There are games, and then there are games. When I first saw snippets of Astral Chain for Nintendo Switch a year ago, I thought it was just filler material to pad out Nintendo’s release schedule. The only thing that made it even remotely stand out in the lineup was the developer behind it – PlatinumGames. They’re the masterminds behind the sublime PS4 sleeper hit Nier: Automata. They’re also well-known for other slick productions like the Bayonetta series and Metal Gear Rising (which, say what you want about it, but I enjoyed it).
Still, even with the considerable pedigree of their track record, I wasn’t completely sold on Astral Chain. It looked a bit bland and like it was perhaps trying too hard to be cool by playing on our nostalgia for classic anime with designs harkening back to Neon Genesis Evangelion. Heck, the artist behind Astral Chain‘s style is none other than Masakazu Katsura, creator of Video Girl AI. Don’t get me wrong, I liked that series… maybe 15 years ago? But it was dated even then.
Point is, the brief clips of gameplay I saw didn’t look all that special to me. Call me cynical, but the main impression I was left with was that this might just be an afterthought for PlatinumGames and Nintendo. Something of a vanity project where the developers have a shoestring budget and just mash together different aesthetics that they know will have appeal to a niche audience, but will leave most gamers high and dry.
I realize now that I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
Astral Chain is a game that you have to play yourself before you can understand just how beautiful it is. The screenshots prior it its release did very little for me, but when you’re actively playing in-game, you could swear this is the most beautiful creation of all time. Nintendo often has a way of overcoming the Switch’s graphical limitations by going for a more stylized rather than realistic approach, but nothing like this. I have no idea how they pulled this off on the Switch hardware. This rivals some of the PS4’s best on mere style alone.
You also might not appreciate how beautiful the gameplay is until you’ve gotten hands-on with it either. The setup requires you to essentially control two characters at the same time – a police officer from a special task force and his/her interdimensional pet called a Legion that is tethered to him/her. Basically, you simultaneously control a person and a monster on a leash, to the extent that it obeys your commands. Not just anyone can command a Legion, and even your primary character will need to occasionally reign in the beast to prevent it from overheating.
Admittedly, there is a learning curve to this unconventional control setup. It takes some practice to get the hang of it. But this isn’t like Snake Pass, the controls may be tough to master but they are fair and logical in their execution. Words cannot describe the feeling of satisfaction you’ll get from flawlessly pulling off moves – whether it’s lining up a Sync Attack perfectly or simply wrapping your chain around a succession of enemies that you proceed to thwack. Simple combos and more complex moves alike are extremely fulfilling to perform. Heck, even just opening up your in-game scanner called an IRIS to investigate your surroundings feels rewarding.
The game manages to strike a surreal balance between epic battles with universe-destroying creatures called Chimeras and more ordinary activities like rescuing kitties and… finding toilets. Look, Astral Chain is more than a sci-fi beat-em-up. It relishes in both the extraordinary and mundane aspects of its world, and it does both seamlessly. The attention to detail in all aspects doesn’t feel overdone. It all feels organic and alive. Most importantly, it all feels fun.
Things can get especially engrossing once you start unlocking more skills for you and your Legion of choice. That’s right, you’re not stuck with one Legion throughout the story; by the end of the game, you’ll be able to play with five unique Legions. All of them bring something different to the table that enhances the gaming experience. You’re going to look forward to the next surprise around the corner, and this game is full of pleasant surprises.
The cherry on top of all this is the wonderful soundtrack, composed by Satoshi Igarashi. I don’t want to oversell, it’s not the best video game score of all time, but it fits the game so well. Seriously, go listen to the track ‘Awakening’ from the soundtrack and tell me that wouldn’t have you pumped. Tell me that it doesn’t perfectly match the Astral Chain aesthetic.
That’s the best thing about this game. I said before that it all feels organic, and it does. Everything gels. Everything just works. Even the quirky stuff like Lappy, the goofy dog mascot of your police division, Neuron. Some of it is a bit cheesy. A lot of it does indeed call back to retro anime tropes. But it doesn’t feel forced or gimmicky. I never felt like I was being pandered to. PlatinumGames was very confident in the world of The Ark and let their creation speak for itself.
Of course, every game has its drawbacks, and Astral Chain is no exception. It introduces some awesome concepts that it doesn’t always flesh out to their full potential. The story, while enjoyable, isn’t exactly groundbreaking. And the controls I praised earlier may be a turnoff for some gamers. If it is, that doesn’t mean you’re any less of a gamer. I can legitimately see some of the control choices being frustrating for some people.
But for me, Astral Chain was a blast from start to finish. It’s a game that reminds me why I like video games in the first place. I can truthfully say I felt like a kid again, discovering things for the first time and full of unbridled curiosity, while playing Astral Chain. That’s not something I can say for most games, even other games that I genuinely enjoy.
Astral Chain delivers on all promises and then some. I obviously can’t guarantee it will be everyone’s cup of tea, but every Switch owner owes it to themselves to at least try it out and give it a chance.