This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Astral Chain.
Prologue: Last Day for "Limited Edition" Merch
Today is the last day sharkrobot.com is selling their limited run of exclusive ZP shirts, hoodies, and hats, so you'd better snap them up! Unless you're not watching this the day it comes out, in which case: Hey, remember that great ZP merch you could've bought? Maybe missing out on that was when your life started going downhill!
Not that I want to sound like a professional ice cream taster complaining about a headache, but did we have a shorter drought period than usual? I ask because my cup has been runnething over, and it's been hard to pick a review subject. I tried Borderlands 3, but I lost a little more will to live with every dialogue line that was about nine times longer than it needed to be in the name of somehow eventually sounding witty, possibly in accordance with the infinite monkeys principle. Oh, and by the way, at the risk of sounding un-woke, making 95% of your game's characters hot, badass ladies in tight pants and low-cut belly shirts is when you start to drift into the realms of fetishistic; I think that's called the Sucker Punch effect.
I also tried out The Surge 2 and Blasphemous, but frankly, I'm holding off on the Souls-likes for a while until I offend Mother again and need to self-flagellate. Then there were these two Switch games everyone kept banging on at me to try. "Ooh, play the new Fire Emblem, Yahtzee! It's really anime; you'll hate it!" So I did, but I didn't really hate it; I just got bored of it the second time I was obliged to run around an entire school patting every anime person on the head in turn like I was playing a game of tag that nobody else knew about. So that left the other Switch game, Astral Chain, which I did kind of get into, so let's talk about that; it's still anime, but slightly more restrained with it, in that I only noticed one character with visibly-bouncing tits.
In the future of Astral Chain, most of Earth has had its shit ruined by monsters from another dimension, and the last remnants of humanity survive in a small isolated, high-tech nation. I feel like I've seen this premise before in the animes; I wonder if Japan is trying to tell us something. Our character, or characters - we pick whether to play the male or female half of a pair of twins, but the only real difference it makes is whether or not we're allowed to wear hot pants - are members of an elite police unit who defend humanity from the inter-dimensional monsters through the use of tamed inter-dimensional monsters of their own, permanently connected to their wrists by a chain of the astral variety. So essentially, it's a supercharged anime dog-walking simulator, but if you're thinking the monsters with chains around their necks forced to battle their own kind don't look super-thrilled with the idea, you might be right, because after an inciting incident early on, the pet monsters rebel and everyone loses theirs except you; you're special, because the pet monsters respect your noble bearing and kibble-purchasing decisions.
Astral Chain comes to us from PlatinumGames, most recently known for Nier Automata, but also responsible for Bayonetta and some other games with combat reminiscent of a handful of lit sparklers in a candy floss machine, and as such, you should expect fast combat, high difficulty and every enemy monster being introduced with a freeze-frame profile like they're characters in a Guy Ritchie film.
The central gimmick with this one is your little inter-dimensional pound puppy on a chain, who you move around independently with the second analog stick. And it's quite an interesting gimmick as they go 'cos you use the titular Astral Chain in combat as a tripwire or to tie up enemies, annoying as it always is when the right analog stick goes back and forth between controlling the camera and something else, 'cos suddenly I can't use the camera to see where I'm moving my murder-dog to in a crucial moment when I really need him to accurately shit on the paper. This was the game that made me finally made me fork out for a Switch Pro controller, by the way, 'cos if I went through a whole Platinum game with those tiny Joy-Con analog nipples, my phalanges would have burst out the backs of my thumbs like little extruding surrender flags.
Astral Chain's combat based around exotic yo-yoing techniques reminds me, oddly, of Platinum's own The Wonderful 101; the action of guiding Genocide the Wonder Dog around the arena isn't a million miles away from drawing circles and shapes that turn into weapons, and the results can be just as fiddly and disappointing as my flaccid attempts at straight lines. Wonderful 101, however, was spectacularly over-the-top in the traditional rather than the magenta sense, while Astral Chain comes off as somewhat more restrained. "Restrained"? "Chains"? This is all starting to sound a bit kinky. But no, it's the bad kind of restrained.
Something seems to have happened to PlatinumGames around the time it was making Nier Automata; these were the lads who brought us Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, in which a bespectacled, muscular senator power-bombs the hero while lecturing him about his favorite neoconservative policies with a relish that stops just short of bursting into song. But Nier Automata was somewhat muted, tonally, at least as far as any game with such lovingly-rendered buttocks can be, and I see a lot of its influence on Astral Chain, especially the music; I was mentally back in Nier Automata every time I went to the astral realm and heard the sound of distant choral voices singing a song inspired by a dial-up modem.
Unlike Nier Automata, though, Astral Chain isn't really saying anything, philosophically; the setting, story, and characters are all rather shallow, bog-standard anime stuff, especially the monster design. Your leashed-up pedigree chums all look like EVA Unit 01 knocked up Metal Gear REX in some, no doubt, unimaginably destructive way, and the one form that literally is supposed to be a dog looks exactly like the robot dog from Revengeance but without the personality. If anything is going to sell this game, assuming you're not the kind of person who just buys anything with anime on it because you're convinced that this "meaningful relationships with other human beings" thing is a passing fad, it'll be the unique combat mechanics with your faithful ducky on a string; shame it's kind of buried amid so much other stuff, like the one student in the school photo who ended up under a staple.
For one thing, it's possible to get by without it; your dude or hot-panted dudette can light attack, heavy attack and dodge with the best of them by themselves. So if anything, going out of your way to bind the enemies as well almost feels like overkill, and this is only when you are in combat. Back when they were fun, Platinum would usually fully centralize their idiosyncratic high-octane combat, but now it seems we can't have our pudding till we eat our vegetables, so there's also a focus on being respectable police officers: exploring crime scenes, gathering clues, presenting the correct clue when asked in an anemic, Phoenix Wright-y sort of way. There's a stealth section at one point that, like all forced stealth in action games, is about as welcome as a slug in a garden salad and about as much fun to get through; a lot of side-quests that throw you unexpectedly into incredibly banal minigames where you have to balance boxes, do a sliding-tile puzzle, or hand out balloons; and then, eventually, you're allowed back into the astral realm for a bit of combat and a bit of platforming where your biggest threat is getting knocked off a ledge by your own fucking dope-on-a-rope 'cos you slightly misjudged the yank jump.
Variety is nice, but this feels more like throwing a speed trap in front of my tires to delay me getting to the next interesting bit, and even with all this variety, things start to feel a bit routine: hang out at police HQ, go to the city, do some side-quests, go to the astral realm, come back, sandwiches. The astral realm is initially impressive, if weirdly reminiscent of the one in Control, but that's lost when you're in and out of it every five minutes, like you're popping into the office over the weekend to pick up some files. Still, routine sort of makes sense for a police game. "<kkt> Attention all officers, a giant armored gorilla is flinging exploding turds around city center. <kkt>" "<kkt> You mean a 2218? <kkt>" "<kkt> No, it's a 2219, 'cos he's wearing a sombrero."
- Police release me let me go: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Surprised they didn't have a minigame for picking up interdimensional turds with little plastic gloves
- Now let's think about the Nier Automata buttocks some more
Extra: Will Destroy the Galaxy for Cash
As of September 26, 2019, my latest audiobook, Will Destroy the Galaxy for Cash, will be available from audible.com! It's a sequel to Will Save the Galaxy for Food, in which our down-on-his-luck space hero protagonist returns to make an exciting new batch of hilariously bad decisions!