It's fair to say that PlatinumGames has mastered the art of the action game - but what if this talented studio were to expand in new directions? The phenomenal Nier: Automata offered a glimpse with its RPG trimmings, while the cancelled Scalebound seemed to aim even higher. Clearly Platinum is eager to push new boundaries, which is why it shouldn't be a surprise that Astral Chain is anything but simple.
If you've seen the trailers, however, it might not be entirely clear what sort of game we're dealing with here. Indeed, when I had a chance to sit down with Astral Chain last week, I really had no idea what to expect. I knew there would be action but everything else was up in the air. As I left the demo station, I couldn't help but consider the most ridiculous of comparisons. Yes, there's plenty of Platinum-style action within but everything else suggests some sort of unholy fusion between Deus Ex, Batman and The Legend of Zelda. Perhaps that's a stretching it but stay with me - there's a lot going on here.
It starts off simple enough. Players are dropped in the centre of the last human city - The Ark - as it falls under attack by a mysterious enemy known as the Chimera. These creatures are basically harvesting humanity, dragging people into an alternate dimension of sorts. To engage this new foe, a Police force known as Neuron was created - a team of elite fighters who command warriors known as Legion and... OK, maybe it's not that simple after all.
At this point in the demo, I was expecting that trademark PlatinumGames action and indeed, the first battle is very much that but, just a few minutes in, a new type of invisible enemy appears and it's here where you're first introduced to the Legion mechanic. Basically, you're handed control of gear which can summon a Legion - a large creature connected to the player character via a blue chain - the eponymous Astral Chain, if you will.
The core combat design, then, is focused on this relationship. You have direct control over your main character, engaging enemies with a mix of melee and ranged attacks. ZR is the default attack button and you click the right stick to lock-on to enemies. In that sense, the controls more closely resemble a FromSoftware game than a traditional Platinum title.
Where the game varies most, however, is in its Legion mechanic - connected by your Astral Chain, these creatures fight automatically alongside the player. When you target an enemy, your summoned Legion will focus its attacks on this target. There is a meter tied to the Legion, however, and when it takes too much damage, it retracts for a brief cooldown. You can influence your Legion or directly move it around by holding the ZL button. In this demo, there were multiple available Legions including melee, ranged and shield types but the final game should offer even more variety. There's even a Metal Gear Rising inspired slow-motion slicing mechanic included.
It's a neat idea and it works well. Stringing combos together with your Legion and finding strategies that work is satisfying and it's clear that there is depth to be found here but it's the other areas of the game that are more surprising.
Basically, Neuron HQ acts as a central base of operations for the game - like the UNATCO headquarters in the original Deus Ex. You can freely explore the station talking to people, interacting with machines, visiting the toilets, using the computers and generally doing as you please. It's here where you'll receive your assignments and, in this demo, the first assignment involved investigating an attack out on the streets.
This is where another mechanic comes into play - IRIS. This is, effectively, detective vision in that it highlights past events which players can then examine to piece together clues. You'll need to follow trails, eavesdrop on the locals and more to figure out what happened. What you find in these sequences will lead you forward through the mission.
At this point, the demo skips ahead to better equip the player and suddenly I was tasked with trailing an enemy with help from my Legion eventually stumbling upon an interdimensional portal. Once inside you're surrounded by abstract shapes and brilliant colours with a simple objective - locate a fallen teammate and get back to the city.
This is where things really ramp up. Firstly, there's traversal. Your character cannot jump but, using your Legion, you can fling yourself around the map. This is required to reach a multitude of objectives and quickly becomes crucial to solving various puzzles. In fact, your Legion plays a significant role in just about every area - from using ranged attacks with the archer Legion to bypass an obstruction to opening a large door by standing on a pair of switches. It's simple but effective.
Eventually, the stage boss makes an appearance leading to a heated battle which puts your newly learned skills to the test. That's not even touching on the status and skill menus, vehicle sections and other potential gameplay features that have been teased in trailers and Treehouse live streams.
All of this is powered by PlatinumGames in-house engine which is shaping up nicely on Switch. Unlike most titles from Platinum, however, Astral Chain targets just 30 frames per second instead. The slower nature of the gameplay and larger environments feel like a fair trade-off. It's an attractive game then with fluid animation, detailed worlds to explore and plenty of modern visual effects.
When you take everything together, then, Astral Chain is one ambitious project with a wider selection of unique ideas and gameplay concepts than any other Platinum title to date. Whether or not it all congeals into something coherent remains to be seen but, at this point, it holds a lot of promise.