Games

'Astral Chain' Is Missing Everything That Made 'Nier: Automata' Transcendent

On paper, Platinum's latest should impress. In practice, it's a flavorless disappointment.

by Austin Walker
Aug 26 2019, 1:00pm

All images courtesy of Nintendo

Taken only in screenshots, trailers, and gameplay demos, it’s easy to imagine how Astral Chain might join Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Nier: Automata, and the Bayonetta series inside of developer Platinum Games’ catalog of exceptional character action games. In brief glimpses, it looks just like those games, blending high-sheen style with combo-chaining substance. But after nearly 30 hours with it, I’m unhappy to say that Astral Chain is a character action game without all the character that made past Platinum games so striking and memorable.

Set in a cyberpunk city called the Ark, the last remaining human settlement in a post-apocalyptic world, the game casts you as a recent recruit to Neuron, a special police task force which investigates and combats “chimeras,” extradimensional, biomechanical creatures which periodically terrorize the city. To aid in your investigation, you’ve been paired with a Legion (a chimera collared and “tamed” by the shady Aegis Research Institute) who you can call on to solve puzzles, traverse the world, and augment your combat abilities.

Narratively, Astral Chain draws openly and often from sci-fi anime staples like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, but (despite trying) can summon neither the former’s sense of psycho-mythic dread nor the latter’s sharp procedural storytelling. In play, it offers a take on the Devil May Cry series’ focus on weapon-switching action, but with little of the fluidity (or challenge) that Dante and co. have offered over the years.

Most importantly, the game’s structure and rhythm make it a slog. While it helps to build a fascinating world and compelling stakes, character action games don’t need to be ground breaking to impress me. They can force me, through sheer force of momentum, to give into spectacle. But Astral Chain follows a droning rhythm that underscores all of its weaknesses, making them hard to ignore.

Once you’re situated with your Legion, you settle into a repetitive rhythm for the game’s 11 missions, each of which breaks down neatly into three phases. After being briefed about a recent chimeric incursion, you explore your HQ, upgrading your equipment, completing some fetch quests, and trying to squeeze any bit of charm you can out of the game’s mostly one dimensional supporting cast—a too-large crew featuring your standard archetypes, like suspicious scientist, hard-assed mentor, and naive do-gooder. Then you deploy to the scene of the crime, where you interview nearby witnesses, help the locals with some smaller cases (finding lost cats, arresting graffiti artists), scour the area for collectibles, and complete some minor combat challenges. Finally, the mission kicks off in earnest and you run through a gauntlet of arenas, traversal challenges, and spectacle-filled cutscenes on your way to a big boss encounter.

I call out this structure because of how badly it impacts the game’s pacing, and because poor pacing is among Astral Chain’s worst sins. This is a game of constant stop-and-go, where supposedly high-tension chase scenes are slowed down by rote exploration puzzles and where the too-rare moments of high drama are immediately deflated by boring busy work, or, worse, paint-by-numbers boss fights.

Astral Chain Boss Fight

This is frustrating because if the game’s encounters had demanded more technique or inventiveness from the player (or even if it had offered a harder difficulty out of the box instead of as an unlockable), I can imagine Astral Chain pushing players to be creative and clever. You’re given a healthy set of weapons and abilities to play with. From the jump, you’re outfitted with an “X-Baton,” a shapeshifting weapon that can instantly switch between light, heavy, and ranged combat modes. Your combat is further augmented by your equipped Legion, who attacks passively on their own once summoned, can be actively aimed at specifically targeted enemies for normal or special attacks, and who joins you in special “sync attacks” which punctuate combos, charged attacks, and other triggers.

These Legions should be the stars of the show, both narratively and mechanically. Unfortunately, they’re the game’s biggest miss.

Given some of the comments by the game’s director during the pre-release cycle, I wasn’t coming into Astral Chain expecting a critique of policing (even though, despite message board common sense, Japan is undergoing an internal conversation about what role law enforcement should serve in society). But I did hope that the game would engage at all with its core premise, the idea of capturing and enslaving these extradimensional, largely humanoid beings towards the ends of a special police force. Instead, this goes nearly entirely unremarked on. Despite early cutscenes that make it clear that these creatures are desperate to be free, the game basically treats them as semi-autonomous weapons for you to equip. But it doesn’t even do that particularly well.

Astral Chain - Beast Legion

You unlock five over the course of play, each one distinct in design and ability, though the latter often feels like a technicality. The Sword Legion, for instance, is a sort of demonic knight who hovers around the battlefield and is meant to get in close and mix it up with enemies, while the Archer Legion uses a bowgun to fire energy blasts at foes. These Legion abilities also affect exploration, letting you avoid hazards or activate switches from a distance, but never in ways that feel particularly memorable or impressive.

