Picture a lone swordsman standing dramatically in a white city. He has flaming red hair, a tight leather shirt of some sort, and a white cape/smock/feathery accoutrement. The game’s camera pans across from him, and there’s another lone swordsman. He has much longer snow white hair and nearly the same outfit, but with fewer feathers. They stare at each other as an overarching narrative plays in broken Latin out of your CRT-TV’s speakers as blood, sparks, and swords clash and brush past their delightfully brushed hair. Welcome to the opening of the generally unknown PlayStation 2 action RPG Chaos Legion, developed and released by Capcom in 2003 and produced by Yoshinori Ono. Flash forward a decade and some change to Astral Chain, developed by PlatinumGames.
The Japanese animation devotee in me has always had a penchant for Platinum’s games. Their titles feature a fashionably elegant and sophisticated style of action, from the jazzy, frenetic and still discussed Vanquish to the modernistic, post-Akira-Government-Revisionist-Historical Metal Gear Solid: Revengeance, and everything in between. Boy, is there a lot of in between. On the other side of the same coin, there is Capcom. You know Capcom. Monster hunting, evil residents, and fighting in the streets. Even if you don’t know the company, you know Capcom and have probably played at least one of their games once. Most of us can still harken back to a time in a crowded, sweaty arcade at a suburban strip mall when that blue and yellow logo flashed across the screen, followed by an announcer howling “Fight!” at you and your chubby friend from school in woefully broken English.
PlatinumGames and Capcom have always had a communal history. The company (Platinum) was formed in February, 2006 when Seeds Inc., the company founded by Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil 4, The Evil Within), Atsushi Inaba (Okami, Vanquish), and Hideki Kamiya (Devil May Cry, Bayonetta) merged with Odd Inc. after the closure of Capcom’s Clover Studio. For context, all three worked at Capcom prior to their founding roles at PlatinumGames. The bones of PlatinumGames are still at Capcom’s Japanese office, gathering dust and surrounded by detritus, their legacies probably enshrined somewhere. The team behind Platinum went on to form a close relationship with Nintendo and with a few departures from the house of Mario (I still weep for Scalebound), Platinum came right back at home to the Nintendo Switch with their new release, Astral Chain. While I am looking forward to playing it, there was a mechanic that immediately caught my attention. Very quickly I noticed that both Chaos Legion and Astral Chain use a very similar technique in their combat schemata: the inclusion of Legions.
Looking at both games at face value, you could potentially see some similarities. Spiky hair, intense monologuing, extensively stentorian combos in a dynamic action style. Lots of rankings (SSS!). But, it is in the game’s Legion-based combat where we can start to see the similarities.
In Astral Chain, you control two characters at once as you switch between several different Legion types as you try to save the world. You have access to the sword, arrow, beast, arm, and axe Legions and they can be summoned for up to 100 seconds, at which point the player will have to wait until the summon gauge recharges to fully use them again. You can use the Legions in creative, visually impressive ways, such as binding giant enemies with a chain that physically connects both the protagonist and the Legion. It’s pretty cool. For comparison’s sake, in Chaos Legion, you can use the sword, arrow, claw, shield, and power Legions of chaos (there are a few I didn’t mention). You can set your AI companions to either “Active” or “Passive” states. During the latter, they are aggressive and attack threats, but during the passive state they take a defensive stance around the main character and defend him. In essence, you control more of a squad of Legions separate from the protagonist as you try to save the (albeit more gothic) world. Phew. That’s a lot of Legions. Stick with me here.
The two games share similar genetic code, right down to the type of Legions you can employ to do battle for you. They grow stronger, gain new moves that work in direct conjunction with the player, and even play an important role in the game’s story. The “Arm” Legion in Astral Chain bears a resemblance to the “Hatred” Legion of chaos in Chaos Legion, and both games feature an “Arrow” Legion that can snipe threats from afar.
While the newly released Astral Chain is being met with a good amount of praise from news outlets, and is receiving positive reviews for its world building, combat, style and accessibility, Chaos Legion was not so lucky back in 2003. It was generally overlooked, forgotten, and abandoned to the sales rack of your local GameStop. Reviewers bashed the game for its underwhelming story, repetitive nature, and slow pace but applauded its creature design, eventual strategy options, and, well, Legions. This shows us that a game could review poorly, but have strong ideas where inspiration could be found.
Back in 2003, it can be surmised that Kamiya, Mikami, and Inaba had some collaborative role during the inception and development of Chaos Legion, if not directly then at least passively. Sixteen years later, it is possible that one of the three founders may have taken inspiration from the PS2 game and passed it on to one of the game’s producers, designers, or even the director, Takahisa Taura. The incorporation of the Legions was more than likely an idea in Kamiya’s back pocket, considering his influence in the Devil May Cry series. Possibly. Again, this is mostly inferred.
One of my greatest examples of the patterned nature of Capcom’s games timeline is when in Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams the protagonist, Soki, goes through an emotionally transformative episode of sorts during the game’s main conflict and awakens his transformation into an Onimusha right around the mission 6-7 mark. I bring that up because mission 6-7 of Devil May Cry 3 is when Dante goes through his near death emotional awakening and gets his Devil Trigger, proving that the nature of Capcom’s development (at least back in the late 2000s) followed some sort of timeline and/or pattern. While Astral Chain and Chaos Legion are literally over a decade apart, I still think the magic of the idea was there.
What we can learn about these comparisons is the cyclical nature of game development and ideas, and how the concepts that originate in one title can ripple and navigate their way to other creative projects. One of Platinum’s core tenets is creating new and intellectual properties, and taking risks. I love the idea that the creative team at Platinum dug deep, to their roots, and resurrected an important idea from an old IP. Chaos Legion was classic PlayStation 2 gameplay starring a general lack of mobility, freedom, and almost completely lacking in narrative cohesion. It can even be implied that Capcom’s “Devil May Cry 4” could’ve drawn inspiration from Chaos Legion as well, with its white neo-gothic architecture and melodramatic religious undertones.
It is in this comparative study where we can truly see the power of a creative brand. Looking at the lifeblood of a Japanese games studio and comparing their works throughout the years is an exercise in nostalgia. Seeing Astral Chain’s Legions used in a very similar template as Chaos Legion’s makes me feel as if some part of a dear game from my childhood is alive again, and thriving. It is here where we can examine what we love about the games from long years past, and how they can find new life in the now.