Welcome to Neuron.
Platinum Games' next game, Astral Chain, puts you in the role of a metaphysical anime cop with supernatural partner. The idea is as cool as it sounds, thanks to the game's mixture of a variety of ideas: light investigation mechanics, a little bit of platforming, and a combat system that puts you in control of two characters at once.
At San Diego Comic-Con 2019, Nintendo offered GameSpot our first chance to get hands-on with Astral Chain. We played a small portion of the game that took place a few hours in, which seemed more akin to a side quest than a main story mission. The slice gave a brief look at a lot of what Astral Chain has to offer, including its combat system and investigation mechanics, and how they'll both work together with the game's central conceit--controlling two characters at once.
You play a member of a special police force unit called Neuron in Astral Chain, and your duties include dealing with the fact that the astral plane is spilling over into the real world. With it comes monsters, but you have a special trick for dealing with those, too: a Legion, your own astral plane entity that can fight monsters for you automatically or follow your commands. Your Legion is basically like a sword-wielding dog you lead around on a leash. The Legion attacks hostile creatures on its own, but you can also tell it where to go and what to attack.
Your Legion is basically like a sword-wielding dog you lead around on a leash.
The slice of Astral Chain we played started with a case about a missing woman who had seemingly come under attack from an astral plane monster, known as a chimera. Heading to the crime scene means walking through Astral Chain's city, where you'll find citizens to speak with and shops where you can buy useful items. Talking with people can give you information about the game's story and the cases you'll work on as you progress through the game, and like a real cop, you'll keep notes about important information you learn along the way. Conversations that took place before our slice of the game had brought up mention of something called "the Red Ghost," which turned out to be the chimera we're hunting.
Arriving at the crime scene gave a quick sense of what Astral Chain's investigations are like. This case required checking certain spots on the ground where evidence had been marked. We were able to see a reconstruction of the victim lying on the ground after the attack and picked up some other information about the event, and eventually, we found a place where the chimera's astral plane energy had warped reality slightly. That was the clue we were looking for.
Using Your Supernatural Police Dog
As you walk around in Astral Chain, your Legion isn't necessarily always by your side, but you can just about always summon it with a quick press of the ZL button. You can use it to analyze astral plane evidence, and when we brought our Legion to check out what had happened at the crime scene, it was able to detect an astral trail the chimera had left behind. Now we were using the Legion like a bloodhound, navigating through the streets as it illuminated the trail. Before long, Astral Chain presented another use for the Legion--it can allow you to cross large gaps and leap to distant locations.
When you summon the Legion, it'll float around on the end of its spectral leash and follow you, but you can take control of its movements by holding ZL and using the right thumbstick. Positioning the Legion on the far side of a gap lets you use it to pull you across the abyss, making it useful for platforming. You can also direct it to specific spots to activate switches and solve simple puzzles.
Eventually, the Legion led us to a portal to the astral plane where the chimera had taken the woman. The astral plane is a spooky, strangely geometric and minimalist landscape, basically filled with arenas for battling enemies and locations to use your Legion to solve puzzles. It was here that we got our first taste of combat, which, despite sometimes requiring you to control two characters in the heat of battle, is actually intuitive and easy to pick up.
One Player Co-op Combat
You only have one attack button in Astral Chain, which you'll pound away on as you fight enemies to create combos. Variety in combat is created by how your weapon can transform seamlessly; you wield a high-tech police baton that can change shape to fit the situation. It starts as a small, fast melee weapon, but can be switched to a powerful, slow, heavy sword called a gladius, or morphed into a pistol. You can switch your weapon on the fly to change your attacks as you pummel enemies, and stringing several attacks together builds a combo.
Fighting is less about performing a bunch of complex moves and more about exact timing to link your attacks with those of your Legion. String six hits together and you'll see a blue circle appear on your character as time briefly slows, prompting you to hit ZL to summon your Legion. Do that in time, and the creature will spring into action, adding another big hit to your attack. You can then follow up with another strike of your own, which triggers another Legion prompt, and so on. After you've done enough damage, you can also activate finishing moves with your Legion, which sends your partner to rip out a chimera's "ability core," and restores your health and increases how long your Legion can fight at your side.
