Every month you can watch reviews and read our thoughts on the games we've been playing, old and new. We’ve got two video reviews this month. Aren’t we nice?
Astral Chain is a breath of fresh air; a massive, sprawling epic, full to the gills with stuff to do, sights to see and beasties to destroy. You play as a rookie cop in the sci-fi cityscape of The Ark. Police work in The Ark consists mainly of fighting otherworldly demons and mundane investigations gathering testimony, occasionally picking up litter on the way.
The fights you get into are probably the most "traditional" Platinum gameplay in Astral Chain. You can freely flip between weapons and dodge and weave your way around the battlefield as expected. The standard issue x-baton can transform into a big sword for slow, devastating attacks or a pistol for fast and flashy shots from afar. So far, so Bayonetta then?
The big twist is your big pal at the end of the Astral Chain, the Legion. Working together with your Legion you can unleash team attacks, whip around the battlefield with ease or even trap your foes in chains for a short time while you batter them. It takes a bit of practice to get used to but the result is something genuinely unique and engaging; this isn't a brain-dead button masher by any stretch.
Your weapon and your legions can all be upgraded and kitted out with special moves and abilities as time goes on.
You can fight the way you want to fight, and there are only a handful of occasions where one specific legion or weapon is the only way to progress.
An even bigger twist to the Platinum formula is the expanded focus on the world around you. A couple of years ago, Nier Automata proved they could make a game that wasn't all about action, but here the amount of detail in the world is incredible, and the chance to slow down and savour it is welcome. The main setting of The Ark is like a mash-up of Akira's Neo Tokyo and gothic New York architecture. It's grimy and slick all at once and it's a real where you spend most of the information gathering parts of the game.
Astral Chain is like a police procedural; it's episodic in structure, and every episode starts with a long bit if police work. You get your orders from base, head out to the investigation scene, gather testimony and evidence, help a few lost kids find their parents, beat up some hooligans and then, just like an episode of the Bill, head into a hellgate and kill a bunch of demons.
These slower sections might be seen as a pace-ruiner if you're looking for that classic Platinum games rush of constant action, but I really love these moments, and I'm glad to see Platinum push themselves into new territory.
If there's anything that lets down Astral Chain, it's probably the sheer size of the thing. I'm not complaining - it's a great game and I'm savouring every moment of it - but if you want something you can rush through you're probably better waiting for Bayonetta 3. Astral Chain is an adventure game with great combat, not a combat game through and through.
Another minor complaint is the astral plane itself. Most of the fights take place here and while it's beautiful, it's a bit bland compared to the Ark, and you'll be seeing a lot of it as the game progresses.
Don't take me the wrong way though; Astral Chain is up there with the best of Platinum's library so far. It's bold, unique, thrilling and hugely rewarding. If there was any doubt that Platinum games still had it, it has been a while since Nier Automata after all, Astral Chain is the perfect reminder that they haven't lost their lustre. And they probably never will.
AI: The Somnium Files
It’s probably the lapsed Catholic in me, but I like to start a review with a confession. So, here’s here we go: I fucking hate puzzle games. They’re just not for me. If a solution isn’t reasonably obvious or can’t be solved in five minutes, I’m out. I’ll be on GameFaqs scrolling away like the opening titles of a Star Wars film. When you’re pushed for time, and I’m always pushed for time, trial and error becomes tried and traded-in.
So after all that, you might be wondering why I decided to review AI: The Somnium Files, written and directed by the well-known puzzler Kotaro Uchikoshi. Well, firstly, the copy I played was provided to us by the wonderful people from Numskull Games and secondly, well, I fancied something different. After the surprisingly great Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I figured that lightning might strike me twice.
And it has! Mostly.
AI: The Somnium Files is an adventure game set in the near-future and follows Kaname Date and his pals as they investigate a string of murders that link to mysterious events six years before the game begins. Date is joined on his quest by his partner Aiba, an AI that lives in his prosthetic left eye and she acts as your assistant, your binoculars, your mobile phone and so much more. It’s a good thing that Aiba is such an interesting character, because to begin with Date can wear a bit thin; there’s a lot of jokes about his addiction to porn and his predilections and instead of being funny, it comes off as pretty annoying.
