Review: Chronos: Before the Ashes

Chronos was an oddball title when first released: A third-person action game released on a VR console. It’s now been released in a more accessible format for everyone who may have missed it the first time around.

Released December 1st, 2020 for PC via Steam by Gunfire Games, Chronos: Before the Ashes is a remake of their earlier 2016 title Chronos for the Oculus Rift, revamped, more accessible, and with a new name to indicate the ties between this and their 2019 title, Remnant: From the Ashes.

When All is Burnt Away

Chronos: Before the Ashes starts out with a story. Gathered around a campfire, listening to a wise woman as she conjures flickering shadows on the wall with figurines and candlelight, she weaves a tale of a great and terrible dragon that must be slain and the mystical world stones that allow you travel to the beast’s domain. Though you may fall, you’re fated to try again and again, year after year, until you finally succeed or fall for good. Clad in simple garb, a wooden shield, and a modest weapon, you stride forth to do battle with a dragon.

And then the game starts out with you exploring the ruins of a modern military base. Poking through abandoned computers for logs about what happened there to try and lift the lockdown and continue on your quest. The dichotomy here is very deliberate as the story weaves between the disparate locations linked by the world stones and the common thread tying them together.

There’s fairly little in the way of direct exposition, save for the start of the game and the beginning of each chapter. Most of the storytelling is done through various logs and diary entries. Glimpses of a time before everything went wrong, as you’re trying to keep them from getting any worse. It works very well for the kind of atmosphere that Chronos is aiming for: A lone adventurer poking through a broken land.

Prepare to Die

So, I know it was the popular thing to compare games to Dark Souls back in the day but… this is straight up Dark Souls, even down to the control scheme. For those unfamiliar, this means it’s a 3D third-person action-RPG with an emphasis on weighty, deliberate attacks and punishing whiffed attacks, limited forms of healing, and an expectation that you will die.

Comparisons aside. Chronos is not a very difficult game. Your healing resource is only replenished when you die, not upon finding a checkpoint like in similar games, but you also fully restore HP upon leveling up, which happens frequently. Perfect dodges and parries are emphasized even more with temporarily infusing your weapon with added damage when you do, but in addition to the bonus damage, the windows to perform these moves is rather generous.

Death is also not a major setback; You keep any progress like items obtained and doors opened, you don’t lose any XP upon death, and you even get bonuses for dying… well, sorta.

Arguably the core mechanic, and likely why the game is called Chronos, is that your character ages a year every time they die. You start the game off at age 18, and on every year divisible by ten you get to pick one of three traits. Up to a certain point, this is actually a straight-up benefit for dying. However, this also changes your playstyle to an extent.

Starting out, your physical stats are extremely easy to raise, taking just a single stat point to level, while your arcane stat takes a whopping three. As you age, your arcane stat becomes easier…but your physical stats become harder to raise. The traits as well follow suit, with bonuses related to physical actions and youthful exuberance early on, and magic later.

This does have one problem in my opinion, however. If you prefer to try a certain playstyle, you may have difficulty doing so. I didn’t find the game very challenging, so I played through in a primarily physical way, smacking everything that came my way with a sword and using my magic more as just a minor bonus when it was available. Someone who found the game difficult may be locked into playing a more arcane-focused character simply by not earning enough levels earlier in their life, and someone who wishes to play an arcane character may need to intentionally die over and over to artificially raise their age, or even just not spend stat points until they age up enough. Not to mention how most players, by the time raising arcane is actually worth it, will be near the end of the game and have already gotten well used to playing without. I’m also unsure if there’s a max age (will it let me be 500 years old if I wish?) so if there is, trying to start out with an arcane character would be placing a rather low cap on remaining lives.

Lastly, and I suppose this is more of a minor problem, but the variety of weapons left much to be desired. There’s four weapons for each type, though one seems indistinguishable from your starting weapon. I decided to go for an agility build and it felt like equivalent strength weapons always appeared far earlier than their agility counterparts. Over the course of the game I found a spear that would have only been very useful if I hadn’t upgraded my agility much at this point, a sword with identical base stats but of course didn’t have the upgrades I was giving to my only usable weapon thus far, and then finally in the second to last area of the game I *finally* found something worth using over the sword I started with. It made it a little hard to get excited over doing side puzzles for new weapons when that new weapon was often less useful than what I had all along.

A Beautiful Relic

If there’s one thing that stuck out to me, it’s how vibrant and colorful the world of Chronos was, in contrast to the majority of games in this style. The world may be desolate, but the plants are still growing, and the decorations and art of the civilizations remain. The graphics may be a bit low poly, but there’s genuine charm in the unique designs.

As for the soundtrack, it stays out of the way for the most part. Each area has a motif that plays when you first enter, and some events cause a little jingle to play, but by and large there’s no music at all, and the rest of the sound design is really nothing special.

A Stepping Stone

Chronos: Before the Ashes is a more casual take on the Souls-like formula. It has the weighty action and focus on learning enemy patterns to punish, but at eight hours to beat it’s relatively short and is lacking depth in many of its systems. At $30 and with an easier learning curve this is a good starter for anyone who hasn’t played this style of game, but veteran players may find the experience underwhelming. That said, I still had fun, and if you’re a fan of Remnant: From the Ashes you’ll likely appreciate this look into how everything began.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by THQ Nordic for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.