Back to Classic Souls-like
Chronos: Before the Ashes is the latest Souls-like game in the “Ashes” series, placing itself as a prequel to Remnant: From the Ashes to explain just how the world was originally messed up. But where Remnant was more an “FPS Souls-like”, Chronos: Before the Ashes returns to the classic Souls-like hack-and-slash action RPG gameplay, offering the usual melee weapons and parrying mechanics you normally see in Souls-like games. But is it any good?
The game starts off with you choosing your character and your starting weapon, either a sword or an axe. After this, you’re thrown right into a little cutscene in a place that will be familiar to anyone who’s played Remnant. Sitting along with a group of kids, you’re told the basic gist of what you need to do. Once a year, a “Great Stone” opens up, allowing people to travel to a labyrinth. At the end of this labyrinth is a terrible dragon, who wants to take over humanity and kill everyone! Oh no! So once a year, the “Chosen One” (hint: you) must traverse through this maze, killing anything in your path in the hopes of slaying the dragon and saving the world! This also foreshadows what would have been one of the most interesting mechanics in the game as well, the whole “once a year” part. When you start out the game and take a look at your stats for the first time, you’ll notice you can see your “age”. You start off as a spry 18 year old, full of youth and vigour! But the next time you die and take a look, you’ll see your age increases by one year. And if this was executed correctly, this would’ve been a really neat idea; having to slave away at the game again a year older, with more wisdom and insight to your enemies while also having to take into account the various changes to your body as you age. Unfortunately, that’s not quite how this game works, which I was quite disappointed by. Instead, you just restart from the latest checkpoint you activated, a year older with no real major changes for the vast majority of the time, except maybe looking slightly different. You are warned at the beginning of the game that the more you age the less strength and agility will matter and the more arcane and vitality will matter (your only four stats), but as far as I can tell you have to die a hell of a lot to get to that point, and I never did having ended the game at 38 (or 20 deaths). You do get to unlock a special “trait” for every 10 years you age, all the way up to 80 (so 62 deaths) which give you little bonuses like an increase in strength or more XP gain or maybe more arcane knowledge which is nice I guess, but kind of useless if you’re only going to get two or three (assuming you’re moderately good at the game).
But let’s ignore that and move on. After that initial cutscene, you travel off to a mysterious (and, once again, familiar) looking military complex from the 60s on an island which houses this “Great Stone”, which again again will be familiar to anyone who has played Remnant. Once you activate the first stone you come across, you’re transported to an alien world where you’ll get your first taste of combat. For the most part it uses similar mechanics to Soulsborne games: you have your light and heavy attack, you can block and parry enemies with a shield, you’ve got your standard dodge with iframes, you have a stamina bar (although weirdly this is only used for dodging, sprinting, and blocking, not attacks), and you level up your character to become stronger via the Strength, Agility, Arcane, and Vitality stats. All in all fairly standard stuff, but like most Souls-like games unfortunately the combat starts off pretty rough. You’re much slower than even basic enemies, you have 0 poise so every attack stuns you regardless of where you’re at in an animation, and your extremely limited number of heals (well, kind of) makes progression oh so very annoying. It doesn’t help that, for the most part, combat boils down to “dodge behind enemy, whack it a bunch, repeat”. Enemy variance is ok, but unfortunately basically all of them, even bosses, fall prey to this basic strategy except for maybe the last boss which makes the game relatively trivial, assuming you catch on. All in all, I managed to finish the games a whole 20 years older at the nice young age of 38, after only about ten hours of gameplay.
Things do get a little better as you go through the game, but the combat still isn’t exactly amazing. You can find a few different weapons in the game that will vary in speed, with things like the axe and hammer being relatively slow and weapons like the spear and scythe being fairly fast. You can also upgrade these weapons a maximum of five times, with little dragon shards you collect from enemy drops, which is nice I suppose. You’ll still never interrupt an enemy out of an attack regardless of your weapon or its level, but at the very least you can beat the hell out of them quickly before they can attack again. You’ll still get staggered by all enemy attacks, but with upgraded agility you can (at least, I think) increase your iframes during dodges, so you should be able to avoid getting hit most of the time, which is good. As for healing, you basically have two choices: the very limited healing items (of which I found four by the end of the game), or levelling up which restores your health to 100%. I’ve probably healed myself way more via levelling up than I have via actual healing items, which I expect was done on purpose by the developers to compensate for the lack of dedicated heals, though I have to question exactly why they'd design it this way. A heal is a heal I suppose? There are also a couple puzzles in the game, but they're pretty basic and don't really do much to enhance the gameplay so much as to just put something there to break up the monotony.
In terms of level design, Chronos is about what you’d expect from a Souls-like. You’ve got generally linear areas with some backtracking and shortcuts involved to make things easier on you when you die, which is all well and good. Graphically speaking, it seems Gunfire Games opted to downgrade things this time around vs Remnant: From the Ashes. Instead of opting for the more graphically-intense designs, Chronos falls back on something simpler. Things are a bit more “cartoony” and textures and modules are lower res, which is nice because it allows them to port the game to lower end systems like the Switch, but is a little jarring to experience when going from Remnant straight to Chronos. But it also has problems with texture pop-in, especially when loading in after a death. Whether this is a PS4 issue or is universal I couldn’t say, but you definitely should tone your expectations down a bit.
And that sort of sums up my whole experience of Chronos: Before the Ashes to be honest: The story wasn’t particularly thrilling, with a “twist” ending that you could see from a mile away, the combat isn’t particularly engaging, the graphics are toned down a ton vs their previous game; it’s not particularly difficult to Remnant...overall, the game is really just okay.