Always take time to feed the stray cats. That's at least one of the messages of "Astral Chain," a convoluted action-detective game that gives the ever-popular dystopian genre an optimistic spin.
Or mostly optimistic. After all, this is a game published by Nintendo, so things never get too depressing or adult, even if "Astral Chain's" anime style means our police force is dressed more for the club than crime fighting (think lots of knee- and thigh-high accessories).
And yet here, in a sci-fi twist that doesn't mirror our present cultural controversies, the futuristic police are purely in the camp of the righteous and the good. Our protagonist cop – players can pick a gender at the start – is always eager to help a citizen find a lost cat. And there are lots of lost cats on the Ark.
In an early dramatic scene – one of the game's most sincere moments – we're told that every creature on the Ark needs to be saved, even cats. The Ark holds the last remnants of humanity, a man-made island that, in 2078, is all we have left after man's obsession with technology and power destroyed the planet. That part sounds about right.
Still, "Astral Chain's" core plot can get a bit muddled, with references to "The Matrix," "Robocop" and, as the game's director Takahisa Taura has mentioned, "Pokemon," because combat is done in tandem with another creature. I was never fully hooked by the game's central mysteries, namely how and why a monstrous alien race that seems to live in some sort alternate dimension has come to consume humanity (the message, I assume: Our obsession with technology appeals to our already selfish tendencies and is eating us alive).
These creatures, called Legion, are weaponized, metallic-looking creations that appear to live in what is essentially the innards of a computer. Our hero can harness them and fight with them. But the many Legion and the battle flexibility they provide – one is a four-legged beast, another is essentially the embodiment of a sword – aren't why I keep returning to "Astral Chain."
In a medium in which we're regularly expected to spend upwards of 25 hours or more on a game, the fact that "Astral Chain" had me hooked means there's something powerful here, especially in a season that's giving us a bounty of fresh interactive content not tied to existing franchises (see "Control," "Observation," "Outer Wilds" and more). Part of that is because of the simple fact than any story not tied to an existing brand is inherently fascinating in 2019, and I liked spending time with the characters of "Astral Chain," especially Marie, who takes her job as the police officer's mascot dog with the utmost importance. Marie also loves cats.
Workplace morale, and why it's integral to mental health, seems to be another subtle but underlying theme. As we wander police headquarters, we routinely encounter peers expressing the joys of taking a break, explaining to us their love of maintaining helicopters or motorcycles. Even our sibling, whose gender is opposite the one we chose for ourselves, tells us why cat sanctuaries are vital to our well-being. The lengths to which "Astral Chain" goes in expressing absolute adoration for felines is another part of its charm; this digital video game is constantly preaching that we should tune technology out, bond with our co-workers, cheer up our friends and seek the solace of a furry companion.
Yes, yes, action is integral to "Astral Chain." Action has long been considered the strength of developer Platinum Games, the team behind the powerful "Bayoneta" series. Yet for those who aren't blessed with razor-sharp reflexes, action in their games can also sort of feel frantic, like we're randomly smashing a bunch of buttons and hoping for the best. That's usually been the case with me, as I see a mish-mash of backflips and arm swings and little else. I know there are people who can view these scenes as if everything is in slow motion, but I am not one of them.
In a blissfully welcome move, however, players can also put the action on autopilot, which tailors the game to all skill levels. I found this important for "Astral Chain" – since our cop is tethered to a Legion, we're essentially controlling two characters in battle. Even if I play on easy mode, there's still plenty to do: Our Legion helps us hop around the creature's computerized home world, and half the game is essentially a detective game, built around talking to residents of the Ark and piecing together relatively simple cases based on their clues. They usually involve mysterious Legion happenings, but the conversations are short and lead to random police work, such as finding a lost cat or arresting a graffiti artist.
In fact, put the action on auto and "Astral Chain" is as much about self-care as it is about saving the world – or maybe it's saying we can't save the world if we can't so much as get through the day. That alone feels relatively meaningful; in "Astral Chain," betrayal is treated with such shock that our human leads can sometimes appear charmingly naive. They're not dumb; they just believe people should be virtuous. It's telling, for instance, that our cops are not allowed to cross the street unless they are given a "walk" sign (jaywalking results in alarms blaring and penalties).
But as I stood and waited for lights to turn red so I could investigate some weirdness at the mall, I realized this is another reason I keep returning to "Astral Chain," increasingly with the action on auto. I'm happy enough to focus on rescuing cats and securing new friendship bonds. Our characters are still slowly and gradually saving the world. Yes, "Astral Chain" is a sci-fi game in which the global crisis is important, but simple pleasures – and leading by example – are paramount.
Developer: Platinum Games
Platform: Nintendo Switch
ESRB Rating: Teen