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11/09 - Astral Chain (Pt Standard)
Well, what a weird, strange beast of a game this is. Something that is certainly far from perfect, with many ups and downs, but is also really fantastic and unique when it shines.
It took me a really long time to warm up to this game. It wasn't until pretty much halfway through that it finally clicked. I've read this rough start is a common problem with most people who play it, but it was very extreme for me. Especially considering how I'm usually on board with Platinum's games. Although, that said, I do tend to not get on as well with their more experimental games, which I would say this is one of. In that context, this is the one I've gelled with the most.
But this is probably the biggest of the many problems the game has. It's hard to get to grips with, and I don't think it was done in the best way. While it makes sense they would want to ease you in to this very unusual combat style, it takes far too long to really get there, and they hold back the most important parts of the puzzle for too long. Before you get to that point, the game is pretty overwhelming and hard to parse, as enemies are very aggressive and often appear in large groups that can result in the visuals becoming very chaotic.
But when it clicks, it becomes something really special. While it has the same kind of polish and cadence that Platinum are known for, it still feels unlike anything else out there. Some similarities could be drawn to how V plays in DMC5, but even then it's very different from that. It requires quite a bit shift from the usual mentality one approaches these games with. More based around managing positioning, and being in sync with another entity, but while still working as a single unit. It's very rhythmic, and rewards setting up situations to exploit, and has a big focus on crowd control. You really need to keep on top of things, but when you do, it's so incredibly rewarding and you feel like a champion. It feels much more involved than how V felt to play, with much more direct control over your familiars, with a much better connection to them, and with far more depth to what you can do. For all the problems this game has, and for all the times combat can be frustrating and confusing as you're thrown around like a ragdoll, the good parts make up for it and more. It's not just that it's really good, but genuinely unique and fresh.
Other parts of the game however are extremely hit-and-miss. On the more positive side, the aesthetic stylings are great. The futuristic cityscape of The Ark is a very pleasing setting to inhabit and explore. It may not be the most original thing in the world, but it nails the atmosphere well and has a lot of really impressive sights. The cyberspace alternate reality Astral Plane areas you venture in to are also great. Probably the most visually imposing areas of the game, that manage to to always impress despite basically made out of red and black cubes. Many screenshots taken there which would work well as a wallpaper background, if the resolution of the game wasn't so low anyway. In the same vein, the soundtrack is also really good. It's an eclectic amalgam of so many different genres, that bring to mind so many other similar pieces of media. A chimera
of different influences one might say. It's got hints of Nier, Ghost in the Shell, Metal Gear Rising, Bayonetta, Deus Ex, with a bit of djent-like prog metal thrown in there too. Before I got to grips with the combat, the soundtrack was probably the thing I was most impressed with in the whole game.
But then there are all the things that felt like missteps that threatened to drag the rest of the experience down. Not only is the combat very unique in this game, the level structure is very different for this subgenre too. Levels usually start with a section that is more open and sprawling, where you get to explore around and do sidequests before you head in to more linear sections toward the end of the levels that are more familiar to what one might expect with this sort of game. While I liked existing in the world and having a bit more freedom, the sidequests themselves were usually pretty dull or simply bad. They feel like filler, with uninteresting objectives. Occasionally they contribute to your overall ranking for the level too, so they can drag down your score pretty heavily because you couldn't wrestle with the awful gyro controls trying to carry boxes, or whatever it is it asks of you. It's not really fair, as the skillset has nothing to do with the combat systems, the scoring seems to be rather harsh, and it makes the prospect of replaying for a better rank unappealing.
The story and characters are also quite underwhelming. The plot is very predictable and basically a long string of sci-fi anime tropes and cliches. While those things may be common to many similar games, it's usually not a problem because they focus more on bombastic and entertaining characters. You get invested in the simplistic plots, where you can pretty much always tell where it's going, because you want to see the characters get there and see their personalities clash. Or just soak in the campy melodrama along the way. But here almost all the characters are bland and lack personality. Again, very cliched and uninteresting. The only exception being one or two comedy relief minor secondary characters. The protagonist is mute, which comes across very as awkward and silly. Presumably this is all because there's a character creator, but I can't really see why there is one. There's clearly a canon appearance to your character, and nothing about the game facilitates the idea that you can shape who they are in any way.
As for smaller issues, the controls are pretty fiddly and unnecessarily complicated. While part of that is just having to get used to them, in other ways there are simply certain things that don't need to be the way they are, and just make things harder than they should be. The issue of unfitting objectives sometimes shows up in combat, asking you to beat a fight with some certain one-time qualifier that doesn't work well. The technical performance of the game is pretty bad, aiming for but often failing to hit 30fps, which can make things even harder to keep on top of than usual. Every so often you will come across simply odd design decisions that aggravate and get in the way of the fun, that seem to have no point to them, like a level where the floor is covered in goo that trips you up, and most of the enemies are boring tentacles.
So even though this game has a lot going for it, there's a lot of room for improvement too. While the combat is top notch and really interesting, and the atmosphere and style are really well done too, this game is in dire need of some streamlining, and is overall rather inelegant. But in a way, that also adds to its charm. You don't get many games like this these days. While I certainly don't want to excuse the issues, as they do impact the experience, they do play a part in giving this game a curious and quirky personality, that feels genuinely experimental and ambitious. It's so rare these days to get a game that feels like it's from a (relatively) big studio at the top of their game, going all-out on trying something new, just letting their imagination go wild, throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. A lot of it of course won't work perfectly, but in the process you get something unlike anything else, and that is truly noteworthy.