If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Nintendo fans, it’s that they don’t like people talking ill of the gaming giant to whom they’re oddly loyal. Whenever I indelicately spout my opinions about the Switch to a group of them, they always end up with a face like a smacked arse and tersely shuffle back and forth, furtively shooting me murderous glares like they caught me porking their mum… on their dad’s coffin.
I think the thousands of rands I’ve spent on the console give me licence to air my grievances, chief among them being the Switch’s software library – which I think falls short of what it’s capable of. Throwaway indie titles and old ports seem to typify its release schedule since its launch, with a big AAA release being a rare occurrence. So could I provide an example of the type of game I’d like to see more of? Sure, here’s one right here.
Astral Chain is a massive breath of fresh air for Switch owners, especially ones like me who seem to be capable of acknowledging its shortcomings. It comes to us from PlatinumGames, the developers who gave us Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Vanquish, and Nier: Automata, all very good games with hilariously bizarre settings and creative play mechanics. It may be hard to believe, but compared to those games, Astral Chain is actually the least wacky so far – but it still has a long way to come down, and even on its lower rung PlatinumGames still manages to pack plenty of unexpected and downright weird characters, story scenes, gameplay elements, and easter eggs into the game.
In the distant future, Earth is invaded by demons from a place known as the Astral Plane, forcing the remnants of humanity build a fortified floating city called The Ark. How original. But even the Ark isn’t entirely safe from the occasional demon attack, so a special police force called Neuron is established to protect the place. They achieve this by using technology that lets them capture demons, put them in chains, and force them to fight on their side.
At the start of the game, you get to choose to play as one of two twins, a brother with poncy manga hair or a sister wearing shorts that look like they’ve been painted on. Naturally I went for the latter, starting the game and going through the tutorial bit during your first day on the force, which establishes the story and teaches you the basics of controlling your first captured demon, or Legion as they’re called. Before long, everyone else on the force loses their Legion, but it turns out you can recapture them because your innate abilities to synchronise with them are off the chart or something. And not only can you recapture them, you are powerful enough to contain more than one Legion. And your hair turns a lovely shade of blue when you’re unleashing your powers.
Between missions, you get to bop around the office interacting with your coworkers, most of whom simply spout flavour text, but a couple of them offer services and mini-quests. Among your more prominent colleagues, we have the big boss who doesn’t seem entirely trustworthy, the cool-as-ice sexy mission handler, your twat sibling with their ill-concealed resentment of your superior abilities, and the cute and clumsy bespectacled girl who confides her every trite woe to you and has no business working in an organisation set up to be the last hope for humankind, even if she is just a floor-mopping mascot.
So far, so anime, right? Totally, and the visuals complement this nicely. Seriously, this has to be one of the most gorgeous Switch games I’ve ever seen, and it runs like buttered lightning most of the time too, seldom chugging in the frame rate department. The story is about as ridiculous as you’d expect from a PlatinumGames title, and very entertaining for it. The characters are… anime characters. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about any of them, but they serve their purpose and carry the story. If you like big melodramatic moments, noble sacrifices, villains who look like they missed a few vaccinations, and do-or-die badassery, you’re in for a treat.
Clearly a lot of effort went into the presentation and cinematics, but the gameplay is where Astral Chain truly shines. Contrary to what you might think seeing videos and screenshots, there’s much more to this game than simply fighting demons. At the start of each mission you get to run around performing an investigation, completing side-quests and finding secrets. It can take quite a while to get into the action. The mission in the Section 9 slum is a good example. First you have to sneak into the heavily guarded quarantine zone, then talk to everyone to uncover the location of your objective – usually doing quests for the people who have the info – and then use your Legions to puzzle-solve your way in.
I’m not kidding when I say you can sometimes spend more time doing investigations and side-quests than fighting demons. The investigations are a big part of each mission. You wander around questioning people to fill your notepad with info, and once you’ve got enough, you’ll be quizzed to see if you’ve been paying attention. Mostly the answers are pretty easy to figure out, but on occasion you might be unsure as to which of two similar answers is correct, and if you get it wrong, you get a tiny slap on the wrist in the form of a deduction of a few points from your mission rating. Your Legions feature quite heavily in this too. The Beast Legion, for instance, can dig up buried items and track people or items by scent. The Sword Legion can sever electronic signals, the Arm Legion can open heavy doors and move heavy objects, and the Axe Legion can cleave through certain impassable barriers. This gives the game a slight Metroidvania tang as you need to remember areas you couldn’t reach before and return to them later to access them.
