Chronos: Before the Ashes Review | Ashes to Ashes

Chronos: Before the Ashes originally released back in 2016 as an atmospheric RPG for the Oculus Rift but following last year's surprise hit, Remnant: From the Ashes, the game is finally getting ported to non-VR platforms. While Chronos is being advertised as a prequel to Remnant, technically Remnant is the sequel and a continuation of the story started in the 2016 game. Personally speaking, despite having heard of Gunfire Games for their work on Darksiders II: Deathintive Edition and Darksiders III, I hadn't actually played any of their games. That is until now. Obviously, I played through Chronos for this review but, for the full experience, I went and bought and have begun playing Remnant as well so I can more actively compare the games and come to a decision on what I like and don't like about both. Here are my full thoughts.

Being a prequel, the events of Chronos end one month before Remnant begins. Chronos tells the story of a hero who has to save their homeland from a growing evil. This means setting out on a journey through ancient castles and twisting labyrinths to fight and bring down Guardians as you make your way to take down the Dreamer. However, things aren't as simple as try and try again until you succeed because every time you fail, you age one year. And every 10 years, starting at 20, you can pick between certain attunements to focus your abilities based on your gameplay style. But as you grow wiser with age, you also risk being less agile. There isn't much else I can say about the story here because, like most games in this genre, the overarching plot is pretty simple but the lore, found in scattered books and scrolls, gives players who are wanting more, a deeper look at the history of the sites they visit. I did take my time to read as much about this world as I could, and I think it's better when experienced organically, so I won't go into any more detail here.

Before I talk about gameplay, it should be noted that while I am a fan of the Souls games, I have never finished one before. I often play them for short bursts before moving on to some other game that won't make me break controllers. With that said, I was able to roll credits on Chronos with minimal rage. This is because although Chronos has the familiar third-person melee combat and level design that is expected in a typical Souls-like game, Chronos is nowhere near as difficult. Players are given the freedom to pick what melee weapon they want to use and level up, but finding those weapons usually requires some exploration as only a few weapons are found naturally during story progression. As you play the game, you level up. This brings me to the first reason I was able to play Chronos with not much struggle. Every time you level up, which is quite often, your health automatically regenerates and you are given attribute points to place in your desired skill section. While it is good to have a balanced allocation of points, I banked most of mine in strength and health and that worked pretty well for me. This brings me to the second reason which is weapon upgrades. Once you find a weapon you enjoy using, you must use Dragon Shards to power up that weapon. These Shards are dropped randomly by fallen enemies but they drop so often that I had 26 left after I maxed out my main weapon. Throughout your journey you will also find Dragon Stones and Dragon Hearts, the former is used to give temporary special powers to the player like the ability to deal fire damage or drain an enemy's life while the latter act as Estus Flasks and replenish health. Understanding when to use what is a crucial part of Chronos' gameplay loop. Several times in my playthrough I was debating between using a Dragon Heart to heal immediately, using a Dragon Heart to drain an enemy's health or risk fighting another enemy in a weakened state so I could level up and have my health bar refill. Picking the wrong choice often led to a swift death.

Another staple of this genre is puzzle mechanics. For the most part, these aren't too difficult either, with most being relatively straightforward. There are a fair few side stories, like one involving a Princess's locket, that aren't necessary for the story but further develop the world. The puzzles revolving around the main objectives often glow and if you're ever lost, stopping to look through your inventory of items usually pushes you in the right direction. In fact, the only puzzle that gave me a tough time in the game was an actual sliding puzzle that had a maze on it. This took me no less than 20 minutes to solve during which I grew more frustrated than any boss in the game. Speaking of bosses, there are a few in Chronos but, not to brag, I managed to beat most of them on my first try on the default Adventurer difficulty. The only boss that got me heated was the final boss who was somehow disproportionately more difficult than any of the bosses before him, though even him I managed to beat in only around five attempts. I ended up beating the game at age 48, which means I died a total of 30 times in my entire 10-hour playthrough. 

Before I talk about performance, keep in mind that because I played the game before release so everything I say is prior to any potential Day 1 patch from the developer. That being said, from texture pop-ins to weird visual glitches that cause the game to stutter, there are several bugs I came across in my time with Chronos. But perhaps the biggest (literal) bug I came across was when I managed to make a boss freeze. This was before the actual boss fight but after a particular action, the giant Cyclops at the start of the game just stopped in place and didn't move. When I dropped into his room, which usually triggers him to start attacking, there was no movement. And when I started attacking him his health bar did start to go down. Though the progress was so slow, the bar barely moving with each hit, I soon gave up and continued on the story. I was also able to replicate that same bug again in the same area after I died and the map reset. None of these bugs are game-breaking, except I suppose if you spend the time to potentially kill that boss while he's frozen, and other than small hiccups, they don't hinder the experience.

Visually Chronos is a clean looking game with a minimalistic aesthetic. The opening areas aren't anything remarkable and after my first session with the game, I was left feeling rather unimpressed. Possibly being a byproduct of the fact that Chronos was originally a VR title, a lot of the areas aren't packed with details and flourishes. However, the later areas do get more engaging and by the end of the game, I had come to the conclusion that while the game isn't rich with detail from start to finish, it still remains atmospheric thanks to great lighting. From the glow of the Dragon Stone after powering up to radiating crystals casting long shadows, Chronos' lighting system does a lot for the game visually. When it comes to sound, however, Chronos: Before the Ashes leaves a much stronger impression. The game has an impressive sound design but the real highlight is the soundtrack. Certain notes from the music were still stuck in my head long after I put down the controller, and I wasn't upset about it.

As I said at the start, I've now played all of Chronos and a bit of Remnant. So how do they compare? Well, the overarching mythos that overlaps both games is undoubtedly interesting and for players who played through Remnant and wanted more of that world, Chronos is an easy game to recommend. However, the same gameplay should not be expected in both. Remnant is better in almost every way than Chronos. The gameplay is smoother and more responsive, visuals are more polished, and there's a greater sense of atmosphere. This is due in large part to detailed environments with destructible items. Meanwhile, in Chronos, there are pots that you can't break and chests you can't open riddled throughout the map. Plus there are no firearms of any kind in Chronos, only melee weapons like swords and axes. That being said, whether you play Chronos first and then start Remnant, as I did, to see a continuation of the story or you've played Remnant first and want to go back to experience the events referenced in that narrative, as I think most will, the common thread is that the world that Gunfire Games has created here is a unique one. And it is one that I hope we see more of in the coming years.

In the end, Chronos: Before the Ashes is a fine supplementary experience to fans of Remnant: From the Ashes, but it doesn't offer enough to make it a great game when standing on its own two feet. While the game did win several accolades as a VR exclusive, the non-VR adaption doesn't stack up to other games in this ever-growing Souls-like genre. That's not to say it's bad however, for players craving a roughly 10-hour third-person melee experience, Chronos offers enough clever puzzles and easy achievements to warrant a playthrough. It's just one that I would highly recommend pairing with Remnant. Chronos: Before the Ashes is out tomorrow, December 1st, for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, and Stadia. A review code for the Xbox One was provided by the publisher and I played the game on an Xbox Series S.

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