Your other major ability is a quick dodge that can get you out of harm's way, and slipping past incoming attacks at the absolute last second gives you another opening to send your Legion in for an attack. Combat quickly becomes a fast-paced concert of attacks on open opponents and dodges that give you chances for counter-attacks, with your Legion leaping in and out to extend your combos. When you're not actively telling your Legion what to do, though, it engages whoever's closest on its own, without requiring you to babysit it.
The result is the ability to control both characters, or just one, depending on the situation. You still need to be aware of both characters, though--your Legion disappears if a timer that starts when you summon it runs out, and more time gets subtracted as it takes damage.
The Legion has a few other tricks, too. The creature is leashed to your wrist with its spectral chain, but if you control the Legion directly, you can wrap that chain around enemies (including bosses), which briefly locks them in place and stuns them. And like your weapon, you can switch it between a few different versions, like a sword-wielding take, or a slower, more hulking one. The sword Legion can be called on for special moves, too. We fought a big shield-wielding enemy, which required lots of combos with the Legion to beat, but later, it was joined by a floating pink baddie that could create a tether between it and its allies, rendering both invulnerable. Calling on the Legion allows you to take direct control of it for a sword strike that can cut things in the environment, including that energy tether. Slicing through it broke the invulnerability bond, allowing us to send the Legion to fight one enemy while we took on the other.
After fighting some smaller enemies, we took on the chimera we'd been hunting, a multi-headed dog creature called, of course, Cerberus. The boss fight felt pretty typical to action games, with the monster winding up for big ground-smashing attacks that sent shockwaves outward, or leaping into the air to come hurtling back down toward us. The skill in the fight was in recognizing and dodging incoming attacks to create openings for the Legion to strike at the Cerberus. Avoiding attacks was a big focus since the boss could do massive damage to both you and your Legion; you need to protect yourself and pay attention to where your partner is to keep both of you alive and dishing out combo damage.
More Astral Police Work
The fight was tough, but in all not too overwhelming. Astral Chain's combat feels relatively simple when you first pick it up, which helps keep it accessible, but the number of things you can do with your Legion as you get used to the speed and timing of a fight adds a lot of complexity. The result is a combat system that allows you to do a lot of cool things as you get better at it, but which adds difficulty in the amount of attention and coordination it demands. Astral Chain wants you to be constantly thinking in two directions, and the skill involved in its fights comes both from quick reactions and timing, and from keeping track of both characters so you can use them effectively without getting either one killed.
The Astral Chain demo wrapped up with defeating the boss and returning the woman safely back to the human world--only to discover that in the meantime, chimeras had started appearing all over the place and the astral plane was bleeding through into the real world. Civilians were scattered around the area where chimeras were showing up, so we were tasked with clearing out the enemies--along with a giant, sword-wielding boss creature--in order to save them.
Astral Chain wants you to be constantly thinking in two directions.
Though the demo only lasted 20 minutes or so, our look at Astral Chain was enough to get a sense of how fast and satisfying its combat can be. It looks as though your Legion will be an integral part of the entire experience, which offers a lot of depth to a combat system that's otherwise simple enough that just about anybody can pick it up.
The demo was a little thinner on what the other half of the game will be like, as you venture through the city talking to other humans and solving metaphysical crimes. The investigation in our slice of the game was pretty shallow and simplistic, but the inclusion of the notebook suggests that doing police work will be a bigger part of the game and might be more complex than just interacting with certain spots on the ground.
What's clear is that there are a lot of cool ideas at work in Astral Chain. Platinum Games' newest take on combat changes up the usual approach to action games just enough to feel fresh without being overwhelming, and its metaphysical setting and two-character mechanics suggest everything beyond fighting will be pretty interesting, too. We won't have to wait long to see how Platinum's new ideas work together as a whole; Astral Chain is due to hit Nintendo Switch on August 30.