One of the many words that games need their own version for is syncretism. Syncretism, as far as I know, is the word for the convergence, or attempted convergence, of different religions, bringing together all the commonalities and contradictions in a bubbling stew of religions. In fact, I suspect that stew is an incorrect analogy. Instead, it makes me think of the majestic movement of the continents, old coastlines destroyed by collisions and new landscapes becoming visible over time.
And of course it makes me think of video games, particularly the open world video games that Ubisoft does so well, each one incorporating ideas from other games, each expanding, redefining, slowly coding a new kind of game-total. where the map is littered with scattered icons that are unlocked by climbing towers, where skill trees launch characters in multiple different but familiar directions, where running away from the police is always about stepping outside their circle of visibility.
This video game syncretism can be extremely enjoyable to play, but it is generally perceived as a bad thing. I, of course, have had moments in recent years where I am hacking my way through an open world, moving from icon to icon in a heady kind of trance, and suddenly I realize that I have forgotten exactly what am i playing. Do I have to climb towers here or do I have to climb a balloon from time to time? Do I have a hook or a hybrid between combat and dance in the Arkham style awaits me?
But then something like Astral Chain comes along and I realize that nothing is as simple as I had thought it to be.
Astral Chain is the latest from Platinum, and if you want to see it from this specific lens, it’s their most syncretistic (sorry) game to date. Wherever you look, you’re going to see how it brings together a handful of common ideas from the world of videogames. There is an Arkham detective mode, along with the wizard part to analyze the fragments found at the crime scene. We visit a lysergic dimensional realm from time to time that brings back memories of games ranging from Dishonored to the final fragment of Tomb Raider 2. And aside from that, it picks up a handful of ideas from other Platinum games. Dodge an attack and you get a little bullet time, just like in Bayonetta. Unleash a special move with the sword and you’ll be able to perform a slanted cut straight out of Metal Gear Rising.
There are many other benchmarks that I have forgotten right now, but the important thing is this: I was hoping that the fine web of obvious references would weaken Astral Chain’s personality, in the same way that, for example, over-reliance on set phrases weakens the individual voice in a writing. But it has not happened. On the contrary: Astral Chain has struck me as one of the most characterful Platinum games to date. And I’m tempted to think it’s because the family setting allows the little moments to stand out.
More than anything, there is a richness (for me at least) to the Astral Chain storyline. You are a policeman working in a world in which interdimensional monsters called Chimera do not stop appearing, causing problems for everyone. Much of the game is about fighting the Chimera using various weapons and a kind of secondary character called Legion who is tied to you by a chain and can be thrown at the baddies in various very entertaining ways.
It’s fun! But you’re still a cop, so I’ve spent an amazing amount of time picking up trash and dumping it in the dumpsters. They give you a bonus for it, but it is not the important thing by far. The important thing is that policemen collect garbage in this world: they protect the streets but they also keep them clean. Doing these kinds of tasks gives Astral Chain a wonderful jolly air. You are a hero, of course, but it is not a bother to you.
The thing is, there are a lot of little details like this in Astral Chain, a lot of moments where the individuality of the game is allowed to be brought out through the more recognizable upper structure. The hub of the game is the police station, basically an elegant 3D menu where you can save and buy objects and do other types of tasks typical of a hub. But there is also a pet dog that you can interact with, and you can actually wear the costume in some parts of the game to cheer people up. Otherwise I’m pretty sure there’s a ghost in the toilets. On missions, when I’m not picking up trash, I like to put my Legion on the shards of corruption that litter the city. They make a lovely sound when the Legion takes them out. It’s like walking around with one of those awesome office vacuums when everyone’s gone home for the night.
And then there is the maintenance part of the Legion. Back at the police station I can connect to a curious machine in one of the rooms to cleanse my Legions, eliminating the corruption that sticks to them in small buds in the form of pink crystals. I spend a lot of time doing this, rotating the Legion with one stick while cleaning it with the other. As far as I know, there is absolutely no benefit to doing so. I don’t win anything. I don’t level up or make my way to an unlockable. But it’s a cool fictional item.
It is something that I suppose goes both ways: the first is that it is a game about cleaning, an act that is performed throughout the game in different ways. Second, in the fiction of the game (and this is a brilliant idea) your useful Legion is, in fact, a captured Chimera. Every time I throw it in combat I realize that the chain is the only thing keeping it from trying to kill me. And the more I use it, the more likely I am pissing her off! And what about its cleaning? Well, I guess our relationship is complicated.
Syncretism in video games is that strange. The more games try to stick to a mold, the more the little oddities stand out. Assassin’s Creed becomes the game with the leap of the angel from the top of a building. InFamous 2, a title that I hardly remember anything about, survives in my mind solely as the game where you can electrocute buskers when they play the saxophone. Spider-man is a wonderful example of a game that follows the mold, but it is also the game where fast travel is done by riding the subway.
And Astral Chain is the game about those crystals, and that ghost in the sink, and the garbage that has to be collected, and that Legion that is useful but that as the adventure progresses the more angry with me. Lovely work, Platinum. What will be next?