Astral Chain Review – Anime Police Academy

Seeing Astral Chain in motion may be what catches your eye, but the graceful execution of attacks is something you have to experience for yourself. Astral Chain delivers gratifying, kinetic, and inventive combat that goes beyond genre conventions–and it retains that excitement from start to finish. Couple that with an attractive art style brought to life through fluid animation and cinematic-style cuts in battle and you have yet another standout action experience from developer Platinum Games.

As an elite cop on the Neuron special task force, it’s your job to investigate the ever-growing presence of the otherworldly Chimera that threaten the world. Catastrophic incidents are abound as Chimera spill in from an alternate dimension, the astral plane, but of course there’s more to the phenomenon than meets the eye. To get to the bottom of it all, you simultaneously control both your player-character and a Legion, a separate entity with its own attacks and abilities–think of it as a Stand from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. This dynamic is at the heart of Astral Chain’s combat.

It takes time to get the hang of it, but once you do, working in tandem with a roster of Legions feels seamless. You earn Legions over time, accruing a total of five, and each one offers their own set of skills and cooldown attacks to upgrade via a skill tree. While they can be sent into the fray to perform auto-attacks, swapping between them effectively to juggle specific abilities creates the satisfaction of tearing down the monstrous Chimeras.

Initially, there are so many variables at play that it can be daunting. You have chain binds to lock enemies down for a few seconds, timing-based sync attacks that unleash devastating blows, and showstopping sync finishers that top off the wild spectacle (and replenish your health to boot). You can even get creative with combos, like utilizing the AOE stun, gravity pull, and crash bomb–all from different Legions–to concentrate a ton of damage on. Even an unchained combo lets you briefly unleash two Legions at once. And if that already seems like a lot to handle, you’ll also have to consider executing special attacks from directional inputs when it’s best to use them.

When you dig deeper into Astral Chain’s systems, you see some of its lineage–particularly the chip system of Nier: Automata, the game which Astral Chain director Takahisa Taura was lead designer on. That system manifests as Ability Codes that you equip on each of your Legions to grant them specific buffs and perks, which can significantly change how they function.

Astral Chain isn’t about running head-first into fights against monsters that seek to destroy you, though. You have to be smart about positioning, dodging, and the limited energy of your Legion. Enemies are more than just fodder; they can overwhelm you with sheer numbers, size, or speed. Some may require you to meet certain conditions to defeat them, forcing you to use non-combat abilities in the midst of the chaos. And bosses come at you with unforgiving attacks that’ll test your skill as much as your patience.

With a multitude of factors and challenges at play, combat places much more emphasis on devising the right tactics for the right situation. Astral Chain provides a tremendous box of tools that are effective in their own right and an absolute joy to use.

If there’s a fault gameplay-wise, it’s that movement can sometimes feel imprecise–don’t expect the same buttery smoothness of Bayonetta. For example, the Beast Legion’s mount mode winds up in an unpredictable direction, and the pistol combo forces you to flip backward. It may result in falling off ledges or unintentionally getting in harm’s way. Thankfully, it’s an occasional frustration that doesn’t detract from the core experience.

If you watch gameplay carefully, you quickly see how slow-motion, camera cuts, and subtle audio-visual cues in combat serve to signify opportune times to make your move. These flourishes are also how the game cements its bold sense of style. Popular manga artist Masakazu Katsura lent his hand to lead the character designs, resulting in some of the best-looking anime cops around. And when your bombastic actions in battle are matched by visually-striking momentum and tenacity, it delivers a unique thrill that makes Astral Chain special to see in motion.

Further complementing the game’s grand spectacle is its soundtrack. The groovy house tune heard in the police headquarters is infectious and the somber guitar melody at the stray cat safehouse hits like a reprieve from the chaos that envelops the world. Tense instrumentals and hard-hitting rock remixes of songs seamlessly bounce between one another during some combat missions. Unrelenting metal tracks propel boss battles and an ethereal Nier-like theme plays in the astral plane. Sprinkle in some J-rock worthy of an anime OP and Astral Chain rounds out the musical spectrum to great effect.

Astral Chain isn’t just about flashiness and stylish action, though. You’re given room to breathe between combat scenarios that comprise its chapters (or Files, as they’re called). Structurally, it’s somewhere between the traditional open world of Nier: Automata and segmented stages of Bayonetta–chapters funnel you through hub areas where you’re free to take part in side missions or explore for optional activities. Not everything is laid out on your map, so it takes some detective work to unveil all the hidden content.

Investigation scenarios are peppered within the main missions, where you analyze the environment and talk to locals to solve the mysteries at hand. Piecing the clues together properly awards you with a top rank, and it’s no sweat if you get things wrong. You’ll often jump into segments of the astral plane, which feature the more intense fights, and these areas incorporate light puzzle/platforming elements that ask you to use Legion powers in different ways.

The activities you undertake outside of combat aren’t exactly groundbreaking, but they provide enjoyable ways to engage with Astral Chain’s vivid world. It’s a welcome variety that also helps the pacing from chapter to chapter. Astral Chain never sits on one particular element for too long; it knows when to move on.

Now, style doesn’t always equal substance. The overarching plot touches on the conventions of evil authority figures who abuse the power of science for their own agendas, and it also relates to the nature of how you’re able to wield the power of Legions, which are tamed Chimera. However, these themes are hardly explored. Rather, Astral Chain relies on cliches within its story and exposition. As a result, the more pivotal moments feel a bit less consequential. While some anime-esque tropes are just plain fun to see play out, others are borderline nonsensical even in context.

While you choose to play as a customized male or female cop on a special task force, your sibling–who’s on the same team–becomes the narrative focal point with fully voiced dialogue. Your own character is relegated to being an awkward silent protagonist. It’s disappointing because Astral Chain has so much stylistic potential to build from in order to give its lead character a distinct attitude. I can’t help but see it as a missed opportunity, especially when both characters are voiced when they’re your partner. In the end, the narrative presents stakes that are just high enough that you’ll want to see it to the end, and, thankfully, every other part of the game remains outstanding.

Astral Chain’s shortcomings don’t overshadow what it does best. It’s an incredible execution of a fresh take on Platinum Games’ foundation, standing among the stylish-action greats. And its own anime-inspired swagger makes fights all the more exhilarating. You’ll come to appreciate the calmer moments in between that add variety and offer a second to relax before jumping back into the superb combat. After 40 hours with Astral Chain, I’m still eager to take on the tougher challenges, and I’ll be grinning from ear to ear as I hit all the right moves, one after the other, while watching it all unfold.

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