A Journey Through the Game of the 2010s
Well, February was an interesting month. January was kind of an easy ride with me being able to finish four games in a relatively expedient manner. Granted all those games were quite short remasters of even older games but still, progress is progress. So after I finished the Spyro trilogy the next game I spun being Astral Chain was a notable change of pace. This wasn’t some old Playstation hit. This was a high budget exclusive made for the hottest console of the moment. I went from a collection that was trying it’s best to emulate a platformer from 1998, to a completely new IP made for a game market so different from the one Spyro originally released in we might as well be talking about a completely different medium. So what did I think of Astral Chain?
Astral Chain is the worst a good game could be while still being good. My time spent with this game was filled with so much frustration and anger yet even though I have far more complaints than compliments I can’t deny there’s some shamefully compelling about this nonsensical police adventure. Over the course of the last decade, Platinum Games probably became the company most synonymous with what we now call the “Character Action Game”. Astral Chain being their last project of their inaugural decade feels like a showcase of almost every design tread and mechanic the studio has shown any passing interest in, in their other titles.
Unfocused is the word that comes to mind when I think of Astral Chain. As I said prior, Astral Chain liberally takes from its developer’s pass works. This itself is not a bad thing but in Astral Chain it feels like the game is distracting itself as opposed to adding variety. What I wanted from Astral Chain was another high speed high intensity action game in the same vein as Metal Gear Rising or Bayonetta. Something short and fun that mostly focused on providing satisfying combat and little else. This is not what Astral Chain wanted to do and in my opinion it was for the worse because of it.
The signature mechanic of Astral Chain are the Legions, monsters that the player character can summon to assist them during combat. The reason this is special is because the game gives you a large amount of control over the Legion almost as if you’re controlling two characters at once. An interesting idea for sure but one that I ultimately feel felt flat. Oh, there’s a ton of variation to be sure. You have three different weapons and five Legions all with tons of different special moves and commands you can give them. But the sheer crushing weight of Astral Chain’s many mechanics and gimmicks means it loses the tightness Platinum Games are known for. The game will introduce a new mechanic multiple times, no joke, every level. What makes things even worse is once all the tutorials are out of the way and the game just lets you loose with its combat it is legitimately fun. The cluttered mess of the combat keeps it away from being among Platinum’s is best but fun nonetheless. But the only time it does that is in its final level leaving 90% of the game feeling almost incomplete.
I think a lot of this issue could be placed at the feet of Astral Chain’s most needless feature: it’s skill tree. Skill trees used to be a very popular and clever idea last decade but quickly became unnecessary hindrances games needlessly foisted upon themselves. When done properly, such as in Far Cry 3 it can be a very smart way to communicate progress, but so many games last decade used it as a needless holding pattern. Forcing a player to do mind numbing side content just to make the game as satisfying as it should have been the whole time. Every Legion in Astral Chain has a skill tree. That is five whole skill trees that will require tons of exp just to max out one. Not only this but because of the way the game distributes Legions you end up getting one a level before the final boss. The trees feel so out of place and the game introduces so many other mechanics on top of it that for three levels I completely forgot about it. But once I remembered and started unlocking some of the more interesting skills on the Legions skill tree the game’s combat improved massively. And it made me wonder, why did I need to unlock these abilities in the first place? Why force me to work with these weak similar feeling Legions, till I can collect enough arbitrary points to make them actually unique and fun to play with? Yes, I know this formula can and has worked in the past but it doesn’t here.
Outside of their heavy involvement in Nier Automata, Platinum Games are not known for their storytelling. It’s never been the studio’s strong suit. They can provide entertaining cutscenes but a compelling narrative that a player might earnestly get invested in, it’s not their area of expertise. So I was surprised to find out how much focus was placed on the narrative in Astral Chain. This is the first time Platinum has worked with a completely new IP for a long time and they’ve clearly put a lot of thought into this world they’ve created but I have to say I found their efforts a little in vain. I find Astral Chains universe terribly uncompelling with its Evangelion, Blade Runner and 80s cop movie influences too blatant for me to truly get invested in it’s cities as an actual world. Not only that but the narrative suffers heavily due to its use of a silent protagonist, I’m actually a pretty big defender of silent protagonists as a narrative tool in gaming but it completely doesn’t work here. Almost every scene involving your main character feels unsatisfactory on a dialog level because every cutscene is written like an old cop movie involving a lot of back-and-forth banter. But this banter is always one-sided since your partner is the only one who has a voice box. Every time there’s a moment where it’s just your character and your partner old memories of the worst parts of Half Life 2 come flooding back, as you have an actually really likeable supporting cast desperately trying to make the player care about the empty void of a protagonist. The player character doesn’t feel like an avatar for the actual player, they are given a whole backstory, a rival sister character and a mentor stepfather. Things happened in the plot that are supposed to emotionally impact them but they’re simply just not given any ability to emote.
I’m still not sure how to fully feel about Astral Chain. The game frustrated me so much through its early to mid game with its over designed combat, tedious investigation scenes, and god awful stealth sections. But I cannot deny that in its second half it improves tremendously and certainly has a unique atmosphere and a very charming supporting cast of characters. Could really do well with a sequel though I’m not sure that I would be invested enough to actually purchase one. I can’t tell you if you should play Astral Chain or not. If all the problems I brought up don’t seem like too big a deal to you then by all means clock in but as for me I think I have to turn my badge and my gun in.
Project X Zone
February was a hectic month so Astral Chain was the only game I was able to play to completion but not due to lack of trying. I am playing the extravagantly long Project X Zone. A game where extravagant could probably be a good descriptor of nearly every aspect of it. So next month get ready for me to recount my journey crossing through a sea of dimensions and franchises. A story that brings together characters from Megaman, Street Fighter, Xenosaga, Sakura Wars, Resident Evil, Valkyria Chronicles, Devil May Cry even Resonance of freaking Fate all in one tactical jrpg. You’re going to hear all about it next month!
I hope you enjoyed my thoughts and come back next month to see me continue on this journey. Make sure to check out the other great content being contributed to this website. If you want to stay up-to-date with other story arc articles make sure to follow us at @The_Story_Arc and to stay up to date with me follow @jrebest on Twitter!