Icon art by manga artist Masakazu Katsura
|Release||August 30, 2019|
|Genre(s)||Action-adventure, hack and slash|
Astral Chain[a] is an action-adventure hack and slash video game developed by PlatinumGames and published by Nintendo for Nintendo Switch. It is directed by Takahisa Taura who was previously lead game designer for Nier: Automata, under supervision by Devil May Cry and Bayonetta series creator Hideki Kamiya, and character designs from manga artist Masakazu Katsura. It was released on August 30, 2019.
Astral Chain is an action-adventure game where the player assumes the role of a detective from the "Neuron" special police task force, who are tasked with solving cases and investigating incidents that take place in "The Ark", the game's main world. Exploring the world, questioning non-playable characters and examining evidence yields clues and logic puzzles that become "leads" which further the investigation process. During the course of the game the officers access the "Astral Plane"—an interdimensional area where they must traverse hazardous terrain, solve puzzles, and battle enemies, similar to that of traditional video game dungeons.
Neuron officers are able to summon a tethered familiar known as a "Legion", bound by a chain that is the game's namesake. Legions come in various different forms sporting different abilities that are used both for puzzle-solving and combat. These include: a sword-based Legion with swift blade attacks that can be used to sever circuitry and interrupt enemy attacks, an archer Legion that can target weak points and distant switches, a Legion with powerful punches that can move large objects, an axe-based Legion which can break through shields and detonate its axe upon embedding it into an object (while also generating its own shield), and a K9 Legion that the player can ride (automatically evading enemy attacks) and use to track scents or dig into trash.
Combat takes place in real-time, both melee and ranged weapons are used to fight enemies, predominantly the malevolent race of "Chimeras". Players can summon and control a Legion during combat to assist in combos, have them fight automatically, perform powerful finishing moves (which also restore health), and also use the chain to restrain enemies or allow the player to zip line out of danger or through crowds of enemies.
Completing combos, interrupting enemy attacks, restraining enemies, dodging, and deploying a Legion at the correct moment will offer the player a chance to perform a sync attack, requiring the player to press the left trigger at the right instant (similar to a quick time event). Sync attacks can extend combos, trigger special attacks, bind enemies, and help the player recover from a fall. After performing a large number of sync attacks, the player may fuse with their Legion for a short while to recover health and deal large amounts of damage.
The player begins the game with the Sword Legion, capturing the other four over the course of the game. Legions can be swapped at any time during battle, and can also be upgraded via experience points and unlockable skills. At the end of a case, the player is ranked based on their performance (if the player is on the "PT Standard" or "PT Ultimate" difficulties. Casual and Unchained difficulties are not ranked).
Early in the game players unlock the IRIS tool, a heads up display from which they can inspect the environment and search for clues, as well as save their progress, manage the inventory, customize in-game menus, view the level map, and manage orders (benchmarks and photo challenges that reward the player with items, crafting materials, XP, money, and photo filters).
Players may choose to play previous chapters from their desk at the Neuron Headquarters at the beginning of each new chapter. The player can also return to this area to maintain and customize their Legions, customize their character, and interact with other Neuron officers. Consumable items can also be obtained from vendors that can later be used for crafting, health recovery, or combat. Gameplay difficulty may be changed between the twelve chapters, with the player being given the choice to play in a cinematic mode with easy combat, a standard difficulty, and an "ultimate" difficulty which is offered upon repeated plays of chapters which were beaten in standard mode.
Astral Chain is set in the year 2078, where humanity is on the brink of extinction. The remnants of the human populace have retreated to a megacity called "The Ark", which rests on a massive, artificial island. The world is under attack by interdimensional lifeforms called the "Chimeras", which reside in the "Astral Plane". They cause destruction, drag civilians into the Astral Plane and spread "red matter" that corrupts living things and humans. To combat the Chimeras, the "Neuron" Police Task Force is employed. They utilize "Legions"—subservient Chimeras that have been tethered to an officer via a psychic chain, utilizing them for combat and investigation.
The player assumes the role of one of two twins, who both join Neuron as new recruits. The player selected character has a custom identity, whereas their opposite-gender sibling becomes "Akira Howard". The two twins were adopted by the current Neuron Captain, Maximilian Howard. Other characters include Neuron Commander and scientific genius Yoseph Calvert; Chief Medical Officer and scientist Brenda Moreno; fellow veteran officers Alicia Lopez and Jin Wong who assist the players on the field; Neuron Dispatcher and former TV newscaster Olive Espinosa; and the Neuron Office Manager Marie Wentz. The Neuron officers are also assisted by a hacker named Harold "Hal" Clark, who pilots a modified field drone.
