You've probably heard the name PlatinumGames before. It's the team behind many acclaimed action games, including the Bayonetta franchise, the widely-acclaimed NieR: Automata, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. If you're a Microsoft fan, you may remember the company was once working on an Xbox One exclusive called Scalebound, which ended up being canceled.

PlatinumGames has had a close relationship with Nintendo for some time, since the console maker stepped in to help fund the development of Bayonetta 2. That title was, in return, exclusive to the ill-fated Wii U, until its re-release on the Switch. The latest result of this close relationship is Astral Chain, a new action game that builds upon the company's experience, and takes things up a notch.

Plot

Astral Chain tells the story of a futuristic world where the Earth has been taken over by chimeras which suddenly started appearing after a meteor crashed on the planet. Humanity has taken refuge in an artificial island called the Ark, which is supposed to be safe from the invasion. Handling the threat of chimeras and the corruption they carry is the Neuron Task Force, a special division of the police, which uses beings known as Legions to fight the chimeras. Legions are actually a kind of chimera that the Neuron Task Force has found a way to take control of using a device called the Legatus.

You play as one of two twins which have recently been recruited to join the Neuron Task Force, as it attempts to fight back the growing threat of chimeras. You're given the choice between the male and female siblings, but both are central to the story regardless. The story develops with a focus on the two leads, but there's a wide cast of characters in the game's world, which you learn more about through main and side missions alike. Every notable character is unique and develops an interesting relationship with the player or other characters, making the game all the more interesting. Even characters that seem irrelevant at first may show up repeatedly, making them feel more important.

The action takes place between the Ark and the Astral Plane, a twisted dimension that serves as the home of the chimeras, as you try to uncover the truth behind them and find a way to stop the threat permanently. I may not have the best judgment on storytelling, but I did feel like Astral Chain guided me perfectly through the plot, providing a true feeling of character development and progression both in terms of the story and the player's abilities in battle and how those two elements connect. The story itself is fairly basic, but it's told in a very entertaining and effective way.

Visuals and presentation

The plot also benefits from beautifully crafted cutscenes, which happen for the major plot points in the game. These scenes feel incredibly cinematic, and they're very compelling to watch. The solid animation and visuals are coupled with voice acting that's much better than I expected, making the whole experience feel almost like a movie or a TV show. This sort of cinematic feel is taken further in the introduction sequence, with staff credits showing up as you go through your first bike chase. Once you complete the tutorial, you even get shots of every major character, with their respective names and the names of their voice actors. It really does feel like a movie.

Even outside these major moments, the game is one of the most gorgeous I've played on the Nintendo Switch. It shines most in the center of the Ark, where the city lights and signs make the game feel vibrant and alive, but other areas are still very well crafted, including the Astral Plane. Battle animations for all the attacks and actions you can take are also beautiful. I've seen someone complain that the game runs at just 30 frames per second by default. I'm more surprised the game runs on the Switch at all - even with some small dips in framerate in more intense scenarios, which, in my experience, seemed consistent in both handheld and TV modes.

As I said above, the voice acting, at least in English, is very good for the majority of the characters, with the outliers sometimes feeling more intentionally awkward than bad per se. On the topic of audio, the soundtrack isn't something I had to think about while playing the game, and that's a good thing. At every point in the game, I always felt like the music was right for what I was doing, with harder beats kicking in during battles, and slower songs adding the right touch to some of the slower moments. Overall, the game is very well presented.

Combat

Fast-paced, action-packed combat is PlatinumGames' home turf, and Astral Chain lives up to everything you've come to expect of the company. It's fast, it's fluid, it feels connected, and it's presented beautifully. Your human character on its own can use one of three weapons - a baton, a sword, and a gun - each of which a solution for a different kind of enemy. The combat feels a little more thoughtful than something like Bayonetta, because you can't switch weapons as quickly, and so you have to be a little more careful with how you approach enemies. That doesn't take away any of the fun or intensity of the action, though.

Of course, you're not playing with just your human character, as you have your Legion, the converted chimeras mentioned above, to help you. There are a total of five Legions that you gain access to as you play through the game, and they all introduce significantly different elements and twists to the flow of battle. Not only does each Legion have its own abilities and attacks, they may also combine differently with the each of the weapons your human character can wield.

