycon to each player was uncomfortable compared to, you know, using a full controller. Then again, the entire mode never feel right to me, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.

As long as you possess some level of dexterity, I think you should be able to pick up the controls with practice. Sure, that makes the experience a bit less “pick-up-and-play” in nature, but I’d say the depth is worth the work. The controls are overall quite functional.

Graphics/Presentation

When I first laid eyes on Astral Chain, I was abso-freaking-lutely blown away by its luster. I vividly remember thinking that it was the first game I had played in a long time that looked distinctly “modern”.

While I love lower-budget indie games to death, I play so many of them that I often forget what’s possible with today’s gaming hardware. Astral Chain showed me the true capabilities of the Nintendo Switch and immediately blew me away. I had no idea games could push polygons quite like this.

Even better, these pulse-pounding action sequences and luscious environments run like a dream—an extremely important metric for an action game to meet. I kid you not when I say that I only remember the game slowing down once in all the time I played it, and that was in handheld mode.

Since my eyes aren’t trained to recognize such a thing, I can’t numerically express the resolution quality, but I can assure you the game looked as crisp as a gosh darned Pringle at all times. Take that simile as you will.

It certainly helps that the art style, much of which was guided by character designer Masakazu Katsura, is downright jaw-dropping. While the human characters are pretty usual anime/manga fare, it’s the Astral Plane chimera designs that seriously go all out. I’d never seen anything like them before.

Overall, the visuals just have this really nice vibe to them that I can’t exactly qualify. When I was in the normal human world, everything felt very blue and cool. But when I was in the Astral Plane, the universe around me was red and deadly. I know it’s pretty elementary of me to describe the game’s environments in colors, but it’s honestly not a bad way to express what I mean.

The box art is especially delightful in immediately conveying exactly what this game is all about. With the two default versions of Akira Howard and their legion on full display, I couldn’t help but crave the cartridge inside the case. Even cooler is the hand-drawn art on the reverse side of the insert.

One thing I think would’ve been really beneficial, though, is an instruction manual. There was so darn much for me to sink my teeth into that I almost felt overwhelmed without some sort of written companion tucked inside the case. (Plus, such a booklet sure would’ve helped me complete this review.) It’s a shame instruction manuals are no longer the norm.

But hey, that’s a silly complaint on my part. It’s impossible for me to deny the sheer awesomeness of Astral Chain’s aesthetics. Heck, I’d say the story and art rival that of the televised Shonen anime.

Sound/Music

Sound design is another department in which Astral Chain truly excels. Even if I didn’t always appreciate the audio to the degree that I should have—something we’ll discuss at greater length below—I’m still surely convinced of its quality.

First things first: The score is top-notch. Within this extensive soundtrack, you’ll find a wide variety of sounds, from the electronic to the operatic and everything in between. Lead composer Satoshi Igarashi did a phenomenal job striking just the right tone with each of his compositions.

I think the highlights for me were the vocal tracks, boss themes, and more dramatic anthems. If I had to pick, some of my favorites tracks would include “Savior”, “Jena Anderson”, “Dark Hero Female ver.”, “Noah Prime”, and “The Answer”. Given the volume of tunes available, it’s a bit hard to choose, but I generally enjoyed the high-energy tracks the most.

I should probably admit that, as much as I adored the soundtrack, I spent a portion of my playtime not listening to it. Not because I didn’t like the music—goodness, no—but instead because I had spent so much time listening to it already that I needed a change. It was often a better use of my time to multitask, listening to the YouTube videos while playing Astral Chain on mute.

Don’t take that as a dig to Igarashi’s score, though. Even if some frequently used tracks (from the Astral Plane in particular) became a tad tiring, I certainly appreciated the increasingly grandiose songs I was treated as I progressed through unique areas in the game.

As for other aspects of the sound design, I can’t say anything falters. The voice acting, while fairly standard dubbed Japanese media fare, has moments of raw emotion, especially from Aleks Le as the male Akira Howard. Again, because I didn’t play as a male, I didn’t get to experience a fully voiced female Akira, but what I’ve seen of Brianna Knickerbocker’s performance online seems good.

One thing’s for sure: the sound effects pack a gargantuan wallop. The intensity of each slash, blast, and boom was positively electrifying from the first hour to the last. I’d even argue that the excellent sound effects help a great deal with timing attacks during combat.

Despite how little research I conducted beforehand, I went into Astral Chain thinking I knew exactly what to expect. I’ll gladly admit that my expectations were way off the mark. Bayonetta this is not.

Obviously, the less traditional nature of this hack-and-slash doesn’t make it a bad hack-and-slash—quite the contrary, in fact. This is one of the best big budget games I’ve played in recent memory. While I can’t deny that the length dragged on a bit longer than I’m used to, I also can’t deny that I enjoyed the time spent.

If it’s not clear by now, I highly recommend Astral Chain to fans of PlatinumGames’ output and character action titles in general. I sincerely hope that you’ll reap the same excitement from it that I did.

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