Developer: Platinum Games
Review Date: 3/29/20
A pandemic strikes Earth in the form of contamination from an alternate dimension called "the Astral Plane." The remnants of humanity and society are collected on an artificial island called "The Ark" which lies off the coast of Chile. Two twins on the police force are recruited into Neuron, which is a law enforcement branch that deals with interdimensional threats. Neuron officers train with familiars from the Astral Plane that are known as "Legions," which are able to do massive damage against the Chimeras from that realm. When the rest of the team's Legions break free from their masters, it's up to the player to recover them, as well as investigate the increasing frequency of attacks from the other side. This brings the head of Neuron under suspicion, which leads to the player becoming a fugitive and working with an underground resistance movement.
I originally bought my Nintendo Switch in anticipation of "Bayonetta 3," which is now at least two years behind schedule. Coming from Platinum Games, I figured this would be a good substitute for the time being. The game feels like a cross between Masamune Shirow's "Appleseed" and "NieR: Automata" (2017). It's also interesting to note that the first monster you encounter in the game is called "Briareos," which seems like an intentional nod to Shirow's influence. Neuron is also analogous to "Appleseed's" ESWAT or "Ghost In The Shell's" Section 9. Honestly, playing this game really made me want to play an "Appleseed" game. The character designs are by manga artist Masakazu Katsura ("Video Girl Ai" and "Shadow Lady"), which gives the game a solid Japanese manga look and feel. The music is good and ranges from upbeat pop music to intense and dramatic orchestral pieces.
The game is divided into twelve thematic chapters, and each chapter has a series of objectives and side missions tied to it. You spend most of the game looking for clues, talking to citizens, and helping people out whenever you can. I think I enjoyed the "protect and serve" moments the most, as I helped re-unite parents with lost children, retrieved lost soccer balls, gave toys and food to needy people, rescued stray cats, and collected toilet paper for the police station's resident toilet faerie. That's right, one of the bathroom stalls at HQ is cursed, and a toilet faerie named Bel requires toilet paper to exorcise it. Once you collect all of the toilet paper (or acceptable substitutes) from each chapter, Bel rewards you with a new costume for your character. I found the toilet paper missions especially poignant, given that I played this game during the Covid-19 crisis, where people across the country were hoarding toilet paper. Talking to people and being a socially responsible public servant makes you feel like a strong force for positive change, and really helps flesh out the fine details of the game world.
When you're not working on cases or hanging out at police headquarters, you're busy fighting Chimeras from the Astral Plane. The game's combat is a confusing mess of chaotic frenzy that requires careful coordination of both your character and your Legion. It's totally bonkers and nearly impossible to tell what's going on. Thankfully, the developers realize this, and they offer both a "casual" play mode and an "unchained" option that automatically takes care of combat for you. The unchained mode offers a wealth of options for tweaking gameplay, but relying on the AI does have drawbacks. Often times when you want to do something specific, your Legion refuses your override commands and just continues to do its own thing. Similarly, when you're just walking around town and talking to people, it's annoying to have your Legion be automatically summoned when you don't want it around. Still, despite the drawbacks, unchained mode is a welcomed feature that allowed me to get through the entire game with minimal frustration. Or most of it, at least. After completing the main story arc, a new set of open cases becomes available, which don't allow you to choose a play style and offer the most challenging fights in the game. I tried a couple of those and gave up pretty quickly. I already had emotional and narrative closure with the game, so I didn't need the extra stress. On the down side, though, that meant that I wasn't able to rescue all of the stray cats in the game.
Speaking of cats, I did encounter one broken cat mission. Someone asked me to rescue their cat, and they stayed put saying that they would be able to catch it if it came their way. The cat was also easily frightened, so the key was to kick a can towards it so that it would drop its guard. Unfortunately, if you accidentally pick up the can that's conveniently placed nearby, there's no way to catch the cat. You can't discard or use the can, and even when I painstakingly managed to maneuver the cat towards its owner, he refused to catch it like he said he would. So that was annoying and frustrating.
The twins aspect of the game is bizarre and I never could come to terms with it. At the beginning of the game, you can choose to be either the male twin or the female twin. Whichever one you don't choose is named Akira, and they both follow the same storyline. I naturally chose to play the female twin, but the problem with that is that your character has no voice, which leaves you with an emotionally empty shell that has no personality. The silent protagonist effect pulls you out of the game and breaks immersion, especially since everyone else can talk. In that regard, I might have preferred playing the male twin, so that I wouldn't have to put up with his whiny drama. But then again, I wouldn't have been able to play dress up and watch my character's cute little butt all the time. The game offers a decent amount of character customization in terms of hair styles, skin tone, eye color, and accessories, but there are only a handful of options that are actually appealing. The game also offers some very silly accessories, including the option to wear a cardboard box on your head or have a raven perched on top of your head. Additional accessories and color schemes can be purchased or unlocked throughout the game, which provides incentive for completing all of the side missions.
It's a good looking game with a heavy anime aesthetic and a predictably melodramatic storyline. The game offers both Japanese and English audio, and while the Japanese voice work is excellent, the English dubbing isn't very good and doesn't match the tone of the game. Just like anime, I prefer hearing it in its native language, but that poses a problem when characters like to talk during battles. I don't have the ability to fight and read subtitles at the same time, so I often missed vital pieces of information. This was a problem with "NieR: Automata" as well. Another facet of the game that reminded me of "NieR: Automata" is how deep the battle customization goes. Similar to that game's chip management system, you can upgrade your Legions with a complex tree of skills and abilities. When you have five Legions that each have two skills and a variety of abilities, it's extremely difficult to keep track of them in battle.
"Astral Chain" is a long game, and I put in fifty hours before I decided to stop. That said, I probably only finished 60-75% of what the game has to offer. It encourages multiple playthroughs in order to improve your ranking, upgrade your weapons and Legions, and clean up every last piece of red matter contamination. While I enjoyed my time in the game, my silent protagonist wasn't compelling enough to keep me there longer than necessary. However, if you own a Switch and are looking for a "Bayonetta" styled action adventure to hold you over until "Bayonetta 3" comes out, "Astral Chain" is an excellent diversion and one of the best offerings the console has to offer.