After a period of relative obscurity – this is the studio’s first outing since Nier Automata, a 30-month gap that feels like a vast chasm in the busy CV of this most prolific of teams – Astral Chain shows that PlatinumGames is back. And how. A sprawling, maximalist adventure that binds together police procedural, overstated pugilism and so many different genres in-between, it’s the most fun I’ve had with one of Platinum’s titles since Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Heck, it might even be Platinum’s best game yet.
Maybe that’s because Astral Chain is at once the most Platinum game to date and also the studio’s biggest departure yet; it’s where the outlandish combat of Bayonetta is lavishly embellished before it rubs up against puzzle-solving, dungeon traversal and environmental interrogation. There’s nothing quite like it, in either the studio’s back catalogue or elsewhere, though you can draw a clear line between Astral Chain and Nier: Automata, another variety box that was shares the same director, Takahisa Taura. For my money, Astral Chain is a much more refined, focussed experience.
Some might miss the philosophical, melancholic underpinning of Nier: Automata, though it’s clear that Taura picked up Nier writer Yoko Taro’s penchant for mixing things up. “Modern games, they’re really well made,” Taro said a while back. “They’ve got so much love and time put into making them expansive and great, but once you’ve played most of them for 30 minutes you get an idea what they’re like right to the end, and that’s a bit boring.” Astral Chain, like Nier: Automata before it, revels in mixing things up. It’s an RPG, an action game, an open world game – of sorts – a hidden pixel game and more than a few more things besides.
Before we can get to all that, though, Astral Chain is first and foremost a piece of pulpy science fiction, its backdrop a fantastical post-apocalyptic future that’s been ripped asunder by chimeras from another realm. You’re a neuron, a special police task force who can tame and control chimeras as ‘Legions’, keeping them on a lead and bringing them into play in your investigations and conflicts as you work your way around several large, self-contained stages, discovering the sinister truth behind some of the powers that be.
That’s the long of it. The short of it is you’re a cute-as-hell cop who leads your collection of supernatural, super-powered pets to dispense justice, all as you’re picking up littered cans from the streets and helping rescue cats for passers-by. If all that sounds awesome, I’m delighted to confirm that it very much is.
The backdrop – a fictional megacity called ‘The Ark’ – is sublime, a run-down metropolis that has a neat line in moody peach dusks and neon-lit shanty towns. There’s a dash of Neon Genesis Evangelion to it all, a bite of Appleseed and Ghost in The Shell too, all thrust together with an energy and penchant for the absurd that’s unmistakably Platinum.
What really makes Astral Chain sing – actually, it positively bellows – is how it weaves together so many disparate genres, references so many different games and emerges as something entirely its own. It’s an RPG on one level – you get to choose at the outset from one of two twins, the one you don’t choose becoming the voiced partner to your mute protagonist (oh, and it’s worth pointing out that both Japanese and English dubs are available, which is a welcome choice). You can style their hair, colour their outfits and pick up pieces of clothing as loot out on the field, while your legions each have their own skill trees to pile resources and XP into.
On another level, Astral Chain is about sleuthing, speaking to NPCs and scouring open-ended levels for clues while leaning on your IRIS – another spin on Arkham’s detective mode – to lean in on the details. It’s an environmental puzzler, too, as you employ one of your Legions – you have a small selection, slowly unlocked through the course of the campaign and from thereon available to you wherever – to unearth secrets. Need to lower a drawbridge? Then you’ll want to deploy your Arrow legion, while the Beast legion – a not-so-subtle lift from Twilight Princess – can sniff out and dig up loot, or the Arm legion can lift heavy obstacles out of the way to clear a new path. It’s all a bit Zelda.
And it’s also all a bit The Witcher, a bit Arkham Asylum and a bit Deus Ex, but it’s always – always – a Platinum game first and foremost. Patch into a security camera to seek out a perp and there’s a goddamn hit pause as you hack in, a small example of the Platinum panache that’s been applied to every single disparate element of Astral Chain. It does make for a quieter, more plodding (and slightly lengthier) kind of experience than we’ve seen before from the studio – there is walking and talking aplenty – but when the action comes good god is it worth it.
Astral Chain is incredibly literate when it comes to the greats of the action genre – actually, seeing as most of those have been touched in some way by Platinum, I’d go as far as to say it’s fluent. It’s familiar, but with a twist, from the attacks being mapped to the shoulders this time out to countless other subtle differences throughout. There’s a bit of everything here; the slashing mechanic from Revengeance is explicit in the ability of your Sword legion, allowing you to angle your cut precisely to solve certain puzzles, while there’s an implied nod in the way your Legion tears the core out of a rival chimera suggests Raiden’s hugely satisfying zandatsu. It’s just as satisfying this time out, if not more so given how it punctuates fights that bring together countless moving parts in one mad dance.
Then there are the legions themselves, each with its own distinct moveset, and then there’s the way you interact with them, pushing them into battle while you keep your distance or at your back as a support or – and this is where Astral Chain gets really, really good – using the chain between the two of you to tether and tie up enemies. It’s a lift from an unlikely source – Namco’s 1983 arcade outing Libble Rabble has been cited as the key inspiration behind the mechanic – and it works exceptionally well, giving Astral Chain’s combat a devious tactile edge.
There’s more – there is so, so much more – to the point where Astral Chain can be dizzying in its depths. Combat boasts so many moving parts that it’s easy to become flustered, so it’s almost a relief to find it supports an easy ‘Unchained’ mode whereby much is automated. Is it sacrilege to play a Platinum game that way? Maybe, but I welcome the option to unlock Astral Chain’s spectacle to all, and it helps remove some of the frictions that might have scared some players off the studio’s previous work.
And Astral Chain’s action is some of the very finest I’ve come across, all delivered with a seamless quality that often leaves you breathless. Platinum never loses its lustre, goes the motto that sits proudly in the entry lobby of the studio’s Osaka headquarters, though some might have thought the studio has dulled in recent years. Astral Chain is having absolutely none of that, and it shines brighter than anything in the studio’s past. It’s an absolute dream of a game.