I love video games and I love talking about them. I set up this blog as a place to regularly translate that into writing, but never seem to get around to it. Well, this is me finally getting around to it, and I'm going to try and make game reviews a more regular thing here on my site. I hope you enjoy this review and find it informative in aiding your decision to purchase Astral Chain. Unless you've already played it. In which case I hope it helps you relive your Astral Chain adventures. I don't have much experience writing reviews, so if you have any comments about the review, or Astral Chain itself, feel free to post them below!
Astral Chain is an ARPG (action role-playing game) where you play as a police officer who goes around using a baton to club evil interdimensional monsters to death. It was released in 2019 exclusively for Nintendo Switch and I think I read somewhere it won game of the year that year. If it didn't, it should have. It's one of the best games I've played in quite some time.
So, what is Astral Chain about? Well, cast your mind forward to the fuuuuture. A post apocalyptic, neon, anime, "cyber punk" sci-fi future. What's left of humanity is living in a city in space called The Ark. Why? Now, I don't wanna scare ya, but some monsters from another dimension ruined the Earth through a process called red shifting. Which makes everything all sort of distorted and wobbly. Unfortunately, said monsters, which are called Chimeras, have now set their sites on The Ark. So it's up Neuron, a special task force unit within The Ark's police force, to defeat them and close the portals they come through.
You play as a member of Neuron. At the beginning of the game you're given a choice between a male and female protagonist. Whichever one you choose becomes the game's mostly silent hero, and the other one becomes Akira Howard, your brother or sister and a main character in the story. Their (and your) story plays out pretty much the same regardless of which one you pick.
Astral Chain's story and its delivery are fun all the way through, and full of likeable characters. For example, and this review wouldn't be complete if I didn't mention that there's a very wacky and funny dog-costume wearing character who acts as a sort of morale officer in addition to her cleaning duties, and adds a lot of humour to the game. xD Anyway If the game gets criticized for anything, it's that the story is too simple or predictable or something. Personally, I appreciated this about it. Tbh sometimes I get a bit tired of RPGs where every character is a ghost clone of a smurf dream projection and you have no idea what the heck is actually going on.
Very early on in the game, you acquire your first Legion. A Legion is a Chimera which, thanks to science-magics, you can control via a chain that links you and the Legion together. And, you guessed it, it's called an Astral Chain. Throughout the game you'll acquire a few Legions, and each one enables you to do more stuff.
Astral Chain has 11 actual levels, plus one sort of post-game level. The game is not open world, so sadly you won't be spending a million hours between actual gameplay sections chopping down trees. Shame. But there's certainly plenty to do. There's a lot of gameplay crammed in, and levels are made up of quests, which the game calls "cases". A few cases are part of the main mission and required to progress, but most are optional. Cases involve battling, investigating, stealth, platforming, exploring, photography, and more. And it's this variation which I think helps the game stay interesting and fun. On many cases you are given a rank on your performance, from D to S+ and you get better rewards and stuff for boosting your stats if you do well. You can complete the game without worrying toooo much about optional cases. In fact, in the lowest difficulty setting the game doesn't even rank you on the cases where it normally would. Pretty much all of Astral Chain's gameplay involves using your Legion(s) in some way. You'll also make heavy use of your computer scanner thingy, called IRIS, to more easily spot or gain information about stuff around you. You're going to be hearing "IRIS, on!", "IRIS, shutdown!" a LOT!
You will be having a fair amount of battles throughout Astral Chain. Visually they're very impressive, really colourful and dazzling, and with the game's great battle music tracks it's all really exciting and fast paced. I'd say battling makes up roughly 50% of the game, and, well, it's really great fun! You control the main character with the left stick, and you can summon your Legion any time to assist you. You control the Legion independently with the right stick, or by flinging it towards an enemy. It will fight on its own, but you can also issue it commands like making a bunch of swords circle around it to rapidly hit enemies, or in the case of the dog Legion you can do a Howl to stun enemies. You can only keep the Legion out for so long before it has to recharge, and if you let it completely run out, it takes longer to recharge. So bear that in mind while fighting. Your actual character, like most ARPGs can also attack, although rather than a sword, you'll be using a baton for short range attacks, or gun for long range attacks. You can use items, dodge enemy attacks and so on. Certain things in battle, such as landing several attacks in a row will make a little circle appear for a moment, and you can hit the left trigger to do some extra damage to enemies. The chain itself also comes into play, you can use it to tie up enemies or fling them back across the battlefield. It sounds like a lot, and at first it is and takes a little getting used to. But it's also what stops it from becoming boring, and once you do get the hang of it, it's seriously addictive. The game has a ton of enemies, although many of them do look kinda similar and more like variations, but even taking that into account there's still plenty of variation in enemy types and battle strategies.
