Developer: Gunfire Games, THQ Nordic
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Preview Platform: PC (Steam)
Preview Copy Provided By: THQ Nordic
Release Date: December 1, 2020
Before the 2020 overhaul ported it to every device known to man and added a few more words to the title, Chronos (sans ashes) was originally released as an Oculus-exclusive VR game back in 2016. I had shamefully neglected to research this prior to playing but it ended up being quite apparent about thirty minutes in. I give the developers full props for engineering a VR game compatible with the third person perspective, but it begs the obvious questions of why they would bother rebooting it and what elements did they sacrifice to make that happen? Were the frustrating camera angles a vestigial reminder of the game’s headset-bound infancy, was the combat watered down to facilitate the VR medium, or were the developers just looking to make a quick buck?
Regardless of the why, the what is still disappointing. Chronos had the unique opportunity to take advantage of a 4-year long “beta” with its original launch and it honestly doesn’t feel like the time was well spent. The storyline is somehow both unimaginative and confusing and the utter lack of world building leaves players feeling like they’re the passive observer of a manically depressed child’s fever dream. You start off in a laboratory, you’re dragged through a couple fantasy fortresses, and finally dropped right back into the lab with little to no idea of how or why you got there (we’ve all had Friday nights of a similar nature, I guess). It’s worth noting that I’ve got on just fine with the thin pretense of a plot other Souls-like games offer, but that’s because the gameplay was interesting enough to not require some shiny bauble to keep my attention. The lack of engagement during Chronos‘ swordplay and puzzle-solving is not remedied by the absolute dearth of a coherent storyline, and the fact that it’s a direct prequel to Gunfire Games’ more successful child, Remnant, is not nearly enough to keep me engaged.
Without mincing words in the vain hope that we don’t get blacklisted from future releases, the gameplay in Chronos: Before the Ashes is entirely one note and devoid of life. Players choose between a light, heavy, and charged heavy attack (which amounts to adding LEDs to your weapon) and have the option to dodge or block oncoming attacks with a shield, and that’s about it. There’s no ranged attack, crowd control abilities, or coherent parrying system in place to spice up the gameplay. Sure, players can pick up the Eye-of-Sauron-knockoff dragon stones to change the color of their charged heavy attack and bargain bin buffs, but both are so laughably ineffective to the point where it’s hardly worth the effort. I slogged my way through the entirety of the game spamming the dodge and light attack and the only thing that suffered was my timetable.
The denizens of Chronos suffer a similarly bland fate with their feeble selection of attacks and effects, which is actually quite a pity because I thoroughly enjoyed the physical design and variety of the enemies I encountered throughout the game. As with all Souls-like adventures, timing means everything when it comes to navigating skirmishes with various combatants, but the fact that most enemies have only a few different attacks and absolutely no imagination means that the learning curve is about as steep (and interesting) as my driveway. Boss battles are similarly prosaic and there were even several instances where my mortal nemeses would get stuck in a loop and launch the same telegraphed attack over and over until I bothered to put them out of their misery. Souls-like games place a lot of eggs in the boss battle basket out of necessity because it’s an opportunity for the player to show off what they’ve learned, but Chronos appears to kick this basket and its eggs down the stairs by delivering the middle-manager equivalent of their bog standard baddies.
Combat aside, Chronos heavily relies on puzzles and problem solving to pad out the runtime and keep players engaged. While most of the challenges boil down to the old point-and-click template of picking up one thing and rubbing it on another, others involved a bit more RAM and patience to complete. The level of difficulty varied wildly and a couple of the puzzles were downright arbitrary, punishing players who perhaps forgot to pick something up three levels ago by forcing them to sullenly trudge back to get it. I don’t typically mind the changeup in gameplay, but the skew in difficulty, sheer overkill, and constant threat of backtracking grew old quickly.
Speaking of rapidly aging, one aspect I thoroughly enjoyed and would love to see more of was the aging mechanic. Due to some plot contrivance, each death in the game ages the player by a single year, and for every decade the player earns a massively helpful upgrade beyond the simple health/dexterity/damage stats. Having started my quest at 18, I reached the ripe old age of 43 before I finished the game (largely due to messing around with the Cyclops, but c’est la vie). The bonuses I was able to choose from included things like increasing my dodging window or upgrading my attacks, and each were extremely helpful in the long run. In all honesty this is where the game gets all of its stars and really stands out. There’s this underlying sense of panic as you see your character physically age over time, and while the upgrades are a boon, you can’t help but feel a little defeated every time you get one because you know the game thinks you’re in desperate need of a break. It added a layer of complexity and manipulation to Chronos that I hadn’t expected but desperately wanted, and was truly a decent showcase of what the developers are capable of producing.
Another accolade I can toss Chronos‘ way is the overall appearance. We’re certainly not straining any graphics cards, but the color palette and most of the lighting worked really well with the rest of the game. What few environments we were taken through were vibrant and detailed, and the previously mentioned character designs were really interesting. It’s certainly a lot softer looking than Remnant: From the Ashes, but overall I did enjoy the view despite the journey’s other shortcomings.
My time with Chronos: Before the Ashes was truly a bit bewildering. For a game that took less than nine hours to complete, the journey felt so much longer and entirely too tedious. I attribute this entirely to the fact that its bones were built on a headset-specific foundation at a time when VR games were simpler out of necessity. The port to PC and consoles four years later is an entirely baffling move that feels like a thinly veiled attempt to ride the waves created by Remnant.
Chronos: Before the Ashes is an untimely reboot that tries and fails to rise above its station as an early VR RPG. While it offers decent visuals and an anxiety-inducing aging mechanic, the lackluster combat, poor camera work, and ceaseless backtracking sabotage the overall experience.