Monday, September 23, 2019

Astral Chain Review

When Astral Chain was first announced earlier this year, I was pretty hyped for it. And with good reason. Platinum is well known for their kick-ass action games and over the top character designs, and Astral Chain is the directorial debut of Takahisa Taura, designer of two of my favorite Platinum games, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Nier: Automata. It was also supervised by Hideki Kamiya, creator of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta. Those are big names that should make all action game fans stop and take notice. With that kind of pedigree, you might think this is some kind of Sci-Fi anime Bayonetta, but it’s actually more like a mix of different elements from Platinum games going back to when they were working under Capcom as Clover.

Astral Chain takes place in the year 2078. The world has been overtaken Chimeras and all remaining humans live on an island named Ark, which vaguely looks like a backwards Japan. Chimeras are monsters that constantly invade Earth from the Astral Plane through red wormholes called Gates. The Astral Plane is basically Yomi, the Twilight Realm, or the World of Darkness. It’s an ugly place with dreary skies, nothing but rocks everywhere, and mindless shadow people roaming around. You play as one of the 2 Howard twins, who are both police officers in a special task force called Neuron. Neuron has technology which allows them to control Chimeras with special robotic armor. They call these armored Chimeras, Legions. As the game progresses, you discover that maybe this monster enslaving business isn't all kitty cats and rainbows.

I thought the story was pretty bad. Don’t expect a Nier: Automata quality story here. Yoko Taro had nothing to do with this game because he works for SquareEnix. I thought the characters were really weak and forgettable, for the most part. The only one that stood out was Lappy, a woman in a cartoon dog costume who serves as comic relief. Your twin, Akira Howard, is definitely not an interesting character, he’s pretty immature and annoying, and the player character is barely a character at all. If they ever explained why these gates from the Astral Plane started opening up around Earth in the first place, I totally missed it, and they never explain exactly what the Astral Plane and Chimeras are, either. It’s like they came up with all this dark backstory for this world, but then didn’t want to tell it. It’s also very predictable.

I think Astral Chain does fall into the stylish action game genre, but it’s very different from games like Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising. The combat is closer to Nier: Automata with a little Okami than it is to Bayonetta. There is depth to the combat, but it is very button mashy. There are no complex combos or strict timing requirements for your moves, you just mash the ZR button until you see a little blue flash telling you to press ZL to make your Legion do a move. This is called a Sync Attack. You don't even have to stop mashing ZR to do these. It's not a QTE. There is a dodge move (B), and you can slow down time to do a Chain Counter if you dodge at the right time and press the ZL button, sort of like in Bayonetta, but the timing for this move is much more forgiving than Bayonetta’s Witch Time. The default controls are definitely weird, but they make sense for how the game plays. There are control configurations that move the attack buttons to the face buttons, but they just didn't work for me considering how you have to use the right stick to move the camera and your Legion.

There are 3 weapons your character can use; Blaster, Baton, and Gladius. You can quickly switch between them by pressing up and down on the d-pad, and you upgrade all of them at the same time, so you can switch between them whenever you want and not be using an underpowered weapon or something, like with the Legions. The Blaster is a laser gun that allows you to quickly attack from far away, but has the weakest attacks of the 3. The Baton is a melee weapon with a short range. It doesn’t do a lot of damage, but it lets you attack quickly and gives you a little more mobility since your attacks don’t have long animations. The Gladius is a big Buster Sword, like Cloud’s. It does a lot of damage, but it’s very slow and has long attack animations. I mostly stuck to the Blaster and Baton since they’re quick and easy to use.

The main element of Astral Chain’s combat is your Legions, though. Your character is pretty weak without its Legions. If you’ve ever played the Hunter class in World of Warcraft, you probably have a good idea of how this all works. After summoning a Legion with ZL, it follows you around on a leash. You can sic it on an enemy by pressing ZL if you want, but it will also just attack on its own if you start attacking an enemy. You don't have to press anything to make it attack, it just auto attacks as long as it's close enough to an enemy and you're in combat. If you hold down ZL, you can move your Legion around with the right stick and wrap your leash, the Astral Chain™, around an enemy and bind them for a few seconds, leaving them unable to move or attack. You can also do this with your floating Legions to get them across gaps and then have them pull you over, sort of like a grappling hook in Zelda. Your character can’t jump, so this is the only real way to do any platforming in the game. Each Legion also has a special move it can do with the L button that can be used for fighting, but is really more for utility.

