Astral Chain Is Nintendo Switch’s Best (And Weirdest) Action Game
If you’ve played Wonderful 101 or Bayonetta, it should come as no surprise that developer PlatinumGames’ latest Nintendo offering isn’t your typical hack ‘n’ slash. When Astral Chain was first announced last February, I was skeptical about its bizarre combat system requiring a single player to control two characters at the same time. Have you ever tried playing Overcooked by yourself? Nope. Not recommended.
It turns out I should never doubt PlatinumGames, especially when they’re working with director Takahia Taura, who was the lead designer on one of the raddest action games of 2017, Nier: Automata. Dubbed as “Synergetic Action,” Astral Chain‘s delicate dance between the two fighters at your control is easy to learn, but hard to master. I mean that as a compliment.
The plot is predictably bananas. Sometime in the future, humankind has been forced to relocate to a floating city called “The Ark” after Earth becomes invested with alien invaders. It turns out their alien problem has followed them to their neon oasis in the sky in the form of hostile creatures known as Chimera, who come from a dimension called the Astral Plane.
Humanity’s only hope for survival is an elite police force (called Neuron), which has just enlisted two twin officers who possess a unique connection to the Astral Plane. Of course, you get to play as one of these twins. Not only will you control either the male or female sibling, you also fight alongside a domesticated, weaponized Chimera, otherwise known as a Legion.
Here’s where the game’s title comes in: linking your character to their respective Legion is a glowing chain. While this device may have restrictive connotations, it can be wielded in some incredibly liberating—and inventive—ways. Once you become more accustomed to enemy attack patterns, the chain can be utilized to stop them in their tracks so that you can stun them and then unleash a deadly combo. When you’re not in battle, the chain becomes a useful tool for solving puzzles and overcoming environmental obstacles.
But Astral Chain’s main attraction is how it requires you to juggle your fighting priorities between two characters in tandem, which can be overwhelming (and even feel a little button-mash-y) at first, but gradually reveals a deeply immersive experience unlike anything else. Don’t be discouraged if everything feels daunting even in practice mode—it’ll all click soon enough.
Although you’re encouraged to pet your Legion, Pokémon this ain’t. The action here requires far more finger dexterity. Then again, nothing feels quite as satisfying as pulling off an elaborate combo that’s entirely your concoction. There are many, many variables between the five disparate Legions at your command, each with their own set of combat and non-combat moves, in addition to a skill tree. If you’re not the creative type, know that your Legion will attack automatically, but eventually you’ll need to up your strategy, as enemies become increasingly complex. This is where you’ll also need to make use of your IRIS Scanner, which not only boasts augmented reality to expose items, side quests, and persons of interest, but also your enemy’s type and their health bar.
When you’re not fighting evil by moonlight in either the Ark or the Astral Plane, there are investigation sequences in which you must analyze your surroundings using your handy IRIS and interacting with key witnesses. Successful sleuthing is crucial if you want to get a top ranking after you’ve completed one of the game’s 11 main “files,” which will in turn reward you with points that can be spent on a variety of upgrades for both your character and Legions. Some of these investigations are fairly innocuous (is rescuing a kitten really a priority when the fate of humanity is at stake?), but that only adds to the game’s deliberately goofy charm that serves as an amusing antidote to all that heavy-handed exposition.
If all this sounds a little too long-winded for you, that’s because it kinda is. Like a good anime, Astral Chain is unsuspectingly dense. Also like a good anime, it’s weird, wonderful, and has a bitchin’ J-pop soundtrack.