When silence is not golden.
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Given the pedigree of Platinum Games, there's reason to believe the Nintendo Switch exclusive Astral Chain could be the next breakout game in the stylish hard-action genre. It's directed by Takahisa Taura, who was a lead designer on Nier: Automata, and supervised by Hideki Kamiya, who brought us Bayonetta and the original Devil May Cry. But what those games had, in addition to gratifying and refined combat systems, was a star character with a unique voice who brought their stories to life.
You may think that a game that lives or dies by the greatness of its combat system could easily get away with a silent protagonist. However, a lot of the bombast and attitude that exudes from stylish action games are borne out of a character who sets the tone throughout. I think about Bayonetta's confidence and ferocity and how it's part of what makes those games pop, and how the on-screen action is very much an extension of that charisma. Even Vanquish lead Sam Gideon's corny, hard-boiled temperament was part and parcel to the game's attitude.
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In the opening minutes of Astral Chain, you choose between playing as a male or female character, both of which are siblings in the story. You give them a name, hairstyle, hair and eye color and jump straight into some varied third-person action scenarios. You're a slick anime cop who's quickly propelled to special status by taking on a Legion, a separate entity you control simultaneously to fight the Chimera threat that plagues your city. In the heat of these moments, your character will yell, grunt, and call out to their Legion upon summoning, but they'll never speak, even when spoken to.
Instead, the silence of Astral Chain's lead makes for those awkward moments that warrant a vocal response in dialogue. And to be clear, there hasn't been any narrative reasoning to why they don't talk. Maybe it's that Astral Chain puts less of a focus on story or character development. But I begin to wonder if those bits of emptiness could have been flipped to help the game establish a distinct attitude and help elevate the critical action-packed scenes or lend more weight into the smaller investigative decisions you make.
What makes this design choice even more curious is that whichever sibling you didn't choose becomes a key supporting character who features fully voiced dialogue. Voice actors Aleks Le and Brianna Knickerbocker play the roles of the male and female characters, respectively. And by virtue of having to choose one, you have to pass on the other's performance. It also feels like we could've had a more fleshed-out lead with a distinct personality, like in Platinum's past games.
Last month, Platinum Games put out a blog post in which Taura-san explained the decision to go with a silent protagonist and said, "I want players to be able to project themselves onto the player character, so they naturally feel like part of the game. So [we] don’t give the player character any extreme expressions that might give them too much of a predefined personality." But now having played Astral Chain, silence doesn't seem to be benefitting it in that particular way.
I don't see silent protagonists as an inherent flaw; my favorite games of all time, like the Persona series and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, put them in starring roles. And those characters develop alongside you as you make specific decisions that have narrative implications over the course of the game's story. That's not exactly what Astral Chain is doing, as the few dialogue options I've seen during investigative scenarios seem inconsequential, so it's hard to get in the mindset of having the lead be an extension of yourself.
Of course, it's just one aspect to the multitude of things Astral Chain is trying to do. There's a uniqueness to the function of the Legion and how it diversifies combat in a way that Platinum hadn't done before, and the visual flair complements the satisfaction of tearing through Chimera. It's probably not going to be a deal-breaker that your character doesn't speak since the game is much more than that, but I can't help but think of it as a missed opportunity.