‘Astral Chain’ game review: Nintendo Switch exclusive pushes the boundaries of what an action RPG can be

Tribune News Service

Developed by PlatinumGames of NieR: Automata fame, players will need to learn how to control two characters at once in unique new battle system

Tribune News Service |

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Players control sentient weapons known as 'Legions' in 'Astral Chain', a new action-adventure game from developer PlatinumGames.

Japanese developer 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, and their latest offering Astral Chain continues their record of excellence.

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 can control a Legion and join 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 by talking to witnesses and gathering 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, 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.

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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 at the same time, which is awkward and overwhelming at first.

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.

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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.

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 a small sacrifice to pay for something truly novel, and just like playing an instrument, mastering the game’s unusual systems is extremely rewarding.

Edited by Jamie Lam