But in practice, the only time I needed to switch Legions was when a fight or level explicitly required the use of a specific Legion’s special skills (like Beast Legion’s ability to dig up underground enemies). Experimentation was never rewarded; simply sticking with my strongest (and first) Legion nearly guaranteed I’d get the highest rank on any major combat encounter. In the rare instance that a fight required a little extra oomph, consuming one of the games plentiful buffs always tilted the game all the way towards easy, and because you heal when you take out the vast majority of enemies you face, I never came close to a game over screen. The answer to a fight was never learning how to better mix up my Legion use or to build combos between them.

This is a major problem for Astral Chain, as the reward for nearly every side objective—which, as a reminder, rarely feel like more than busy work—are either the crafting materials necessary to upgrade these Legions or a passive skill that you can equip on them. But by a quarter of the way through the game, I’d developed a build for my Sword Legion that carried me through the rest of the campaign with ease.

Astral Chain - Hermit

And you know, maybe this is also true for Nier: Automata’s many upgradeable weapons. Maybe Ryu’s special ninpo magic in Ninja Gaiden is actually as redundant as anything I unlocked in Astral Chain. Maybe I never really needed to perfect Raiden’s zandatsu slash in Metal Gear Rising (an ability that is doubled here, but with all the technique sanded away). But in each of those cases, I wanted to experiment and explore the possibilities available, to be wowed and wooed, not only because nailing these moves made me feel incredible, but because I found myself rooting for the over-the-top heroes performing them. In Astral Chain, I never cheered for only one. I only ever wanted to progress.

Key to this failing of the game is the lack of character development. Your rookie cop is paired with their sibling—if you choose to play as a woman, you’ll have a brother, and vice versa. That sibling is given major screen time, voice acting, and some semblance of a narrative arc, but your own character is silent except for a few grunts and combat calls. Instead, every mission sees you paired up with another character meant to play primary interlocutor, but because this is role passed between characters, none of those get great development either. The result is that after dozens of hours of play, I never felt close to my character. I never felt like I understood what she wanted, or how she held herself, or what she was about stylistically, beyond wielding a generic sort of determination.

I know that seems like a small thing but contrast that with the, well, devil-may-care attitude of DMC’s Dante, with the confidence and swagger of Bayonetta, or even the weight and rage of Kratos. Both in terms of narrative and combat design, these games live and die on their ability to bring me into the emotional and bodily rhythms of their characters. Once I’m there, I’m along for the ride wherever the game wants to take me. It’s why the genre has been able to offer up revenge stories, family dramas, or philosophical ponderings without losing me. Astral Chain skips the bit where it’s supposed to make me care about these people and this world.

Astral Chain - Marie and Cat

Every now and then there is a flash of what Astral Chain could have been. A character named Marie, who takes it upon herself to keep Neuron’s team morale up by dressing up as the team mascot, is endearing, reliable comic relief. Rescuing cats and visiting them in a safehouse is always a cute diversion. The personable (or, sometimes, rude) vending machines that dot the Ark are a fun and clever conceit.

There are even, very rarely, plot beats, side characters, and even whole missions, that utilize the game’s cyberpunk setting as more than just wallpaper. Here, draw the camera’s attention away from the bright neon and slick chrome of the Ark’s downtown region and towards the city’s grimier, underserved corners. These are the moments that it most effectively echoes Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex in using a police procedural to examine the limits of law enforcement agencies, the bias of powerful institutions, and the way that an unreliable and corrupt government hurts most those on the margins of society.

Unfortunately, because of Nintendo’s strict embargo, I can’t delve into how it does these things specifically, but I can say that by the end of the game, I was frustrated that it only ever treated these ideas as detours, made secondary to a sci-fi drama that echoes Evangelion so severely as to be embarrassing.

Astral Chain Review Block

Mission after mission, I hoped for an unexpected turn, the reveal of a new mechanic or character that could right the ship and retroactively make it all worth it. But the truth is that this is a game afraid to demand more than simple competence, and unable to offer the sort of narrative or thematic rewards that keep me tuned when challenge isn’t on the table.

It’s not that there are no original ideas in Astral Chain, no bright spots or brief respites from the boring loop. It’s that for nearly 30 hours, the ones that show up are either underdeveloped or else go uncultivated in favor of something fundamentally rehashed and reheated.

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