Astral Chain, the latest collaboration between PlatinumGames and Nintendo, teeters side to side like a Jenga tower, its many pieces stacked atop one another, threatening to collapse at any moment.
I get winded just delivering the elevator pitch: I play as a young cop in a technologically advanced, man-made island nation, with the rare biological ability to wrangle interdimensional, viral data demons into becoming living weapons called Legions. I must fight, collect, and wield a battalion of these Legions to save the world (what little remains of it) from extinction — while also fulfilling my rudimentary police duties on the side.
Finally, a video game that lets me slaughter gigantic monster spawn before I deposit litter into trash bins!
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The action game is every bit as weird, knotted, and atonal as it sounds. To prepare the equivalent of video game potpourri, its creators dice and blend proven bits of beloved games. There’s a slice of Zelda’s gear collecting, a sprig of Nier’s world-building, a dollop of Bayonetta’s splashy set-pieces, and a heaping helping of Pokémon.
Seriously, there is a lot of Pokémon here. Earnestly unpacking the central dramatic tension of Astral Chain has me sounding like a ponderous, stoned college student overthinking the backstory of Ash Ketchum. “Hey man, do Pokémon actually want to be captured and forced to fight? What if they fought back? What if we were the real monsters?”
In this way, Astral Chain is Pokémon reflected in a funhouse mirror: distorted, unnerving, and a little grotesque. Enslaving monsters and forcing them to battle scans quite differently when there’s a chain around the neck of your creature and the beast is bucking violently to escape your grip.
So yes, it’s a big tower made of precariously and sometimes uncomfortably stacked ideas pulled from across the game industry, a tower that often feels as if will collapse on itself. Nonetheless, its creators’ solution is to constantly add more seemingly unrelated ideas, somehow providing just enough balance to keep the whole thing standing upright.
I finally get why this balancing act works so well after putting about 15 hours into the game. While Astral Chain features all the complexity and density of a PlatinumGames creation, it retains Nintendo’s knack for accessibility.
Astral Chain makes PlatinumGames’ brilliant action accessible
Astral Chain is an action game for beginners. The default difficulty mode favors story over challenge; the more difficult “Pt Standard” option, also available from the start, provides plenty of items to keep my character’s health maxed and their powers buffed. Ever wanted to try an action game like Bayonetta or Nier: Automata, but found the difficulty intimidating? Astral Chain is the answer.
I don’t have to memorize complicated combos that require precisely timed button inputs; my supercop delivers attacks with one button. The cop and Legion are controlled by the Switch’s two joysticks, their chain allowing them to separate, but only so far. If I wrap the chain around an enemy, I tie it to the ground. I can extend the chain like a rubber band to catch speeding enemies, then redirect their kinetic energy to launch them back from where they came. A tap of a button brings the Legion back to the cop, or alternately zips her toward the Legion, allowing the pair to cross gaps or hurl themselves in and out of fights.
The most intimidating move on paper — controlling the two characters mid-combat to weaponize the chain that binds them together — is surprisingly the most simple in action. It’s like maneuvering two humanoid crafts in a twin-stick shooter.
Though it feels intuitive, it looks like a flashy sci-fi anime in motion. Animations turn simple moves into choreography. My cop doesn’t leap; she cartwheels. My Legion doesn’t dodge; it backflips and pirouettes. The action is decadent, sumptuous.
Which isn’t to say that longtime action fans won’t have enough to do. The game has depth — just not at the expense of accessibility. If you do feed on ultra hard settings, however, you can watch this top-level demonstration to see what the game can offer.
The daily grind continues, even in apocalyptic times
And then, as quickly as I was tossed into a battle to save the world, I get dropped into the banal reality of my cop’s actual job. At headquarters, I chat with colleagues, helping with their minor (and sometimes major) domestic problems, clearing my inbox, and attending office meetings. The on-location bits typically include police work, like retrieving lost cats, disposing of trash, and investigating crimes by talking with dozens of locals.
Playing as a police officer carries its own significance for a portion of the audience. Earlier this summer, I spoke with Astral Chain’s director, Takahisa Taura, about how players in Japan perceived playing as a police office:.
“Well, I don’t think there’s people within Japan who have an extreme view on the police department,” Taura said. “Through this game we want to give the police the image of being a hero. You can’t do things in this game like hurt people. We want to have the player feel like they’re being heroic as they progress through the game.”
Taura and his team make good on their goal. Astral Chain is rife with non-combat work, focusing on the Western police motto “protect and serve.” I rescue and feed stray cats, heal sick citizens, help injured victims escape danger. I can de-escalate minor incidents by using my chain to suppress them, and when I am forced to fight humans, the game makes it clear that — à la Batman — they’re stunned, not killed.
Is it still weird to use my super Legion powers to arrest a petty graffiti artist? Sure is! But for the most part, the police force in the game feels committed to the ideal: dedicated to their community, focusing on collecting information over using force, and immensely skeptical of the powerful, including their own government and superiors.
My detective work boils down to keywords I collect in digital notebooks, which must be correctly selected when a fellow officer asks me to piece together each mission’s central mystery. It’s an extremely simple, bare-bones investigation system. It’s also super effective. I have to pay just enough attention to each line of dialogue that I find myself becoming invested in the game’s story, which is largely told through civilians who only have a tiny idea about what the hell is actually going on. Most are concerned with personal problems.
Once I’ve spent a good amount of time questioning and helping the locals, I get a call from dispatch. Something has gone wrong, and it’s time to pulverize some interdimensional ghouls.
The game quickly finds a flow by repeating the three-part structure: office chat, detective work, and demon fight. I then return to headquarters to upgrade my gear and start the process anew, now a little stronger and with a slightly better idea of what’s going on in this weird post-post-apocalyptic world. The game’s tone bounces about just as swiftly. Anytime the plot approaches overwrought drama, it shifts gears toward humor.
One mission at a mall gets particularly heavy, but then I return to police HQ to entertain fellow officers, distracting them from their fresh trauma. Of course, I do this by dressing as Lappy, the police dog mascot, silently pestering my office pals until they expose their insecurities to a giant, plush pet. Also at headquarters: a person claiming to be the toilet fairy, hiding inside a bathroom stall, begging me to collect sanitary wipes while I’m out and about.
The tension between those two emotions may be part of the point. This 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. My friends, it is a mood.
What begins as a dark meditation on collecting pocket monsters gradually becomes a blunt, but effective, soap opera about life in shitty times. Astral Chain is about the urge to inspire good, not just by hurting the enemy, but through helping those around you. It’s also wonderfully welcoming, an action game for everybody that provides an escape to a world on fire where good people can do right.
Forget Game of the Year. Astral Chain is a game for this moment.
Astral Chain will be released Aug. 30 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” download code provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
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