I was surprised to learn that Chronos: Before the Ashes was a prequel. Better yet, it was also weird to discover that this was originally a VR game on the Oculus, as well as a prequel. Talk about niche. The game in question?
Remnant: From the Ashes, of all the games. Don’t worry, you’re forgiven for not instantly thinking of it.
It looked like an action-RPG with guns, a mix of Dark Souls and Gears of War. I was quite looking forward to it, as I do love me a Souls-like. So when Toby and I finally got around to playing it, it was a resounding “Meh” from both of us, and I haven’t gone back to it since. It was bland and disappointing.
To learn that Chronos is a prequel to that, I was initially cautious. If the first one failed to grip me, what hope does a prequel/sequel have? Will it just be another “Meh” from me, or will it at least convince me there’s hope in this franchise?
Grab your sword and shield, be prepared to battle against time and follow me into the world of Chronos…
Time And Time Again
Whilst it is indeed a prequel to the events of Remnant, you don’t have to have played through that to get the gist of it. Whilst there is a time mechanic to Chronos: Before the Ashes, it’s not as nuanced as say, Star Wars, when it comes to continuity. Well, neither is Star Wars in terms of consistency, when you think about it…
Anyway, the plot here is much more simplified: a great evil exists and makes the lives of you and your folk miserable. You are sent to defeat a great dragon, by way of several guardians prior, through a series of portals and time zones. Unlike Mr. Baggins, you’re not after untold wealth that this dragon’s hoarding, you’re just ridding the land of it. Like all good adventures, it’s not that straightforward. You have to work your way up this winged evil, tackling bosses of differing size and ferocity along the way.
Now, if you had played Remnant (or paid attention to the Gears analogy), you’ll notice the distinct lack of guns this time around. Chronos is all about that close combat, dodge-and-parry gameplay that we’re all used to by now. You know how much I hate calling something a “Dark Souls clone”? Normally, it’s a fallback for “a game that’s a bit difficult”, in the same vein that every sandbox game is “a GTA clone”.
But let’s go through the usual itinerary:
- Tough, claustrophobic combat
- A focus on parrying and/or dodge-rolling
- Unfair enemies that you need to get used to
- A vague and unhelpful sense of direction or objective
…and so on.
It plays exactly like you’d expect it to, right down to the frustrating lack of where you’re going and the uneasy feeling of constantly dying. However, Chronos does turn death into a positive.
Come Back When You’re Old Enough
Dying in Chronos: Before the Ashes is an absolute pain in the ass (I’ll explain why later), much like any Souls game. There’s no joy to be had in getting killed. It’s not like Hades, in that dying “rewards” you with more story and exposition to look forward to. No, a death is still just as annoying as it is in Bloodborne or Sekiro.
What Chronos does do each time you die, however, is age you. Not you personally, although raging at a bullshit death may increase your blood pressure and cause grief later in life. No, I mean your in-game avatar, your player character. Male or female (with that being the only customisation option), you start the game as a fresh-faced eighteen year old.
Dying adds a year to your life, as well as a reset at the nearest portal crystal thing. Separate from your character level, dying has both reward and burden attached to it. The reward is that at every ten years of age (not every ten deaths) you unlock a new perk. A choice of three, these range from stronger attack, better evasive skills or accruing more experience from each kill. How you pick is up to your playstyle, but don’t think of it as a reward. It’s more the game offering a helping hand because you keep dying.
The Wisdom Of Age
Chronos: Before the Ashes offers another caveat when it comes to the whole time/death concept: age-based stat ramifications. Now, we all the know the stereotypes about the young being all spritely and agile, whilst the old and venerable are [usually] required for their knowledge and understanding.
Well, the same applies here, in leveling up form. The cost for Strength, Agility and Vitality cost less than Arcane understanding does. The idea being that you build these up when you can, before you start racking up the deaths. As you get older these cost more, yet the fee for Arcane is less.
So Chronos is literally playing to that stereotype, and I for one applaud what it is doing. You start off the young and gallant adventure, but over time your understanding of machinations and magics becomes more prevalent with age. It’s quite a genius concept. The only trick is not dying too much before you get older, thus missing the opportunity to rack up the early stats.
