Astral Chain is yet another excellent action game from the slash-em-up veterans at Platinum Games, but not in the way I expected it to be. Sure, there’s stylish combat in the vein of Bayonetta or Metal Gear Rising, but this future-noir adventure is made entirely unique by the way you control your robotic Legion buddies in tandem with your player character. Add in some satisfying environmental puzzles and a bit of detective work, and you’ve got a refreshingly distinct take on a genre mostly known for delivering lots of cool action with swords and guns.
Platinum’s latest Nintendo Switch exclusive isn’t without its issues, particularly when it comes to storytelling and its sheer amount of messy systems and menus. But if you need something to hold you over until Bayonetta 3 or are just looking for the Switch’s next great action game, this is it.
We are Legion
Putting a refreshing spin on Platinum’s patented brand of stylish combat, Astral Chain offers some of the most satisfying and unique action I’ve ever experienced in the genre.
You’re still swinging swords and shooting guns, but you’re doing it all in tandem with your Legions: a series of interchangeable humanoid companions with unique abilities, from the hack-and-slashing Sword Legion to the big-bruising Arm Legion. I didn’t immediately vibe with Astral Chain’s combat like I did in games like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, but once it all clicked, I quickly found myself creating a beautiful ballet of bullets, chain-based attacks and slick special moves with my two characters.
There’s a special kind of satisfaction to controlling your character and Legion at the same time, and the sheer amount of options you have for combining weapons, Legions and abilities leads to some truly creative chaos. I felt a fist-pumping adrenaline rush every time I performed a perfectly timed dodge that chained into a “Sync Attack” in which my Legion and I teamed up for a cinematic beatdown. I’m still delighting in finding new combos, such as using my Beast Legion’s howl to stun nearby enemies before chaining them all up, or arming my Sword Legion with a belt of daggers before commanding it to perform a deadly uppercut.
Your Legions don’t just allow you to create slick combos during combat -- they’re also key to traversing Astral Chain’s futuristic sci-fi world. For example, you’ll need your Arm Legion to lift heavy objects, your Sword Legion to cut through barricades and your Arrow Legion to shoot faraway targets. The game delivers a myriad of environmental puzzle solving and platforming sequences that force you to figure out how to best use each of these abilities, and I had a blast solving each one. These chunks of the game almost feel like a better version of Microsoft’s ReCore, another action-adventure game based around distinct robo-companions.
Astral Chain’s combat and traversal sequences are broken up by the occasional bit of detective work (you are a cop, after all), which I found to be a mixed bag. The first few investigations felt novel, as you use your augmented reality interface (dubbed IRIS) to sniff out clues while interrogating civilians and using your Legions to pick up evidence and eavesdrop on conversations. However, the later investigation scenes felt like a slog, as I felt like I was simply talking to every non-player character in the area to trigger the next event rather than truly solving a case.
A tale of two siblings
Astral Chain’s premise is solid, casting you as a member of the Neuron police force in the face of mysterious, deadly “chimeras” that are appearing from an alternate dimension. There are some pacing issues -- one late-game mission devolved into a complete slog worth of fetch quests during what felt like a big climax -- but overall, there was a good enough mix of combat, traversal and narrative twists and turns to keep me interested throughout.
While I found Astral Chain’s story to be decent enough, the game really falls flat in the dialogue department. You play as either a male or female cop, and while the character you don’t choose takes the role of your younger sibling, with full voice acting and a distinct personality, your character is completely silent throughout the game.
This isn’t uncommon in titles with customizable protagonists, and plenty of great games (including the entire Zelda series) get by with a silent hero. But I found myself struggling to connect to my character or get fully invested in the cutscenes considering that my custom hero barely expressed more than a grunt during even the game’s most intense moments.
It doesn’t help that the characters that are fully voiced don’t stand out much. Your sibling Akira (I got the female version) does a decent job as your more hot-headed counterpart, and there’s some comic relief to be enjoyed from Lappy, Neuron’s dogsuit-wearing mascot, as well as Hal, your nerdy, shy teammate who keeps in touch via drone. But I found the rest of the cast to be largely forgettable, and most of the voice acting performances came across as dull or just plain corny.
There’s a lot to do in Astral Chain, for better or for worse. Each of the game’s chapters are packed with side missions that you can complete to earn the best possible ranking, from clearing out chimeras to helping out everyday citizens in the streets of Harmony Square. The game also gives you a ton of options for customizing both your character and your Legions -- I just wish they all were presented better.
For example, there’s an incredibly robust menu for leveling up your Legions and giving them new skills and abilities, but it’s buried within the pause screen, and the game doesn’t do a great job pointing you towards this fairly critical system. You’ll rack up a bunch of rewards for completing certain combat and story milestones, but you have to manually claim them in the pause menu, making it easy to skip out on items that could be crucial for your next mission.
Speaking of items, the game’s system for equipping items to your quick menu is quite cumbersome, and I wish it did a better job auto-equipping important add-ons such as health and energy packs. Even more frustrating is that the game doesn’t let you pause when your character is in the middle of an action, and one later sequence didn’t even let me pause at all. Perhaps it’s just a personal thing, but I find Astral Chain’s myriad of systems and menus to be a bit messy and overwhelming, and would have liked for things to be streamlined a bit.
On a more positive note, I have to shout out the game’s character customization. I delighted in turning my character from a generic police officer into a blue-haired, red-suit-wearing anime superstar complete with stylish glasses and an unnecessary but cool headset.
One area where Astral Chain is an unqualified success is in its aesthetics -- this is easily one of the best-looking and best-sounding Switch games I’ve ever played. Similar to Switch standouts such as Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, Astral Chain’s strong art style makes up for its lack of overall fidelity, with gorgeous cel-shaded characters drawn by manga artist Maskazu Katsura.
The game’s environments are immediately captivating, from the neon city lights of the Tokyo-esque Harmony Square to the red-and-black cyber hellscapes of the Astral Plane. And I constantly find myself bobbing along to the game’s soundtrack, from the thumping techno that plays in your police station base to the electronic-infused heavy metal that perfectly complements the interdimensional demon slaying. Few games ooze “cool” like Astral Chain does.
Astral Chain is one of the Switch’s best action games yet, putting a truly unique spin on the genre with its layered, creative and flat-out fun Legion-based combat. Traversing the astral plane with your Legion’s unique abilities is a blast, and the game’s striking future-noir aesthetic and bumping electronic soundtrack are a delight.
There are some flaws holding Astral Chain back from true greatness, namely its dull dialogue, lack of a compelling protagonist and messy amount of systems and menus. But if you can deal with those issues, you’ll be treated to some of the finest, most stylish combat you can find on the Switch -- or any platform, for that matter.