All that stuff is nice and surprisingly engrossing, but it’s the combat against the demons from the Astral Plane we’re all here for, right? And it’s from PlatinumGames, so it must be brilliant, surely? Well, you’ll be happy to know that they certainly didn’t let us down. For starters, your character has a morphing weapon called the X-Baton that can shift between three forms – a weak pistol for ranged attacks, a short sword for quick melee combos, and a heavy gladius for slow but damaging attacks. You initially have only one short combo for each, but as you upgrade it with items and currency earned from missions, you’ll learn new special moves and combos.
But your main weapon is your Legion. Over the course of the game, you’ll acquire five of them – The Sword, Arrow, Arm, Beast and Axe Legions – and you can switch between them on the fly to match any combat (or puzzle) situation you encounter. The amount of time you can have a Legion summoned is government by a circular meter in the middle of the screen – which depletes faster if your Legion takes damage, so be sure to dismiss them if they’re about to take a big hit. You can also control your Legion directly by holding the ZL button and moving the right stick. The main reason you’d want to do this is in combat is to wrap up enemies with the chain binding the Legion to you, allowing you and your Legion a short period of free hits on the restrained enemy.
But that’s not even the tip of the iceberg of what Legions are capable of. I don’t think I’ll even be able to explain it all here, but I’ll try to give you some idea. Each Legion has a skill tree with passive buffs and new skills to learn, such as spinning blades for the Sword Legion that deal extra damage while it attacks, or a howl for the Beast Legion that stuns enemies. On top of this, you also find ability items in the field which you can equip on your Legions. Mostly buffs like +10% damage and so on, but they can be really interesting too, offering negations of bad effects like paralysis or even providing yet more new special attacks.
But that’s not all! In true PlatinumGames style, they have an odd fixation on the idea of the “Perfect Dodge”. You know? Dodging an enemy attack at the very last moment. Similarly to Bayonetta, a perfect dodge grants you a brief moment of Matrix time to get in some hits, but also it lets you perform a spectacular “Sync Attack” with your Legion if you press the ZL button at the right time following a perfect dodge. If you’re really feeling confident, you can choose not to dodge at all, but instead summon your Legion with ZL the moment before you get hit. This is called the “Perfect Summon” and will repel any attack in the game, no matter how strong, and perform yet another cool, flashy Sync Attack that does huge damage too. Sometimes you can even chain one Sync Attack into another for all kinds of flashy insanity.
Each Legion also has a special mode you can access by press the L button. The Sword Legion gets a directional-slicing ability similar to Raiden’s one from Metal Gear Rising; the Arm Legion lets you wear it as a hovering suit of armour which also negates floor hazards; and the Beast Legion lets you hop astride it to run hella fast and engage in mounted combat. Aaaaand, if you perform a perfect dodge while in a special Legion mode, you get another flashy uber attack for each Legion – bloody hell! The list of things you can do just goes on and on.
This is a superb action game which would be fantastic on any platform, but is especially welcome on the Switch because we don’t get games of this quality often enough. Action game fans should buy it without delay.
Astral Chain is the superb, flashy, intricate action game we all expected it to be, with a suprising amount of depth both inside and outside of combat. It's also beautiful to look at and has tons of amusing quirks.
Finally, a AAA exclusive for the Switch, and it's a damn good one at that!
The variety of features and gameplay mechanics mean you can really sink your teeth into this game
The game is pretty damn long just to get through, but if you want to chase high scores, there's months if not years of value here
Honestly, these graphics do the Switch proud
On some missions the story areas are not always clearly marked and you can accidentally wander into a point-of-no-return before you're done side-questing and secret hunting – and this is one of those games that tightly controls your autosaves, so there's no going back
Pet peeve, but it slightly irks me that I can't manually aim the X-Baton's pistol mode (thankfully you can manual aim the Arrow Legion's special mode, though)