Perhaps more surprisingly, for long stretches Astral Chain isn’t an action game at all, swapping violence for exploration sections that take in everything from logic puzzles, to visual novel-esque conversations to satisfying police investigation sections, which have you gathering evidence and piecing together solutions to a case. Someone at Platinum, I feel, is as much a fan of Ace Attorney as they are Devil May Cry.
That person may well be Takahisa Taura, a new director for Platinum, promoted after his sterling work as game designer on Nier: Automata (a game that also bucked a little of the Platinum trend in its more free-form storytelling and weirdo-RPG systems). As I speak to him at Gamescom, it becomes clear that Taura’s far less interested in recreating what his company’s famous for, perhaps instead aiming to make it famous for something new.
“I didn’t really want to be trapped in what Platinum games have been doing so far,” he explains (through a translator) of his design philosophy. “I really wanted to challenge myself in creating something unique.” For a new director working in a studio built almost entirely on its founders’ design ideals, it’s a remarkably frank mission statement.
As if to double down on that, he’s drawn on some unlikely sources to make that unique design work. I ask what the seed was for the game’s two simultaneously controllable characters, expecting the response to be something like tag-team fighting games, or perhaps the joy of Bayonetta 2’s co-op. I was wrong. “I really like games where you call out a second character and fight, go on adventures. For example, Pokemon.” Yes, your chained interdimensional demon pal was based partially on Squirtle. “I really love the franchise. So when developing this game I wanted to follow a similar concept.”
Even less expectedly, some mechanics emerged entirely from theme, rather than the other way around – a change in not only Platinum’s style, but its usual systems-first approach to making games. Take that investigation mechanic: “Once we had decided on the police force setting, it sort of just came naturally. So the main character’s a police officer, then there’s going to be incidents happening around them, and if there are incidents, the police officer naturally has to investigate what’s happened, and try to find the cause […] At Platinum Games we’ve never made a game like that before, so we really had fun realising this concept – it was a really good challenge.”
All this talk of new ideas isn’t to say that Astral Chain is a rejection of Platinum’s history. You only need to play a little to see hallmarks of previous games in here: The Wonderful 101’s stylus-drawn formations echo in manipulating your chain to bind or bounce enemies; Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance’s precision sword slashes are recreated wholesale with your Sword Legion’s special ability; even taking control of a Legion with a trigger pull feels startlingly similar to a behind-closed-doors demo I once saw of the sadly departed Scalebound (Taura tells me that’s a “complete coincidence”, but I’m still not quite sure).
It makes Astral Chain feel more like an experiment into where Platinum could go next, rather than what it could have been all this time. To me, Taura’s using his own chain to yank the company in a new direction. The obvious next question is ‘why?’ Taura’s answer is forthright:
“Developing games takes a lot of time, so you’re really invested in that. Doing things that we’ve done before is going to be boring [when working on one thing] for such a long time. So rather than a company direction, it’s more that I just personally want to have fun while working.”
Platinum has told us before that it prefers to support new directors with good ideas, rather than simply cycle through a team of executives, and Taura is proof of that philosophy at work. You only need look at the reviews to see it was the right move to allow him to turn his non-traditional vision into reality. The remaining question is whether that was a one-off. It seems unlikely that Bayonetta 3 would stray too far from the established format, but with Babylon’s Fall (a second collaboration with Square Enix after the success of Nier) and another unannounced IP still both unknown quantities, it will be fascinating to see whether this marks the start of a new era of Platinum games, and more specifically a new definition of what a Platinum game can be.
I ask Taura whether he expects to remain a director at Platinum, if we could see more of his brand of action down the line. He’s a little less forthright on that point: “At the end of the day, I’m an office worker, so I don’t know what might happen in the future.” But he ends on what could be construed as a hint, a whisper on the wind that Taura’s version of the Platinum game might persist longer than his debut: “For now, I hope people will enjoy Astral Chain with my direction.” I used to love that I knew what I was going to get in a Platinum game. Now, I hope to love that I don’t.