HIGH Innovative aging. Streamlined. Minimal reliance on lore.
LOW Fighting the heavy shield enemies is a huge drag.
WTF This prequel was more enjoyable than the full game that came later.
2020 Has Been A Lot.
I noticed that after a few months of living with the nightmare of Trump and COVID, I didn’t have the tolerance for stress that I usually do. Since games are my de-stressing pastime, I started gravitating towards low-cal things that were easy to pick up and play.
In this state of mind, starting a demanding soulslike was not high on my list. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Chronos: Before the Ashes not only offers respectable souls-flavored action, but does it in a streamlined, simplified way that was just what the doctor ordered.
First released as Chronos in 2016 for the Oculus Rift (!!!) this adventure is a prequel to the next title developers Gunfire Games would release, 2019’s Remnant: From the Ashes. Now available in non-VR, Before the Ashes asks players to travel to an island and stop an evil dragon.
Mechanically, this is a third-person actioner of the soulslike variety, meaning that management of stamina and slow, methodical combat play a large role. However, the decision to deplete stamina only when blocking (and not attacking, as most soulslikes do) means that combat is easier to manage, right out of the gate. This isn’t the only twist, though – the setting is another.
The adventure begins around a firepit with an elder sharing a story – they use shadows cast on walls to illustrate a world that used to be full of skyscrapers and more people than they can imagine. It’s long gone.
The main character (male or female, no customization options) lands on the island and finds an abandoned scientific base complete with disused technology like elevators and computers — it’s stark contrast to a hero dressed in medieval fashion and toting a sword. Once in the lab, our hero fiddles with the tech and opens a portal to another dimension, and in they go.
The developers have taken a less-is-more approach to crafting the world in Before the Ashes, and it clicked with me. I’m sure much of it had to do with its origins as a VR title, but levels are notably uncluttered and the aesthetic is pleasantly simplified, sporting a slightly cartoonish vibe. Colors are smooth, everything is bright and clear to see, and architecture is largely straightforward with simple shortcuts. It’s easy to look at and easy to visually digest, and I appreciated every bit of it.
The gameplay of Chronos is also simplified, although it’s not entirely successful. The stronger aspect is the inclusion of puzzles. Offering an almost Adventure-like feeling, the player will come across items that can be picked up, examined, combined and used on a variety of tricky tasks in the environment.
The majority of them are logical and rely on keen observation – the only times I got stuck were when I didn’t notice something, and I have to wonder if those clues would have been more obvious in VR. That said, the small environment and limited number of items means that players will rarely get stuck as long as they exhaust all options. I appreciated these puzzles overall – they were a nice break from combat and put BtA in a slightly different space compared to strict soulslikes.
Less successful is combat. While it’s not terrible, the melee isn’t up to par – the character and all enemies move too slowly, and the responsiveness of the controls isn’t where I’d want it. Surviving in Before the Ashes is mostly about baiting an enemy to strike, knowing how many attacks to get in before their animations reset, and getting back out again. It’s serviceable but never satisfying, and I viewed encounters as something to get through, rather than something to relish.
While the fights weren’t great, Before the Ashes adds an element to the formula that I can honestly say I’ve never seen before, at least in this genre – aging.
Every time the character dies, they grow older by one year. Starting at 18, they’re fresh and full of energy, with hardly a scar on them. In this status, it’s easy to put points into strength and health to play like a tank.
However, as death-induced birthdays keep happening, Chronos increases the points needed for ‘young’ stats while lowering the costs of wisdom and sorcery – a fascinating approximation of abilities shifting with maturity. Certain perks open up after a number of years pass, giving the player a way to shape progression before their death. I loved this mechanic, and it begs to be explored further.
While I wish the combat was more responsive, Chronos: Before the Ashes more than makes up for it with an interesting setting, a marvelous age mechanic and puzzle content that lends it distinct flavor while keeping the entire experience firmly within the soulslike genre. I’m a huge fan of From’s work, but there’s a lot of room to grow the genre they created, and Gunfire Games has done exactly that here.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Gunfire Games and published by THQ Nordic. It is currently available on PS4, XBO, PC, and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Blood, Mild Language and Violence. The official description reads as follows: This is an action role-playing game in which players assume the role of a fighter trying to save a land from a great evil. From a third-person perspective, players can explore an ancient labyrinth while battling fantastical enemies (e.g., goblins, stone monsters, minotaur) in melee combat. Characters fight using swords, spears, and clubs. Combat is highlighted by impact sounds, light effects, and cries of pain. Enemies emit small splashes of blood when struck, and some levels depict pools of blood on the ground. The word “bastard” appears in game text.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Dialogue is subtitled but there are no options to modify or enlarge the text. When walking through levels, some monsters will ambush and the only warning is an audio cue that has no visual component. Players unable to hear the cue will be caught off-guard, and it will be a problem on any difficulty above Easy.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
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If we put Nioh and Nioh 2 in the category “A” of 3D souls-like games not developed by FROM, then Mortal Shell, The Surge 1 & 2 and Remnant: From the Ashes in the “B” category, and Darksiders 3, Lords of the Fallen and Code Vein in category C, which category is befiting for Chronos: Before the Ashes ?
Hmmm… Tough to answer since I’m not sure I would agree with that categorization! All I can say is that if you want meaty combat, give this a pass. But if you’re looking for something souls-flavored but occupying a different space, go for it. ^_^