One of the many words that games need their own version is syncretism. Syncretism, as far as I know, is the word for convergence, or attempt at convergence, of different religions, bringing together all the similarities and contradictions in a bubbling stew of religions. In fact, I suspect that stew is an incorrect analogy. Instead, it reminds me of the majestic movement of continents, old coasts destroyed by collisions, and new landscapes that become visible over time.
And of course, it reminds me of video games, especially the open world video games that Ubisoft does so well, each incorporating ideas from other games, each developing, redefining, slowly coding a new kind of game where the map is full of scattered icons that are unlocked by climbing towers, where skill trees launch characters in several different but familiar directions, where fleeing from the police always leaves your circle of vision.
This video game syncretism can be extremely enjoyable to play, but is generally viewed as a bad thing. I have of course had times in the last few years where I made my way through an open world, going from icon to icon to another in a sort of intoxicating trance, and suddenly I realized I had forgot exactly what I was playing. Is it my turn to take turns or do I sometimes have to balloon? Do I have a hook or hybrid style of Arkham fighting and dancing waiting for me?
But then something like Astral Chain happens and I realize that nothing is as easy as I thought it would be.
Astral Chain is the latest from Platinum, and if you want to see it from that specific objective, this is its most syncretistic (sorry) game yet. Look where you look, you will see how it brings together a handful of common ideas from the world of video games. There is an Arkham detective mode, as well as the assistant part to analyze the fragments found at the scene of the crime. We occasionally visit a Lysergic Dimensional Realm that brings back memories of games ranging from Dishonored to the Tomb Raider 2 final clip. And other than that, grab a handful of ideas from other Platinum games. Dodge an attack and get bullet time, just like in Bayonetta. Unleash a special blow with the sword and you can make an oblique cut straight from Metal Gear Rising.
There are many other benchmarks that I have forgotten about at the moment, but the important thing is this: I expected the thin network of obvious references to weaken the personality of Astral Chain, in the same way as , for example, excessive reliance on phrases actually weakens the individual voice in writing. But that did not happen. On the contrary: Astral Chain influenced me to be one of the most Platinum character games to date. And I’m tempted to think that’s because the home environment makes the little moments stand out.
More than anything, there is richness (at least for me) in the Astral Chain argument. You are a policeman working in a world where interdimensional monsters called Chimera keep appearing, causing problems for everyone. Much of the game is about fighting chimeras using various weapons and some kind of support character named Legion who is linked to you by a chain and can be launched against bad guys in a variety of very entertaining ways.
It’s funny! But you’re still a cop, so I spent a lot of time picking up the trash and throwing it in the trash. They give you a bonus, but it’s not even close. The important thing is that the police collect the garbage in this world: they protect the streets but also keep them clean. Doing these kinds of tasks makes Astral Chain look wonderful, happy. You are a hero, of course, but that’s no nuisance to you.
The thing is, there are a ton of little details like this in Astral Chain, a ton of moments where you can bring out the individuality of the game through the more recognizable top structure. The game center is the police station, basically a sleek 3D menu where you can save and purchase items and perform other types of tasks typical of a center. But there’s also a companion dog that you can interact with and you can actually put the costume on in parts of the game to cheer people up. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure there’s a ghost in the sinks. In missions, when I’m not collecting garbage, I like to put my Legion on the fragments of corruption that litter the city. They make a beautiful sound when the Legion kills them. It’s like walking around with one of those amazing vacuums used in the office when everyone comes home at night.
And then there is the legion maintenance part. Back at the police station, I can connect to a curious machine in one of the rooms to clean up my legions, thus removing the corruption that clings to it in little buttons shaped like pink crystals. I spend a lot of time doing this, spinning the Legion with one stick while cleaning it with the other. As far as I know, this has absolutely no advantage whatsoever. I don’t win anything. I’m not leveling up or heading towards an unlock. But he’s a cool model.
It’s something that I guess goes both ways: The first thing is that it’s a game about cleaning up, an act that unfolds throughout the game in different ways. Second, in the fictional game (and that’s a great idea), your useful Legion is, in fact, a captured Chimera. Every time I throw him into battle I realize that the chain is the only thing stopping him from trying to kill me. And the more I use it, the more I risk annoying it even more! And what about cleaning it? Well I guess our relationship is complicated.
The syncretism in video games is strange. The more games try to stick to a mold, the more the little quirks stand out. Assassin’s Creed becomes the game with the angel jumping from the top of a building. InFamous 2, a title I barely remember, only survives in my mind as the game where you can electrocute street musicians when they are playing 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 on the subway.
And Astral Chain is the play on these crystals, and this ghost in the bathroom, and the garbage that needs to be collected, and this Legion which is useful but as the adventure progresses it puts me more in anger. Nice work, Platinum. What is the next step?
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