THQ Nordic has once again teamed up with Gunfire Games following Darksiders II: Deathinitive Edition and Darksiders III. Together they are not delivering another Darksiders offshoot this time, but the action RPG Chronos VR, which was released exclusively for Occulus VR in 2016, as Chronos: Before the Ashes. This time for PC, Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch and Stadia. Can the game in its new form also convince without VR?
And this is how it begins…
Chronos: Before the Ashes is a prequel to the soul-like third-person co-op shooter Remnant: From the Ashes and tells the gameplay of the events that took place about a month before the game launch of Remnant.
In contrast to the successor, the prequel that I played on the Xbox Series X for this test does not attack the opponents with shooting clubs, but in the classic role-playing game style with sword and shield. It’s all about close combat and that’s only on your own, because there isn’t a multiplayer component.
Something happened to humanity. Our world as we know it today has been attacked by beings from other worlds and it is our task to eliminate the dragon responsible for everything. At least that’s the order we get from an old lady in the intro. There are only a few people left who live together in tribes and in humble circumstances. Only relics and ruins remain of our technological development.
We choose to play a male or a female character and start our adventure with nothing more than a shield and a sword or an axe. We can choose the starting weapon as well as choose between three levels of difficulty. These affect the combat difficulty and once we have made a decision, it is no longer possible to change later. Unless we’re starting from scratch with a new character.
At the beginning of the game we start in a kind of old and probably long-abandoned bunker. After a while we also find a stone here that serves as a portal to a strange world. According to Lore, these stones only awaken once a year. If we are defeated in the fight against numerous and varied opponents, our character will not die like in other games. Although we wake up a short moment later at the stone we last visited, our hero or heroine also gets a year older with every death. We start with a tender 18 years of life experience and careless world saviors age much faster here.
But what about aging in terms of gameplay? To answer that, it takes a look at the progression system.
Soulslike or Soulslite?
As is typical of the genre, we collect experience points for killing enemies. If we have collected enough points, we go up a level and can use the attribute points gained in this way to increase our power, skill, arcanum or life. Power allows us to deal more damage, life increases our number of hit points. Arcanum increases our magic damage and skill increases our defense. Because there is no armor in the game.
But if you look around carefully, you will find new weapons and better shields. The latter not only let us block and thus ward off at least part of the damage, but also parry attacks. Weapons scale their damage values with different attributes. The hammer especially scales with power. So the more points we have invested in power, the more damage the hammer in our hand will cause. The sword, on the other hand, benefits more from skill. On the way we keep finding shards with which we can improve the weapons.
But getting back to the shield, blocking lets us block some or most of the damage depending on what shield we’re using. However, larger shields are slower to parry than small ones. And parrying attacks is a mainstay of the combat system. Dodging is sometimes less effective than a good parry with a suitable counterattack. Our own movement pattern changes when we target an enemy. Then we can no longer roll, but we can also switch between different opponents.
Each enemy type has different attack patterns and also reacts differently to the weapon used. On some enemies, we can interrupt their attacks and movesets in one hit. For example, the Pan in the second area are allergic to the hammer. But not other opponents. Sprinting, blocking, parrying and even dodging drain our stamina bar. On the other hand, if we dish out hammer blows, sword blows and the like, this has no effect on our stamina bar
With age comes wisdom!
But what about aging now? Well, a passing makes us a year older and brings us back to the last stone. But we don’t lose any items or even experience points. All enemies respawn, except bosses. At the same time, our healing items, here called dragon hearts, cannot be refilled. Starts another year of life, but we also start with freshly refilled dragon hearts, which restore our entire life energy with one sip. If we level up, we will also be completely healed. And what’s the catch now? In fact, starting from the age of 20, we get the opportunity to choose between different and permanent character bonuses every ten years. For example, we get more experience points faster or the time window for parrying is larger, making parrying easier. First of all, that’s not a catch. But as we get older, it gets harder and harder to improve our physical fitness. While increasing power, life or dexterity initially only costs one attribute point, the cost increases as our hero life progresses!
