If you’ve never owned an Oculus Rift, there’s a decent chance you haven’t heard of its exclusive 2016 RPG Chronos from developer Gunfire Games. Though it had moderate success on the VR headset, its exclusivity meant that it was overshadowed by its considerably more well-known sequel, 2019’s third-person RPG-shooter Remnant: From the Ashes. But not content with letting Chronos fade into obscurity, Gunfire has opted to revive it as a non-VR offering for all major consoles and PC under the expanded title of Chronos: Before the Ashes.
This overhaul of Chronos remains structurally identical to the original version of the game but features fully reworked controls and camera angles to assist with its move out of virtual reality. Billed as “Dark Souls meets The Legend of Zelda,” players are cast as a hero who must traverse a labyrinth, solve environmental puzzles, and fend off monsters on a quest to fell a dragon and save Earth. For better or worse, this cliché setup allows the game to blend together a multitude of genres and tones to fit both its narrative – which ties directly into the opening of Remnant – and its core gameplay design.
But while fans of Dark Souls will no doubt understand the comparisons during Chronos’ unforgiving action-RPG combat, I failed to see the Zelda influences. Rather, I found the game’s archaic inventory and puzzle mechanics far more reminiscent of earlier Resident Evil entries. Like those titles, the majority of the puzzles here involve finding and combining items to use in designated locations in order to open new pathways within its levels. It’s all exceptionally elementary and requires little thinking outside of the box – and it requires cumbersome inventory navigation to accomplish – but it admittedly succeeds at providing the serotonin-boosting illusion that your own ingenuity helped you solve the task.
Outside of this, most of Chronos revolves around making your way through corridors and fighting enemies, and doing so earns you experience points for upgrading your character’s four stats of Vitality, Agility, Strength, and Arcane – the latter of which isn’t actually tied to typical magical spells. Instead, Arcane only improves your use of temporary boons, such as adding fire to your sword or getting health back on successful hits, and it can only be used periodically after filling up its respective bar. Therefore, it’s best saved for shredding through the health of the game’s end-of-area boss battles and feels unnecessary to expend otherwise.
And though I can appreciate the obvious Souls-like roots during brawls with foes, everything just feels so rudimentary in comparison. Encounters are significantly less strategic here, devolving into awkwardly waiting for enemies to attack and then clunkily slashing them once or twice – rinse and repeat. There’s little flair to fights and no room to get creative or feel as though you’ll be rewarded for expert maneuvers, mostly because dodging and blocking times are so inconsistent and the game often refuses to register inputs with any sense of urgency. This led to a few of my aforementioned deaths feeling less like personal mistakes and more like the Chronos just wasn’t in the mood to cooperate with my button presses.
When things were flowing smoothly, though, I still found some simple fun in throwing down against the opponents I came across. A lot of familiar enemies show up here in a handful of equally familiar locations that Remnant players will instantly recognize, and they all have attack patterns that are easy enough to learn during an initial encounter yet just unpredictable enough to throw you off if you get too cocky. Still, even enemies who were initially fascinating to study soon just felt like a repetitive obstacle standing between me and working through yet another banal puzzle.
Accentuating the hollow combat is the fact there are only a few weapons scattered around levels – some hanging on walls and some requiring very light puzzle solving to retrieve – and though each of them have their own movesets, only one or two feel truly unique and warrant investment over another of the same stat line. One late-game weapon I came across felt radically different enough that I switched from my beginner sword and never looked back, but despite my preference for it, there was never any meaningful difference in damage, even once I maxed out its level.
But while weapon variety is meager and upgrading them feels largely ineffectual, the character leveling system in Chronos is easily its most compelling and anomalous feature. Each of your deaths causes a year to pass within the world, and your character’s age subsequently plays a substantial part in the game’s lore and how you build him or her overall. With each birthday come and gone, your appearance grows ever more distinguished and the leveling mechanics become altered to account for your increased age.
Early in life, one point into the stats of Agility or Strength is enough to level them up and improve your damage output, but as your body grows wearier from years of battle, the game begins requiring you to spend two points in each of those stats to level them up a single time. The payoff is that your older age and wisdom grant you further attunement to magic so that your Arcane stat, which once required two points, can now be upgraded with only one.
In addition, every decade that passes from your deaths brings along with it the ability to choose a perk that will give you bonus damage, experience, or stat points. Thanks to my years of investment in similar titles, I beat the game on its default medium difficulty having died only 7 times, but purposeful deaths after the fact allowed me to check out some of these perks and see how they would play a pivotal part in keeping newcomers viable. I also imagine that playing on the hardest difficulty would make such bonuses downright indispensable for players of any skill level.
I wish I could say that such unconventional leveling features make Chronos more exciting to play, but they only serve to highlight how it lacks depth in any other important way. And maybe I could forgive its one-note combat and rigid, unimaginative puzzles if its exploration wasn’t so fruitless. Sadly, though, levels are almost entirely barren and offer very little off the beaten path to give you reason to be inquisitive. With no reward for curiosity, and with other major elements of the game following this same surface-level design philosophy, it ends up feeling lifeless as a whole.
That’s not to say there isn’t some fleeting enjoyment to be had with Chronos, but this half-baked amalgamation of various games and genres never capitalizes on what makes any one of them special, and it equally fails to carve out its own identity to make up for it. This is most frustrating because Gunfire had an opportunity here to expand and deepen things to appeal to a wider audience, but they instead opted to deliver an inflexible and shallow adventure. As a result, Chronos: Before the Ashes isn’t a bad game, but it’s so overwhelmingly inessential that it might as well be.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by THQ Nordic.
Chronos: Before the Ashes is neither terrible enough to disown entirely nor deep or engaging enough to warrant a recommendation for anyone but the most genre-craved diehards.