PlatinumGames has built its reputation on action titles. The studio behind “Bayonetta” and “NieR: Automata” knows how to make visceral experiences that serve up frenetic, quick-twitch gameplay. The team has that nailed down to a science, but its excellence on that side of development overshadows other aspects of their design.
Namely, many fail to notice the studio’s penchant for taking risks and pushing boundaries. Not all of PlatinumGames’ off-the-wall ideas work — look at “Star Fox Zero” — but when all the elements come together with that action backbone, it’s magic. That’s what happens with “Astral Chain,” a project that looks unimpressive at first glance.
The campaign takes place after an asteroid has struck Earth. The disaster doused the planet with toxic Red Matter and opened a rift to the astral realm. Creatures called chimera poured out of these gates attacked people while spreading their corruption. Humanity built a refuge called the Ark and developed weapons called Legions to fight the chimera. Using the astral chain, people have managed to subjugate chimeras and use the creatures to their benefit.
Players take on the role of a twin who has the affinity to control a Legion. Through a campaign that echoes “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” players find themselves joining a special police force called Neuron and digging deeper into the nature of the chimera and the Legions. Through “Astral Chain’s” 12 case files, they uncover secrets through a narrative that’s fairly predictable but still enthralling.
Part of the reason for that is PlatinumGames leverages the police theme, allowing it to shape the compelling mission design. Each level is broken up into a phase where the protagonist investigates a case. That means she talks to witnesses and gathers information. Along the way, players may also do side missions, many of which are on the amusing side. They show off some of the quirky personalities on the floating city of the Ark as well as the darker elements.
As players re-create crime scenes through the augmented reality technology of the IRIS system, they see a clearer picture of the incident. Once all the information is recovered, a partner quizzes players on the information, and that leads to a break in the case and the second phase — the action.
This often comes in a chase or confrontation. “Astral Chain” shows off a fresh approach to combat. The protagonist has one attack button and a dodge. Players can transform their X-baton into a gun, baton or sword. That’s standard. “Astral Chain” upends the genre by giving players the ability to control the Legion. The move is awkward and overwhelming at first.
Controlling two characters is similar to learning to play the piano with your offhand. Players constantly have to monitor how the two characters dance across the scene. They have to learn how to coordinate their movements for maximum impact in battles.
The Legion is vital because it allows players to deliver stronger blows and ensnare enemies by looping around them. The latter move is how they can control crowds of enemies. Although Legions are powerful, they aren’t invincible. They have a stamina meter that depletes over time and players have to shift them in and out of battle based on their energy levels. In addition, they can be leveled up along with the protagonist’s weapon.
With five Legions to control, players have a lot of tools at their disposal. Each Legion — sword, arrow, arm, beast and axe — are distinct. They each have their own role in combat. Bow handles flying enemies while sword is a good all-around combatant. Arm is slower but packs a punch against heavily armored enemies.
In addition to the combat skills, each Legion has an ability that helps traversal or unlocks new paths in each level. This creates a puzzle-like element to the design of each stage as players try to figure out how to reach an out-of-the-way treasure chest or secret path. Sometimes they’ll need the axe Legion break through a barrier or the beast Legion to run across collapsing platforms.
All of this can be overwhelming and it is. It took me hours to adjust to battling with two characters, but when it finally clicked, “Astral Chain” was a joy to play. It doesn’t demand strict timing. The combat is forgiving with wide windows for players to counter enemy attacks and pull off combos.
What’s even better is that the developers ease players into the Legion’s powers. Each level walks players through the abilities and it gives players time to figure out the ins and outs of weapon.
“Astral Chain” will make players uncomfortable, skill-wise, as they confront unfamiliar gameplay. It’s awkward at first and it can be frustrating, but that’s part and parcel of the experimental experience. It’s a small sacrifice to pay for something truly novel, and just like playing an instrument, mastering the game’s unusual systems is extremely rewarding. When done right, the project is a refreshing change from all the sequels on the market and shows there’s still much to explore in the medium.
3 1/2 stars out of four
Platform: Nintendo Switch
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