This adds up to a ton of variety and fun elements that make planning a fight and taking on enemies so enjoyable and rewarding. You can use the Sword Legion combined with your baton for fast attacks in close range, or use the Arrow Legion with your gun to attack far-away enemies, but those are just the basics. The Arm Legion can back up your close-range attacks with punches, but its arms also serve as cannons that combine with your gunshots. You can even use it as a suit and deliver a satisfyingly powerful series of punches. And with sync attacks involved, there are even more possibilities for how you can combine your attacks with your Legion's. Even late into the game, sometimes I would discover a new kind of attack and realize how fun it was. I'm sure there are even more possibilities than what I've experimented with.

In terms of controls, there's a lot going on with Astral Chain, so if you're anything like me, you might end up mixing up some of the buttons and doing things you don't want to do at the wrong time. The game does a good job of teaching most of the mechanics and how to use certain abilities, but you may just forget them after some time. Personally, the most annoying thing about the game's controls is that it doesn't adopt the tradition of using the Joy-Con's + button to open the menu and pause the game. Instead, it turns on the IRIS interface (more on that in a bit), and the only way to pause the game at any time is pressing the Home button.

Exploration

The developer could have made the game all about the action and called it a day, and it would have already been great, as its previous titles are. But Astral Chain is packed with other elements that add a lot of diversity to the gameplay. One example is detective work, where you have to question people for information on what might have happened in certain situations. Once you've questioned enough people, you'll need to gather your thoughts and answer some questions, which can get you extra points at the end of the chapter. These points allow you to rank up your character, which in turn gives you better monetary rewards for each mission.

You may also need to use your Legion's abilities or the IRIS, a sort of augmented reality system that allows you to visualize some kinds of information about the world around you, such as security camera footage or wireless signal transmissions. Some missions also require stealth, so you need to follow certain characters without raising suspicion or get through guarded areas without being spotted.

The game also involves some platforming at times, with Legions proving useful outside of combat as well. You can move the Legion separately from the human character, and because most Legions float, they can traverse gaps and pull the player towards them to grant access to new areas. This is one of the few flaws of the game because the jumps aren't all that precise, and sometimes they need to be, so you may end up falling to your death. Otherwise, Legions offer varying advantages when moving around the world - you can ride the Beast Legion to move a lot faster, or use the Arm Legion to move heavy objects out of the way.

As you explore the world, you'll find many side missions that give you a multitude of different goals, to the point where it's almost ridiculous. In a game like this, there's no reason to include a side mission where you have to balance an ice cream cone with an unreasonable number of ice cream scoops to give to a child - but you can do it nonetheless. You can even pick up trash and put it in trash bins for some more points. There are also missions where you can find lost people or objects, fight against gangs, or even rearrange wrecked cars on a road in order to make a path for people to go through. There's a bunch of different elements to the game, and it's great to have that much variety, though it may sometimes feel like you've gone too long without fighting.

Upgrades and customization

Making progress in the game naturally means unlocking new abilities, and in addition to getting new Legions as part of the plot, there are a few other ways you can upgrade your abilities. As you play through the game, you gain both money and Gene Codes, which can be used to upgrade your equipment and your Legions. The Legions can learn a variety of skills and abilities that can be equipped to be used during battle or outside of it, such as increased attack or defense, faster movement, or special attacks.

Beyond the required upgrades, though, there's a lot of optional customization you can do. You can choose different items for your character to wear, and you can customize the colors of your uniform to a significant extent. Some preset options are offered, but you can create your own custom color schemes. You can also individually customize your Legions with different color schemes, and each color scheme can, again, be customized in and of itself, giving you plenty of options to choose from. The game even goes as far as letting you customize the colors and transparency of the HUD, which is well beyond what's necessary for a game.

Additional customization options and color schemes are unlocked by completing Orders, the game's equivalent to achievements, so completing those objectives feels a little more rewarding. Some of these objectives are part of the story, but many are secret and require you to do things like rescuing cats or defeating a rare enemy that appears in each chapter. That means you likely won't unlock the full customization possibilities the game has to offer by playing through it normally, though it also gives you more reasons to try and explore every corner of the game's world.

Conclusion

From the moment I saw the announcement trailer for Astral Chain, I knew I wanted to buy the game, with the stunning visuals and fast combat being what captivated me the most. I had pretty high expectations for the title, but it ended up surpassing them by a wide margin.

From the fantastic work done on the game's cutscenes and visuals, the solid voice acting, and the entertaining storytelling to the thoughtful - but intense - combat and the variety of side missions to complete, there's a ton of fun to be had in Astral Chain. It kept me hooked every step of the way, and it has quickly become one of my favorite Switch games ever. It's the kind of exclusive game that's worth having a Switch for.

The product used for this review was purchased through Portuguese retailer Worten. If you're interested in it, you can buy it from Amazon, where it costs $59.99, as most major Switch games do.

 

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