Astral Chain (2019)

I have never been particularly good at action games which rely on combo-heavy gameplay. While I may enjoy them to an extent, I usually fall back on bread and butter combos, never utilizing the full potential of the games. When I first learned of Astral Chain, I was excited at the prospect of an action game that deemphasized combos, and instead was geared towards positioning and strategic use of combat options. Astral Chain is unique in that you are essentially controlling two characters at once: the main character and their metallic companion. This concept had a lot of promise, and I was excited for an action game that I could really master. Unfortunately, my time with the Astral Chain did not pan out so well, and I was ultimately disappointed by the game’s shortcomings.

The idea behind Astral Chain is that you play as a futuristic police officer in a decaying world. The world is being corrupted by some extradimensional being, and you are assigned to a special task force to defend the last city on Earth from the spreading corruption. You are equipped with a captured entity from the other dimension, chained and tamed so that you can utilize its abilities against its own brethren. You control both the main character and this being, called a legion. By holding down on one of the gamepad triggers, you can move the legion and use any abilities related to it. If you are not holding the trigger, you are controlling the main character, and the legion will attack the nearest enemy automatically. Most of the time you can simply let the legion do its own thing while only you focus on piloting the main character.

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What drew me into Astral Chain was how strategic the combat seemed at a glance. There are five separate legions that you will acquire throughout the course of the game. Each has a panoply of special abilities, and as such some are better suited for certain enemy archetypes. On top of this the actual chain connecting the player and the legion is a physical entity that has consequences on the battlefield. You can use it as a trip wire to stop charging foes, or you can use it tie up and immobilize enemies, or you can use it to have the human dash to the legion or vice versa. All of this is great, there are tons of ways to mix up combat and come up with your own style. Utilizing all of the legion’s abilities, using the chain itself, and positioning the legion and main character simultaneously makes for a hectic but fun combat system. There’s no need to memorize long strings of button inputs to pull off a combo, instead you improvise your own methods of operating the legion.

While I love that the combat is unique and lets players develop their own styles, it also has quite a few issues. The most glaring and common issue in the combat is the camera. It can often be difficult to tell what is going on due to the fact that it can be finicky to position the camera well. This is exacerbated by the fact that for some reason many of the arenas are extremely cramped. Moreover, there are big, flashy animations that obscure what is happening.

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One of the more bizarre problems with the combat was how the dodge functioned. In most games, dodging provides the player with invincibility frames, so you could dodge through attacks if timed properly. Astral Chain functions similarly, except there is a noticeable lack of invincibility frames. This is fine for the quicker attacks, since the player still can properly avoid them with well-timed dodges. But for longer, lingering attacks such as spinning slashes or shockwaves, the dodge is not sufficient. You could dodge the attack, but get hit by a lingering hitbox and take damage regardless of how well you timed your dodge. I think the idea behind this was to force the player to focus on properly spacing and moving far away from enemies when they use these kinds of attacks, but many times combat is so chaotic you cannot possibly tell if they are going to do a spinning attack or regular slash.

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Astral Chain isn’t a particularly long game, there are around a dozen “chapters” to complete. This is fine, except for the fact that the first couple chapters of the game are essentially elongated tutorials. One of the most crucial mechanics in the game, sync attacking, is not even unlocked until the third chapter. Spending such a significant portion of a game in tutorial-town is something that I always abhor in games. I somewhat understand it, since Astral Chain has a ton of buttons and intricacies. However, the first chapters are extremely boring and a poor introduction to the game. The combat in these beginning sections is just mashing the attack button and dodging when appropriate. The legion gets very little use. Considering the legion is such a crucial aspect of the game, I would have like for these chapters to have introduced the core mechanics of the legion earlier on.

The action portion of Astral Chain is certainly unique and it can be a blast, but it is held back by some of the nagging issues I mentioned. Unfortunately, the rest of the game is far less redeemable. The setting itself is interesting, and the art style is sharp and vibrant. Other than that, I found the non-action parts of Astral Chain to be painful. The voice acting was somewhat stiff, but perhaps that was because the script was so poor. The main character doesn’t talk at all, and their twin is an unlikeable jerk throughout the course of the game. The dialogue just doesn’t feel natural in the slightest. This isn’t helped by the fact that the story itself was a big anime trope. That would be ok if the elaborate and crazy narrative ideas actually made sense. The villains are so poorly explained that their motives and ultimate goals remain a mystery even after beating the game.

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The strongest part of Astral Chain is undeniably its combat. It’s strange then that the game puts so many roadblocks between combat encounters. A ludicrous amount of time is spent wandering around environments doing random tasks before you can actually get to the fun parts. The game often transports the player to the “astral plane” which is a different dimension in which most of the combat takes place. Unfortunately, between encounters the player is often left to explore, do light puzzle solving, or do the dreaded platforming sections. It feels like the developers had an idea in mind to put downtime between action sequences, but put zero effort into actually making the downtime anything but a chore.

The astral plane is so dull to look at, so exploring it grows tiresome quickly. The “puzzles” in the game generally consist of moving a block from point A to a highlighted point B. There are no obstructions are anything that could constitute an actual puzzle. And the platforming is downright frustrating. Your character cannot jump, and you must rely on dashing to the legion to make it across gaps. But where exactly your character will land is not obvious, so sometimes you just don’t dash far enough despite your legion being on a platform. Moreover, you can get stuck on the tiniest pieces of environment geometry and will instantly fall.

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Outside of the astral plane, there are plenty of other time-wasting tasks to get in the way of fun. The stealth sections are absolutely unnecessary and unrefined for instance. Most of the game’s side quests are poorly tuned mini-games. Moving stacks of boxes using motion controls, chasing down petty criminals, and shooting balloons are ultimately not engaging tasks. The biggest culprit of being an underdeveloped time-sink are the investigations. At the beginning of each chapter, you generally must run around a crime scene to gather clues about some mysterious occurrence. Of course, there is no actual logic or deduction here. It’s just talking to various characters who give you highlighted clues, and then at the end you take a quiz by matching the clues to some questions. Maybe I was disappointed because I had just played the masterful deduction game Return of the Obra Dinn, but the investigations felt like they were slapped on during the end of development rather than being a fully fleshed out feature.

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Overall, I did not enjoy my time with Astral Chain. It’s a game that I think spread itself too thin with many different ideas rather than focus on refining one or two. If the platforming, puzzling, stealth, exploration, and side quests were dropped entirely I think the game would be better off for it. Moreover, if time hadn’t been spent making these underdeveloped features, maybe more time could have been spent to refine the core aspects of the game. The combat was fun, but it definitely could’ve been fine tuned. The investigations needed a lot of work to be turned into a decent feature. If the game had been centered around combat and investigations, I think it could’ve been a more succinct experience rather than the mess that it is. It is for these reasons that I am giving Astral Chain a 4/10. There are much better action games out there, as this game is a muddled and unfocused collection of ideas.

 

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