During the Nintendo Direct of 14 Februari 2019, Platinum Games shared their valentine spirit and let us in on their latest gift to us: Astral Chain (アストラルチェーン, pronounced “Asutoraruchēn“). Let’s start by watching the trailer below.
Now some notes before we fully dive into the story of this game, its development, gameplay and art-direction:
This edition will include the game, an art-book and original soundtrack on CD. The Japanese collector’s edition is priced at 円10,778 – around $99.99(USD). That’s quite a jump in price for just those two items so speculation is that it may also include some unannounced downloadable content or other bonusses. Time will tell.
Near the start of 2018, Platinum Games’ head producer Atsushi Inaba said that one of the titles they were working on would “turn the action genre on its head“, and after much speculation it looks like this might be it. In Astral Chain you play as members of the special task force Neuron that are assisted by their special living weapons called Legion. The game, in a twist, is directed by Takahisa Taura.
Unlike many of Platinum Games’ staff, Taura doesn’t find his origins at Capcom. Instead he’s a fresh recruit. Born 24 october 1985, Taura later attended ECC’s School of Computers. It was around 2007 that he joined up with then starting Platinum Games which had just been born out of the collective effort of former Capcom employees like Shinji Mikami, Atsushi Inaba, Hideki Kamiya and Tatsuya Minami – all hallmark names in Japanese game-design known for big titles like Resident Evil, Viewtiful Joe and Devil May Cry. Taura was one of the three Game-Designers working on their first title, MadWorld. He later also worked in a similar position on titles like Anarchy Reigns (2012), The Wonderful 101 (2013), Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (2013) and on the smaller titles like The Legend of Korra (2014).
His work slowly saw him rise through the ranks netting him the position of Senior Game Designer when working on NieR: Automata. The success of that game, which was quoted by Hideki Kamiya as “saving the studio”, brought him to where he is today: a Game-Director working on his own title, supported by his peers. It is a nice recurring tale, with both Kamiya and Mikami also starting out at the bottom and working their way up to the director’s seat with support of their peers.
But what exactly is a Game-Director, or a Game-Designer, and what do they do?
A Game-Director is the man with the idea that guides the team, often through the game’s leads – Lead Designer, Lead Artist, Lead Programmer etc. – to make the game he envisions. He directs the team through the title’s development while keeping an eye on the budget and schedule, while also managing the team and their wishes. In short: he focuses on the big picture.
The Game-Designer creates the core features of said big picture. Directed by their Lead Game Designer they work from the decided upon concept to create characters, graphics, gameplay mechanics and more.
It will be interesting to see just how Taura can translate his experiences as a Game-Designer to that of a Director.
Astral Chain centers around The Ark, a welfaring and multicultural city that’s shaken up by a portal bringing aliens that seek to corrupt the land. Quotes from the trailer like “you people are leading all of humanity straight to damnation” seem to indicate that our Neuron heroes will end up switching sides near the end; a common trope
The game aims towards the player controlling a Neuron agent who is assisted by his Legion. Footage shows them fighting side-by-side but also work together for a super attack and as a method of transportation. One of the shown fights saw a foe wield a big shield, trying to block attacks from the player’s Legion which allowed him to be flanked by the player himself.
The biggest danger with mechanics like this is that they can easily end up like ‘just another attack button’ that circumvents a roadblock put in place just to see you use said button. It will be interesting to see how the gameplay mechanic will evolve and what kind of combat options it will deliver.
Outside of combat we’ve also seen Neuron agents dabble in the more day-to-day tasks like cleaning up the city and stealth elements have also been shown in select screenshots with agents using their Legion to distract enemies so they can sneak past.