I already went over what Sync Attacks are, but I have to mention them again because they are the most powerful moves in the game and what most of the combat revolves around. You can do Sync Attacks to finish combos, after dodging to do a counter attack, and to finish off enemies. They all have really cool animations and each Legion has different ones, so you’ll probably find one that compliments your weapon and use that most of the time, even though you can quickly switch between Legions by pressing the Y button if you want to mix things up during combat.

Maybe switching between Legions during combat is not such a great idea, though. At least not on your first playthrough. Each Legion has its own talent tree, abilities, and skills, so switching to a new Legion could mean you’re switching to a Legion with a lot less attack power, defense, skills, and abilities. Filling out the Legions’ talent trees uses limited resources called Premium Material Codes, which are also used to upgrade your character’s weapons, and are not shared between Legions, so it’s not like you can bring a Legion up to speed right after you get it. And when I say limited, I mean there’s only so many in the game and they are gone forever after 1 use. You can’t farm them. I didn’t even get enough Material Codes to fill more than 1 Legion’s talent tree during my first run. Legion abilities (extra bonuses, like healing over time) come from equippable items, which are also not shared between Legions, so you can’t deck out all your Legions with all the best abilities at the same time, either. Near the end of the game, I filled out the dog’s talent tree and gave it all the best items and exclusively used it for all of the fights. I used the remaining Material Codes to upgrade my character’s weapons. I wish I had noticed that Premium Material Codes were limited earlier because I spent a bunch of them on buying talents for Legions I didn’t end up using in battles.

There are 5 Legions in the game; Sword, Arrow, Arm, Beast, and Axe. Sword has quick sword attacks, it can float over gaps and pull you across them, and it can do the Raiden slash move from Metal Gear Rising with the L button. You can use this move to cut ropes, break open locks on doors, and hit multiple targets at once. Arrow can shoot arrows and volleys of arrows over enemies. It can also fly, so it can easily attack flying enemies and fly over gaps, and it lets you aim and shoot arrows with its special L move. You can hit enemies with this move or use it to hit switches in the environment to solve puzzles. Arm is a big stone elemental with huge arms and no legs. It can float over any hazards on the floor, like poison, and you can get inside it, like a mech suit, and use it to move your character over stuff on the floor. It can also move large blocks and lift things and throw them. Beast is a big robotic dog looking wolf. It basically fights like Amaterasu from Okami. That’s why I used it the most. It even plays Okami sound effects when he does some moves. Beast can dig items out of the ground, track scents, and you can ride on it with it’s L special. It’s not a smooth ride, but it’s faster than running. Axe is a big Fire Emblem Dark Knight looking Legion with a huge slow axe. Its main ability is creating shields. It can make a shield for your character, and it can make a huge bubble shield around you which you can use to walk through poison gas and fire with its L special. It can also use its axe to break barriers.

Astral Chain isn’t only about combat, though. There’s also a big crime scene investigation element to the game. You are a cop after all. The game is split up into missions, or Files as the game calls them, and you usually start missions with a big investigation. In them, you usually walk around a city and ask people about a person or crime, do quests that reveal more about the case, and use your detective vision, IRIS, to see and inspect points of interest. You can also use your Legion to hack into security cameras, among other things. It’s not Phoenix Wright, but I liked the investigation parts of the game. They’re kind of slow at times, but there’s combat mixed in, and the quests have you doing things you don’t get to do while running around fighting Chimeras, like chasing down criminals, eavesdropping on people, and even playing a few minigames. Once you’re done with the investigation part, it’s usually time to go through a gate into the Astral Plane.