But the game isn't all about battling! And the fact you're not just fighting waves and waves of enemies helps keep the game interesting. You also have investigations. Y'know, being a police offer n' all. During investigations you'll speak to various people, or check out suspicious stuff and your character will write notes, or rather, keep a list of keywords. At the end of the investigation you'll be quizzed, and the keywords will serve as the multiple choice answers to the quiz. So basically the investigations serve as a way to explore the game's maps, where there's lots of things to find and check out, and items to pick up along the way. It's really relaxing gameplay. It also serves as a way to learn more about the game's world and lore.
Astral Chain also contains some really cool stealth sections. Here you have to reach a certain point on the map, but in between you and the destination are guards you have to sneak past without being seen or heard. You'll often achieve this by making good use of (rather convenient) cover, or creating a distraction, e.g. shooting a bunch of conveniently placed pipes to make them bang around. You can also disable guards by sneaking up on them and tying them up with your Legion. If you like Metal Gear Solid games you'll feel right at home here. And if you're really good at sneaking around you can try and get all the items/treasures dotted about throughout these sections. If you really hate stealth gameplay, you can choose just to battle your way though. But if you want to 100% the game you will have to return and complete the stealth sections properly eventually!
Astral Chain has lots of cases which mainly involve finding stuff, helping out the general public, battling or chasing after criminals and tying them up with your Legion, solving a few puzzles and so on. These cases are fairly simple but the game's maps are so nice to explore that personally I never got bored. There's a couple of cases in the game which are really their own thing and really show the effort made by the developers. Such as a 16 bit mini-game! Most cases are optional, but completing them will give you better rewards for upgrading your and your Legion's stats.
Thinking about it, I should probably mention the hub world, which is actually at the start of each level. It's a high tech police HQ. You start with a briefing, and then you get a chance to grab a few items, talk to everyone, upgrade your character/Legion, buy/sell items. There's usually some small cases to do here which might involve helping out a fellow officer or doing some training exercises.
Astral Chain's story took me about 30 hours to complete. I think you could probably complete it in about 20 if you rushed through didn't explore as much as I did, but you'd be missing so much. I also expect to get at LEAST another 30 hours out of the game. The "post game" level has a ton of challenging combat missions to complete. You can also revisit previous levels any time and try to get stuff you missed, or that was unavailable because you didn't have the right Legions. There's also a ton of things if you like to 100% your games, such as the adorable cat rescuing sidequest, taking photos of basically everything to complete a database, getting that S+ rank in all of the games cases and battles, and much more.
I've discussed the game's graphics a bit throughout this review so far, but I think it's worth dedicating a paragraph to just saying how the game is visually impressive at all times, and really shows what the Nintendo Switch can do. I did have a very little bit of framerate drop in extreme situations, but for the most part it runs extremely smoothly. Admittedly I only play my Switch docked, so I can't really say much about handheld mode, but I've read it performs well there too.
The graphics are complemented by a great soundtrack. I'm not gonna say it's as good as the music in say, Final Fantasy 7 (although that game has some of the best music in all of video games, so yeah xD), but it's really enjoyable and I've found myself listening to some of the game's songs on YouTube outside of the game itself as well. Some standout tracks are the hub world's music "Task Force Neuron", which is sort of like "relaxing light dance music", and the rock-metal music that plays during battle with Legions before you acquire them "Legion Assault".
As with all games, even my favourites, I do have some criticisms...
Firstly, and I'm going to contradict myself a bit here as I know I said the story is easy to follow, but there was one character, Jena Anderson who I didn't really understand what her actual motivation was, or why she was so destructive in her mission. Maybe she was mad because she looked like a zombie for some reason. I don't know. xD
During the platforming sections, you'll do something called "chain jumping", where you move your Legion to a spot over a gap, and then your Legion will pull you to that spot. Getting this right can be really tricky, and I fell off so many times lol. There's a symbol that's supposed to represent where you're going to land and idk if I was being dumb but it didn't seem very reliable to me.
Sometimes it's unclear when you're about to hit a point of no return during a level, where which means you can screw yourself out of some cases for the rest of the level. You CAN always go back and replay any level, but the triggers should be made more clear.
Maps sometimes have pointless barriers or one way systems that force you the long way around for no reason.
So, nothing major, but this is a review so I thought I better cover the "negatives" as well!
Anyway, in conclusion, and I think you can tell from this review, I enjoyed Astral Chain a lot. By the time I was ready to post this review, I had in fact moved on from Astral Chain (to Yoshi's Crafted World if you're wondering xD) but I spent quite a bit of time post-game working towards 100%, and I'm certain I'll both return to this game in the future, and should it ever exist, Astral Chain 2 will be a day 1 buy for me!
Astral Chain Score: 10/10 oranges.
🍊 🍊 🍊 🍊 🍊 🍊 🍊 🍊 🍊 🍊
I hope someone out there enjoyed this review or found it useful. If you have any comments be sure to leave them below!