In terms of combat the biggest inspiration seems to be Chaos Legion, an old Capcom title. In it protagonist Sieg summon his own similarly named Legions to assist him in battle or to use a powerful attack with multiple setups and combinations possible. Similar functionality was also seen in Folklore with the player being able to summon allies for quick attacks
Other titles like The Sword of Etheria saw two other characters fight alongside you with the player being able to order them to focus their attacks on an enemy or to catch a launched foe, making for some fun juggles. Meanwhile GioGio’s Bizarre Adventure plays it more safe with the protagonist’s spirit-like “Stand” characters being an extension of the player’s moveset
Another way to design this style of combat is directly controlling two characters. Resident Evil Zero allowed the player to control two characters at once using both analogue sticks, while a title like Devil May Cry 3 saw Dante use his Doppelganger Style to create a copy of himself. This after-image would execute the same moves as the Dante with a slight delay, allowing the player to smartly desync his inputs for creative results – akin to playing the Ice Climbers in Smash Brothers at a high level
Compared to Astral Chain though, these are all just minor elements in games though that tended to play as regular action games and didn’t fully play into these respective mechanics. As noted in one of our previous articles, enemies make the game. So it is good to see them already playing into the mechanic with their shields and one can hope that it extends even further. Making Astral Chain’s mechanic not just a fun diversion, but a new step for the genre.
Art Design by
The announcement of Astral Chain came with a second surprise though, namely that the character designs would be provided by Masakazu Katsura: a Japanese mangaka famous for his works on Wing-man, Video Girl Ai and Zetman. Katsura’s debut work on Wing-man was in part due to the work centering around a fellow fanboy as the writer himself, being a huge henshin hero fan since his youth.
For those here just for the games, “Henshin” means “transform”, and encompasses a genre around super heroes that use an ability to transform into a metal hero, often paired with spandex, to save the day fighting monsters like Kamen Rider and Super Sentai.
While maybe not as famous in mainstream media in the west as some of his friends like Akira Toriyama, he’s built a considerable portfolio over the last three decades. Known for his beautiful characters, expertly drawn buttocks – the man even gave a class on it – ability to draw in a wide variety of styles from light hearted cartoons to serious adult manga… but most of all his passion that explodes of the page with rich colors and fine linework.
Astral Chain will be his third foray into designing characters for a videogame. Love & Destroy, a video game from 1999 on the Playstation 1, featured some of his character art, while The Girl in Twilight saw his designs be used in a multitude of media including a mobile game. Suffice to say that while Astral Chain isn’t his first foray into the medium, it will be the first time he’ll work on a game with such a budget. It will be interesting to see this nearly 30-year veteran of the market adapt to this.
So far much of his designs in Astral Chain seem to take inspiration of his earlier works and henshin fandom. The aforementioned Legion’s of Astral Chain seem to take deep visual inspiration of Katsura’s previous work on the Tiger and Bunny anime. Other inspirations and references can get a tad confusing though: one of the Legion’s face is a clear visual reference to Blade Wolf from Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, which was based on an unused concept of Platinum Games’ early version of Vanquish, which was in turn based off of the movie Casshern… of which Katsura is a fan. Meanwhile the game’s art-style seems to try to align Platinum’s earlier colorful but also high-contrast appeal to Katsura’s designs. It is currently unknown which engine the game uses, but visually it seems to run off an engine similar to the one used in their games like Transformers: Devastation. Graphical style is very important, but in action games of this caliber a stable 60 frames per second is also demanded. So the art style’s level of complexity has to allow for this.
With a new director itching to prove his worth, supervision of a legendary director and art from a beloved artist, Astral Chain is shaping up to be quite the title even before we’ve gotten our hands on it. In a genre that is slowly clinging to only a few types of playstyles, it is fantastic to see a title try something new. And players seem to agree. Reception to the game’s announcement has been very positive, Ranging from high interest in the new mechanics as well as seeing Taura make a game that doesn’t have another influencer involved like Yoko Taro.
Like Kamiya rose to the Director’s seat of Resident Evil 2, starting a career of directing some of the most beloved franchises around, here’s hoping Taura follows suit! Good luck to you Taura and your team, August cannot come soon enough!
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Many thanks to user Birdman on the Stinger Magazine forums for gaming tips on titles that play with Summoning Mechanics.