The Player and Akira are sent out to respond to a Aberration attack, but are quickly outmatched by Chimeras, which they are unable to see. The twins are saved by Max, Alicia, and Jin, who wield Legions capable of fighting them. Yoseph assigns Legions to the Player and Akira, enabling them to see and repel the Chimeras. Afterwards, the Player and Akira are both formally inducted into Neuron. However, their first investigation mission goes awry when the Player ends up being pulled into the Astral Plane, resulting in the rest of the squad following to save them. Unfortunately, the Astral Plane has the side effect of weakening humans, and eventually all of Neuron's Legions go berserk and break from their masters' control. In the end, only the Player is capable of recapturing their Legion. In order to ensure the rest of the squad can escape safely, Max decides to stay behind to hold off the remaining berserk Legions, and the Player is forced to leave him behind in the Astral Plane. Meanwhile, Neuron's Legion production facility is attacked, leaving the Player as the only officer with access to a Legion.
The Player is then sent on further missions to respond to Chimera attacks and eventually also recapture the berserk Legions. During this time, they come into contact with Dr. Jena Anderson, a former pupil of Yoseph's who appears to be instigating Chimera attacks and bears a grudge against UNION, the Ark's ruling government. She manages to critically wound Akira and tells the Player she knows about their past and why they're able to work so seamlessly with a Legion. After a second encounter, Jena leaves clues to investigate Zone 09, a quarantined section of the Ark where the Player and Akira were born. The Player explores Zone 09 with Hal and discover UNION developed a drug called Blue Evolve that could allow humans to fight Chimeras, but also carried the side effect of turning the users into Aberrations. The Player is then forced to fight one of Jena's chimeric homunculi, and is saved in the end by a fully-recovered Akira, who has obtained a new Legion. However, the Player is jailed for entering Zone 09 without permission, and Hal goes into hiding to avoid arrest.
Soon after, another massive Chimera attack occurs, and Neuron is forced to mobilize the Player in order to stop the attack while eventually having to fight another one of Jena's homunculi as well. Jena retreats, but stages a wider attack on the Ark, claiming that she is trying to save humanity. She confronts Yoseph, showing that the two of them have differing ideas on how to save humanity. When Yoseph refuses to stand down, Jena powers herself up with Blue Evolve before battling the Player. However, after the Player defeats Jena, they suddenly fully merge with their Legion and go berserk, attacking Akira. Jena sacrifices herself by distracting the transformed Player, telling them that this is the true form of their power. Yoseph then calls in the Ravens--a newly-created task force of Legion users--and orders them to kill the Player, causing them to fall off an overpass.
The Player then wakes up back in their human form, having been rescued by Hal and Olive and brought into a hiding place in Zone 09. Hal explains that Yoseph has largely replaced Neuron with the Ravens and is actively hunting the Player, accusing them of treason. They then head out to rescue Brenda, who has fled from Neuron due to knowing too much about Yoseph's plans. Akira confronts them, trying to convince the Player to come back, but they are ambushed by Raven, and it is revealed that the Ravens are all clones of Akira. The Ravens attack Akira, causing them to merge with their Legion and go berserk. To stop Akira, the Player merges with their Legion as well--this time willingly--and manages to knock them back into their human form.
Wanting to find out and stop Yoseph's plans, the Player and Akira assault Yoseph's lab, fighting their way through the Ravens before confronting him in person. Yoseph then uses the Ravens as a catalyst to create the ultimate Legion, Noah, and merges himself with it, intending to absorb all life on Earth. Akira ends up being absorbed into Noah trying to protect the Player, and the Player battles Noah, eventually weakening him enough that Akira is able to temporarily seize control of Noah's body, allowing the Player to destroy Noah but killing Akira in the process.
Following Noah's destruction, Chimera attacks begin to decrease drastically, allowing humans to consider leaving the Ark and repopulating the Earth. Alicia and Jin put Neuron back together, with Olive as interim commander, and the task force continues to handle the few Chimera attacks that still occur on the Ark. Akira is also revealed to have survived through one of their remaining clones, having been transplanted memories by Brenda using traces found in the original's Legion.