Time… Is On My Side
For all my apparent protestations at the start, Chronos: Before the Ashes has really grown on me. At time of writing, I haven’t finished it, but like Mortal Shell I know I’m going to.
It’s got that stylish look to it, a cross between Kingdoms of Amalur and Darksiders II which, in my opinion, is never a bad thing. That chunky, somewhat pastel-y vibe that reminds of Fable, right down to your character model aging with your
sucking at staying alive progress.
The level design is funky in a not-quite minimal way, but certainly not pushing for the graphical fidelity of a FromSoftware title. The exploration may get a little stale at times, but it’s not too terrible when it’s decent enough to look at. Jumping through portals into new locales is a nice touch, as repairing a painting leads into a world reminiscent of Endor. All treetops and forestry but thankfully no sodding Ewoks. Just very hostile enemies.
And sadly, this is where the game falters…
Le Temps Detruit Tout
I’ve dissected this before, so pardon the deja vu, but this is where a lot of Soulsborne/Souls-like games get it wrong. What makes the combat in Dark Souls/Bloodborne/Sekiro great is the nuance in learning an enemy’s attacks, lest you be punished for making a mistake.
It is not: make the enemies hit hard and relentlessly so that you have to spazz-roll about the place and get a lucky hit in. There’s no subtlety in learning new attacks from foes, instead devolving into getting a hit in when you can. Your shield only works if the enemy’s hit is weaker than your shield strength. How do you find this out? Trial and error.
So you could either take damage or a stamina reduction, but you won’t know until you try. You could evade, and there is a bonus when you do, but it’s so temperamental at early stages it doesn’t seem worth it. What is absolute bullshit though, is that you can be interrupted mid-swing, yet not the other way around.
You could be in the middle of a jumping strike and still be stopped, but if you’re mid-combo you can still take a hit. Furthermore, you can’t pull out of your own attack, so if you wind one up and you see something coming, you have to pray you can roll out of it.
Whale Of A Time
Combat niggles aside, there is plenty of fun to be had in Chronos. There’s a wealth of weapons to find along the way, from hammers to spears and flails. These can be upgraded with Dragon Shards, and later Rare Dragon Shards to give them some extra beans.
There’s also a magical stone system, granted to you by some gnarly tree (whom I believe is important in Remnant). Initially granted Fire, which makes you temporarily quicker and stronger for a time, you find more as you explore. The Lightning Stone grants immobilising powers, whilst the Sun offers temporary immunity.
As is the wont in these games, the fun is in finding what combination works best for you. Much like any Soulsborne, you have a particularly healing item that has refillable, limited use. The only drawback is there are no bonfires or shops here, meaning your Dragon Heart healing item only refills on death. Which is annoying, when you’re on a good run but fast running out of healing ability.
The ability to travel between these respawn points is novel enough for those that want to backtrack/explore, as well as eventually heading back to the present. There’s something going on in the starting facility, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to find out what it is…
Time Is A Healer
As I say, I initially went into Chronos with trepidation. I didn’t immediately warm to it, with its vagueness and aforementioned combat issues. I was ready to trash it.
But, then I realised that I am a critic and it is my job to see something through (or at least try), so I persevered. And honestly, I’m glad I did. It may be a little rough to start with, but bear with it.
When the ball does get rolling, it certainly opens up into its own competent game. Sure, it’s never going to reach the lofty heights of a Dark Souls or Sekiro, so don’t go in expecting that. Go in knowing this a worthy attempt at it, however, and you’ll be surprised.
It has its niggles, no bones about it. But once you get involved with the time-and-portal-based shenanigans, including a size-shifting sequence very reminiscent of the first Prey (from back in 2006) that blew my mind. I won’t give it away, but it was quite a joyous sequence.
It isn’t imperative to have played Remnant first, although some of the story beats may make more sense. I’m slowly piecing things together but as I say, I’m on my first playthrough. Give me time, I’m not that good at these games.
It takes a bit of getting used to, as expected, and is a bit heavy-handed with its combat and vague on storytelling. But once you’re getting used to its nuances, Chronos: Before the Ashes opens up into a great little Soulsborne affair.
Chronos: Before the Ashes is available on PlayStation 4 (reviewed on PS5), Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch and Google Stadia from December 1st.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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