It’s one of those curious coincidences that in the same month that Control featured strange invasions fuelled by beings from something labelled “the astral plane”, Astral Chain should emerge with exactly the same basic concept and language.
The similarities effectively end there, though both do feature a degree of mystery and otherworldliness. Where Control is a twitching, unnerving journey, Astral Chain takes a more melodramatic, action-heavy approach to the telling of its anime-inflected story.
You play as a silent protagonist, one of two twins graduating into the police force of The Ark, a megacity that stands as humanity’s last refuge from apocalyptic events. Except those events are ongoing, with invasions of “Chimeric” monstrosities a regular occurrence.
A sprawling, largely pointless cast of other police officers and support functionaries is soon introduced, variously taking their places as item vendors and side-quest prompters, but the core relationship presented is with your other twin, Akira, who is vocal and sassy in comparison to your silence. That lack of voice is a frustrating neutering of much of the narrative’s potential.
The core question in Astral Chain is the obvious one – which nefarious beard-stroking devil is unleashing these monsters, damnit? The police can fight back against chimeras with the help of their own tame versions of these beasties, called Legions – controlled via the title’s astral chain.
You’re soon left as the only effective Legion-wrangler, slowly growing a collection of Legions to control in Astral Chain‘s combat. This double system is the game’s heart – developers Platinum Games are veterans of Bayonetta‘s sprightly combat, and know their stuff.
You control your officer, and you control your chosen Legion, with twists of both analogue sticks, timed button presses and improvisation. It’s all handled intuitively, and has that classic feeling of a system with satisfying surface-level play and frightening depths for those who truly fall for it.
Battles of varying scales alternate with sections of detective work, to form Astral Chain‘s main rhythm. This means searching for clues and piecing details together around crime scenes and neighbourhoods. The addition of an Arkham Asylum-style detective vision means there’s basically no challenge to this, culminating in a simple memory test that’s sadly underbaked. For a detective game, there’s no detecting to be had, and the recycling of locations gets old quickly.
Over the course of 11 chapters, the story unfolds at turns glacially and then rapidly, and is, unfortunately, only a slight improvement on Platinum’s efforts with Bayonetta and her pals. Nier: Automata may well have been a considered tale of autonomy and ethics, but Astral Chain is camp nonsense.
This isn’t a total crime, of course – it knows it’s not profound to at least some degree, and generally doesn’t foist the story on you at truly awful lengths. It’s still underwhelming, though, and rumours of planned sequels are cause for apathy if the writing is to remain as cliched and predictable. It’s that predictability that’s so odd. Opening scenes are framed so amateurishly that it would be a true challenge not to immediately know who the overall baddie is at that stage.
If you’re in the market for a new combat system to get to grips with, and if replaying sections to earn perfect performance scores is a vice of yours, then by all means give Astral Chain a run-out. It’s a shame that this is basically the limit of its power.