Astral Chain is complicated, but ultimately enjoyable
By CHRISTOPHER BYRD | Special to The Washington Post | Published: September 27, 2019
At the end of each of Astral Chain’s missions, a menu pops up on screen asking if you’d like to advance to the next “file” with the same “play style” or difficulty level. I can’t think of another game that so frequently reminds its audience of such options, and I wondered why the developers of this flamboyant new action game might do this.
It all became clear after my performance on the first couple of files was deemed worthy of a D rating. Having played through a good number of Platinum Games’ back catalog — and generally fared much better — I was rattled by my first few hours with this decidedly odd action game.
Astral Chain follows the story of twins — a brother and sister — who work for Neuron, an elite police force dedicated to defending humanity against an alien threat posed by “chimeras,” powerful creatures from another dimension who are invisible to most humans. Aided by bleeding edge technology, a select number of Neuron’s employees are entrusted with Legions, captured chimeras who are chained to the wrist and neurologically linked to their operator. Figuratively speaking, I could feel my brain working overtime as I tried to get used to guiding a Legion and one of the twins at the same time.
As is usual for most action games, movement of your agent is mapped to the left thumbstick while the right thumbstick controls the camera. Pressing the left trigger calls your Legion, which then can be steered by holding the left trigger and manipulating the right thumbstick. On top of that there are buttons for switching weapons, switching Legions, using items and using your Legion’s special abilities.
Throughout the campaign, you’ll acquire different Legions who each have their own unique characteristics. For example, the Arrow Legion allows you to fire projectiles at airborne enemies, the Arms Legion allows you to lift heavy objects, and the Beast Legion allows you to track enemies and ride on its back for speedy traversal. Learning to keep track of two avatars on the screen and to effectively use the chain between them — which, among other things, can be used to clothesline charging opponents, or to circle around enemies and briefly bind them — can be a tricky thing to come to grips with unless you are enviably ambidextrous.
When you factor in Astral Chain’s unusual duo avatar mechanic with the ins and outs of mastering the game’s fighting mechanics — nailing a perfect dodge or keeping an eye out for the telltale flash on the screen that indicates an agent and a Legion can perform a coordinated attack — it’s easy to get your fingers tangled up. Countless times while learning the ropes, I accidentally yanked on the chain sending my agent flying in the direction of a Legion without meaning to, or I’d use an item when I meant to switch weapons or Legions.
Three difficulty levels are available: Unchained, Casual and Platinum Standard. In Unchained mode, the game does the fighting for you so you can concentrate on the story. Casual mode forgoes the letter grade evaluations. It also allows you to continue six times, after getting knocked down, before a Game Over screen appears. Platinum Standard gives you two continues. I tried playing Astral Chain on Casual after getting my second D but I found that too easy, so I anxiously went back to the other level. Thankfully, my anxieties were unfounded. Health items are plentiful, and I relaxed once I upgraded my Legions and weapons and began to get a better feel for using the chain more strategically.
Astral Chain was directed by Takahisa Taura, whose 2017 game Nier: Automata was selected as one of The Washington Post’s Best Games of the Year. Both games are notable for their noncombat moments that often delight in the absurd. So it is at one point you must go on an office tour of Neuron with a dedicated employee who dresses up in a dog costume; you’ll also get points for picking up cans on the street and dropping them in trash receptacles. Conversely, you lose points for indulging in that most cliched video game activity: breaking crates. Presumably, since you’re a cop as well as a good citizen, you can cross city streets only at crosswalks which, if you’re late making it to the other side, will lead you to lose points as well.
The game, which looks like a stylish, heavily-inked manga, flaunts its affection toward animals. You can walk your Beast Legion like a dog and, in your off time, repair to a room full of cats.
If only more big-league developers dared to be this bonkers, the industry would be that much more untamed.
Platform: Nintendo Switch