The Astral Plane is where you usually chase Chimeras down to. You do a lot of fighting in these sections, but many also have a bunch of Zelda style puzzles and obstacles. They’re almost like BotW shrines at times. A poor man's BotW shrine. In the Astral Plane, you use your Legions to step on switches, move blocks around, chain jump from platform to platform, shoot switches, and break walls. The problem is that the puzzles aren’t very fun or creative. I've seen all of this done before and done better in Zelda, and moving your Legion around to move blocks and use moves like the chain jump is slow and also not very fun. It doesn’t help that the Astral Plane is the ugliest and lamest looking place in the game, either. I really started dreading going into the Astral plane because I knew there were probably terrible puzzles and platforming waiting for me on the other side. Thankfully, a lot of the later missions in the game have very limited Astral Plane sections and focus more on investigations and fighting Chimeras outside the Astral Plane, which is what the game does best.

I can’t end this review without talking about the game’s camera. This is the worst camera I’ve seen in a 3D game since the GameCube days. I don’t know how Platinum messed it up so bad when it’s fine in their other games. The biggest issue is that it just can’t handle the hectic combat. It allows the player to go outside the frame, it presses up against walls and loses the player, it doesn’t follow enemies you're locked onto, and it’s generally a pain to deal with and babysit. There are options you can toggle to follow enemies you’re locked onto, try to keep the player in frame, or not move around so much, but they seem to work against each other or not work very well at all. The follow target option moves the camera around wildly following enemies and loses the character anyway, for example. It’s a mess. It actually made me a bit nauseous at one point, and I don’t get motion sickness. You get used to it, but it sucks.

Technically, this game looks like a really good looking last gen game. It reminds me a lot of Nier: Automata’s graphics. There’s a lot of boring cement and rusted metal textures repeated everywhere, it kind of looks the same in a lot of missions, and it always looks the same in the Astral Plane. The characters have a cool celshaded look to them, there are some nice shiny wet ground effects, and the battle effects and animations are really good, but the game is really being carried by its art style. The Chimera and Legion designs look amazing, and your player character looks cool, even though it’s a player created character that can be customized with all sorts of hairstyles, skin colors, and costumes. I tried to make mine look like Android 18 from Dragon Ball at first, and then switched to something more like Major Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell later on, and I thought they both looked pretty cool. The anime and super sentai inspired UI and presentation really brings everything together nicely, too. The framerate is 30, and it does dip in cities with a lot of NPCs, but I was never bothered by it during combat.

The soundtrack is one of the best things about the game. It’s a mix of chill electronic music, dramatic orchestral music, and heavy metal. The investigations have the calm music, battles have more metal, and cutscenes use more orchestral music. As the game progresses, it starts remixing the calm electronic music in the metal style and mixing the metal and orchestral for bosses, and it’s all really well done. I didn’t think the voice acting was as good, though. Most characters were okay, but not great. The lip syncing for the English dub is also way off. You can use the Japanese voice acting, but I tried it, and reading subtitles doesn’t really work in a game that has a ton of dialogue during fights.

One thing that really bugged me about the VO was the player character's lack of it. Your character never speaks while you're playing them, but your twin, Akira, always does regardless of their sex. I know they're not technically the same character, but they do use the same voice actors! I'm usually not bothered by silent protagonists, like Link and the Dragon Quest Hero, but it really bothers me in Astral Chain because of how poorly it's handled. Characters like Link and DQ Hero are usually not put in situations where they should speak, or they have party members that can do all the talking for them, but Astral Chain doesn't do either of those things. Your character is constantly thrown in conversations and put in situations where they should respond, but all they ever say is "Hmm", "Ugh", or scream. It borders on comedy by the end of the game, and I don't think that's what they were going for.

Astral Chain is no Nier: Automata or Bayonetta. It’s good, but not great. It has fantastic combat, fun investigations, a great soundtrack, badass character designs, an interesting world, and Lappy is funny, but everything else is bad to passable at best. The combat camera sucks, the graphics are not very impressive, the upgrading system is confusing and unnecessarily complex, and the Astral Plane is ugly and its puzzles come off like cheap Zelda dungeon knockoffs. Still, I think Astral Chain has a lot of potential as a series, so I hope Platinum gets to make a sequel with a bigger budget someday.