Later in the game, as the story develops, a genuine affection does begin to form, but if you’re like me, you’ll be rolling your eyes a fair amount.
Primarily the game will have you going to different locations, looking for clues and interviewing witnesses and potential suspects while you try and solve what might be the work of a copycat serial killer. A lot of these sections can be quite similar, although later in the game there can be quite a lot of action. While some people will be open with you, many will force you to use the number one tool in any police officers’ bag of tricks: a machine that lets you enter the dreams of others. That’s right, you take a trip to the Somnium, or the dreams, of characters in the game to sort the fact from the fiction, the liars from the triers, the dopes from the popes.
Honestly, until I got into Somnium for the first time, I was pretty on the fence about this game. It was interesting, but the visual novel aspects of the game didn’t really grab me, but as soon as I wandered into someone’s head, I was totally sold.
When you first load up a dream, you take direct control of a humanoid Aiba who will interact with elements of the dream in order to open up mental locks. The mental locks, usually between three and five per Somnium, are little puzzles that can either have incredibly literal solutions (there are loads that just involve bashing various inanimate objects) or you’ll need to play around a little with your options. Again, referring back to my time with the latest Fire Emblem, the beauty behind this game is how accessible it is; it can still be frustrating, but the puzzles are so well defined by the internal logic of the game world that the solution is never too outlandish. I’m pretty sure that my forehead has a perfect imprint of my hand from all the slapping it got when an obvious answer was the actual solution.
In a neat wee twist, you can only spend six minutes syncing with other characters, as any more than that can cause irreparable damage to your psyche and each action Aiba takes, whether it’s opening a door or kicking a standard lamp, uses up a chunk of that time.
Some options will unlock multipliers called TIMIES, which will either reduce the time of each action or increase it, adding a wee bit of strategy alongside finding the right answer.
By the time I was getting close to one of the many endings, I was plotting out Aiba’s actions to include ones that I knew were wrong, but they would reduce the overall time penalty.
If you fail to complete a dream within the allotted time, you’ll have the option to restart from a checkpoint, which you can do a maximum of three times, or you’ll need to start the whole thing over. At least you can speed things up by holding down the right trigger on subsequent playthroughs.
Talking about multiple playthroughs, your journey through the dreams of others also leads to another very interest concept; during some of the dreams, there can be more than one solution and depending on which you choose, the story will go in a completely different direction.
Some will lead to the “good” ending, while others will take you down a far darker path. The only way to get the full picture does involve a little repetition, but the outcomes are all so varied and interesting that it really is a very short-term pain. While there might be a temptation to give up once you see a couple of the endings, the best one is pretty much blocked until all other options have been exhausted which should take anywhere between 20 and 25 hours.
Overall, I had a great time playing AI: The Somnium Files, with a few little caveats; all the pervy jokes didn’t really sit well with me and some of the character designs are properly rotten. In a game that has so much quality all this stuff does is reinforce the idea that Japanese games are pervert simulators, and while people like Joe love them, I think they can be alienating for many others. In terms of performance, I played the whole game in handheld mode on the Switch and I did experience some stuttering and loading problems, though mostly towards the overall end of the game. There has been a recent patch though, so these issues may already be resolved.
So here we are, two months in a row and I’ve completed two games that even six months ago I probably wouldn’t have even tried. I’m not going to say that I’m fully converted to the genre, but sometimes all you’re waiting for is the right game to come along at a time when you’re receptive to something new. I would recommend AI: The Somnium Files to both fans of puzzle games and to those who are a little wary of the genre, as long as you have a reasonable tolerance for perverts, big silly breasts and weird eye stuff.
Dead or Alive 6
After a wee poker night round at Joe’s, we played at least 14 rounds of Dead or Alive 6 and although it’s a game for the most perverse members of our society, the fighting is still top-notch.
Very nice, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. Started as an undead wizard type, but might go back and restart.
Untitled Goose Game
You already know it’s fun, but I’m a wee bit unsure if it’s for me.
Zelda: Link’s Awakening
The most beautiful remake of all time? A few frame rate dips here and there don’t detract from this gem of a game.