Following the cancellation of Scalebound in January 2017, PlatinumGames had created an early pitch of Astral Chain.[b] Despite comparisons to Scalebound's dual-character gameplay, PlatinumGames producer Atsushi Inaba has explained that the two games are very different in concept, and sees Astral Chain as an evolution of their previous action games. Internally, the company refers to the game as a "synergetic action game". Takahisa Taura was appointed as director due to his previous work on Nier: Automata, and the company's belief that they need to foster multiple directors that can bring a different flavor for each of their individual projects.
Astral Chain was initially envisioned as a fantasy game where the player would utilize magic, however at Nintendo's recommendation the game was changed to a cyberpunk setting as they felt it would make for a more unique setting. Taura explained that the game's setting was inspired by various anime such as Ghost In The Shell and Appleseed, as well as the works of Masakazu Katsura, who was hired to be the game's character designer. While the ability to play as male or female was always intended as an option for the game, in the project's early stages the game did not feature twin protagonists. The decision to make twin protagonists came about from ideas based on Katsura's concept sketches for the protagonists. The inclusion of character customization was also done to help the player immerse themselves into the world.
The gameplay of Astral Chain is designed around controlling two characters at once, which Taura has said comprises the core of the game itself, comparing it to the way the "Wicked Weaves" ability is the core of Bayonetta. The developers also took plenty of inspiration from Libble Rabble with the dual-character concept. World building was considered important during development; the developers wanted to showcase the police performing day-to-day tasks and services beyond crime fighting, and built an expanded cast around such to accommodate. Taura noted that the main difference in approach compared to PlatinumGames' work on Nier: Automata was that Astral Chain had its scenario built around the gameplay rather than the other way around.
The score for Astral Chain was primarily written and produced by Satoshi Igarashi, who previously worked on Bayonetta 2. Igarashi revealed that the background music will change genres depending on the mood of the scene. For example, dramatic scenes will use orchestral music, scenes with more tension will start to use more metal music and the calm scenes are more likely to use electronic music.
Nintendo proposed to PlatinumGames the idea of partnering with Avex Group to acquire vocalists for the game's theme songs. William Aoyama, of the Japanese pop group Intersection; and Beverly, who performed the theme song for the 2019 anime adaptation of Fruits Basket; were ultimately picked by Igarashi and Taura to perform vocals on three separate theme songs. The decision of hiring two vocalists was made to represent the game's dual protagonists. The opening theme song called "Savior" plays during the game's opening sequence, which Taura requested be made as an anime opening. "Dark Hero" serves as a featured song within the game, and "The Answer" acts as the ending theme song.
On Metacritic, Astral Chain holds an aggregated score of 87/100, indicating "generally favorable reviews". In a non-scored review, Eurogamer review editor Martin Robinson awarded the game with an "Essential" ranking, referring to the game as PlatinumGames' best game to date, citing that it "shines brighter than anything in the studio's past." Steven Petite of IGN praised the combat, commenting that "though Astral Chain lacks a deep combo system, it makes up for that and then some with its roster of Legions". Destructoid reviews director Chris Carter pointed out that while the game has a slightly slow start, he was "completely sold" once the game introduced customization, while also praising the bosses and the game's variety of enemies.
The game received some criticism for its use of a silent protagonist, though it received unanimous praise for its side characters and world building. Writing for Polygon, Chris Plante highlighted the game's non-combat side activities that involves the player investigating and performing helpful tasks toward non-player characters, citing that the game is "a deeply human game about a group of people striving to do good — not just on the world-saving level, but on the minute-to-minute level, during a time when the future seems incredibly bleak", concluding by calling the game Nintendo's best new IP since Splatoon.
The game became a target of review-bombing by Metacritic users, primarily for being an exclusive Nintendo Switch game. Fire Emblem: Three Houses, another title also published by Nintendo, was review-bombed at around the same time for similar reasons, with users countering the negative scores on both games with 10/10 scores. The review bombs on both Astral Chain and Fire Emblem: Three Houses were later removed by Metacritic.
Astral Chain launched at #1 on the UK physical charts, #2 on the Japanese physical charts, and #10 on the NPD charts for August. The game sold 46,875 physical copies within its first three weeks on sale in Japan.
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