At a young age, for this we can purchase an increase in Arcanum for only 3 points. As we get older, however, we also become wiser and then the requirements to be met to increase Arcanum decrease.
Is that soulslike or soulslite? First and foremost, Chronos: Before the Ashes is a great game, despite its age. Because the new edition is compact, but delivers many things that you know from the soulslike genre. It’s quite linear and doesn’t offer much to discover apart from a small space on the left or right. Periodically we unlock shortcuts to the last brick that serves as a reset point. Using the stones allows us to fast travel between the magical boulders activated so far in our hero’s journey. Enemies will not be resurrected by this, nor will we be healed.
And yet, in the end, any opponent can knock us off our feet if we’re not careful. Even from the medium difficulty wheel, it is advisable to roam slowly and carefully through the surroundings instead of rushing blindly ahead. Attacks and movement patterns of the opponents need to be analyzed in order to develop a suitable strategy for the fight. Parry? Or do you prefer to dodge at the right moment so that we come to a halt behind the opponent, strike once and then distance ourselves again? The stamina bar, life points and remaining charges of the dragon hearts for healing always remain in view. So as far as the combat system is concerned, it’s soulslike. But the term means a lot more. OK, we also unlock abbreviations here. But we don’t lose anything when we die, but sooner or later we will be punished with higher costs for character improvement. But maybe we’re just a few years away from the next helpful passive character perk?
In fact, I believe that after Code Vein, Chronos is the best way to cautiously approach the soulslike genre. The game runs smoothly, all mechanics work and the story told via texts scattered around the game world is interesting, while the different levels of difficulty open the game to a wide audience. And it doesn’t just consist of fights, because here you can and must also do puzzles!
The pen is mightier than the sword
Once an area has been cleared of enemies, the question arises: what happens next? The answers to this question could not be more different. Sometimes picked up items have to be used in the right place, sometimes different items in the inventory have to be combined before the new item can be used to solve the puzzle. For example, at one point in the game we find a pedestal that, with the right object, will probably open the opposite wall. Some time later we find a similar pedestal with a large gem on it. This is still simple and immediately understandable. But apart from precious stones and keys, it is also important to keep an eye on the surroundings. Because collectible items are highlighted by blinking. But other puzzles challenge our memory: there is a statue on one side of the area and some kind of slot machine on the other. If we now recreate the statue in the machine with the right details and colors, we get an item that opens a new passage for us elsewhere.
Again and again we come across portals and a control panel. The portals are realigned to new targets through the correct combination of three glyphs. It is advisable to write down the combinations with a pad and pen. OK, screenshots are also possible, of course.
Visually, Chronos: Before the Ashes shows its age. There are nasty pop-ups and the characters and the game world are not very detailed, apart from beautiful atmospheric lighting effects, and they don’t win a next-gen prize for technology either. On the other hand, the mix of fights and puzzles, spiced up with a pinch of aspiration (depending on the selected level of difficulty) is wonderfully well-rounded, polished and motivating as well as rewarding at the same time. Even beginners can experience the thrill here when the healing options are empty, the character’s heartbeat becomes audible due to the damage taken and you don’t find another opponent around the next corner, but finally a shortcut to the last checkpoint. Exploration is rewarded left and right in the otherwise quite linear game world: new weapons, new magic and more charges motivate our dragon hearts. The linearity makes it clearer than Dark Souls and Co. while the puzzles are sometimes challenging. Despite its outdated technology, Chronos is a convincing complete work and a clear recommendation for action RPG fans and for everyone who found soulslikes too difficult. Although the bosses are demanding, they are by no means the hurdles that are known from Bloodborne, Demons Souls and Co. Chronos: Before the Ashes is a great soulslite and also worth a tip for soulslike genre veterans. Even if the latter might see the credits in 6-8 hours and everyone else spends 10 or more hours on it. I’m absolutely excited to see what the Gunfire Games team has in store for us to play in the future.
Chronos: Before the Ashes
three selectable levels of difficulty
German soundtrack & German texts
Weapons feel different
Parry very powerful but challenging to implement
Graphics framework outdated
very linear game world despite abbreviations
little to discover away from the main path