And so it begins …
Chronos: Before the Ashes is a prequel to the souls-like third-person co-op shooter Remnant: From the Ashes and recounts the events that took place around a month before Remnant started playing.
In contrast to the successor, the prequel shows that I played on the Xbox Series X for this test, not shooting the opponent in the collar, but in the classic role-playing manner with sword and shield. This is purely about hand-to-hand combat and only on its own, because there is no multiplayer component.
Something has happened to humanity. Our world as we know it today has been attacked by beings from other worlds and it is our job to kill the dragon responsible for everything. At least that’s the order we get from an old lady in the intro. There are only a few people left who live together in tribes and in simple circumstances. Only relics and ruins remain of our technological development.
Either we play a male or a female character and begin our adventure with nothing more than a shield and a sword or an ax. We can choose the starting weapon as well as the choice between three levels of difficulty. These influence the difficulty of the fight and once we have made a decision, a later change is no longer possible. Unless we start from scratch with a new character.
At the beginning of the game we start in a kind of old and probably long-abandoned bunker. After a while we find a stone here that serves as a portal into a strange world. According to Lore, these stones only wake up once a year. If we are defeated in a fight against the numerous and varied opponents, our character does not die as in other games. It is true that we wake up a short moment later at the stone we last visited, but with each death our hero or heroine also becomes a year older. We start with a tender 18 years of life experience and careless world savers age much faster here.
But what about aging in terms of gameplay? To answer that, it takes a look at the progression system.
Soulslike oder Soulslite?
Because, as is typical of the genre, we collect experience points for killing enemies. If we have collected enough points, we go up one level and can use the attribute points gained in this way to increase strength, skill, arcanum or life. Power lets us do more damage, life increases our hit points. Arcanum increases our magic damage and skill we improve our defense. Because there is no armor in the game.
But if you look around carefully, you will find new weapons and better shields. The latter not only allow us to block and thus repel at least part of the damage, but also parry attacks. Weapons scale their damage values with different attributes. The hammer scales especially with force. The more points we have invested in power, the greater the damage the hammer causes in our hand. The sword, on the other hand, benefits more from skill. On the way we always find broken pieces with which we can improve the weapons.
But let’s get back to the shield: Blocking lets us block part or most of the damage, depending on which shield we use. Larger shields are slower to parry than small ones. And parrying attacks is an important pillar of the combat system. Dodging is sometimes less effective than a good save with the right counterattack. Our own movement pattern changes when we target an opponent. Then we can no longer roll, but instead switch between different opponents.
Each type of enemy has different attack patterns and reacts differently to the weapon used. For some opponents we can interrupt their attacks and movesets with one blow. For example, the Pan in the second area have an allergic reaction to the hammer. But not other opponents. Sprinting, blocking, parrying and evasive action wear out our endurance bar. If we deal hammer blows, sword blows and the like, however, this has no effect on our endurance bar
Wisdom comes with age!
But how was it now with aging? Well, death makes us a year older and brings us back to the last stone. But we do not lose any items or even experience points. But all opponents respawn, except bosses. At the same time, our healing items, called dragon hearts here, cannot be refilled. Another year of life starts, but we also start with freshly filled dragon hearts, which restore all of our life energy with one sip. If we go up a level, we are also completely healed. And what’s the catch now? In fact, starting at the age of 20, we get the opportunity to choose between different and permanent character bonuses every ten years. For example, we get more experience points faster or the time window for parrying becomes larger, making parrying easier. This is not a catch at first. But as we get older, it becomes harder and harder to improve our physical fitness. While increasing strength, life or skill initially only costs one attribute point, the costs increase over the course of our hero’s life!
At a young age we can only purchase an increase in Arcanum for 3 points. As we get older, we also get wiser and then the requirements to be met for an increase in Arcanum decrease.
Is that soulslike or soulslite? First and foremost, Chronos: Before the Ashes is a great game, despite its age. Because the new edition is compact, but delivers many things that are familiar from the soul-like genre. It is quite linear and offers not much to discover apart from a small space on the left or right. We regularly activate shortcuts to the last stone, which serves as a reset point. Using the stones enables us to travel quickly between the magical boulders activated so far on our hero’s journey. Enemies are not resurrected by this and we are not healed either.
And yet, in the end, every opponent can knock us out of the water if we are careless. Starting with the middle level of difficulty, it is advisable to roam slowly and carefully through the surroundings instead of storming blindly forward. Attacks and movement patterns of the opponents need to be analyzed in order to develop a suitable strategy for the fight. Parry? Or would you rather dodge at the right moment in such a way that we come to a standstill behind the opponent, strike once and then move away again? The stamina bar, life points and remaining charges of the dragon hearts for healing are always in view. So as far as the combat system is concerned, it’s souls-like. But the term means a lot more. OK, we also enable abbreviations here. But we do not lose anything when we die, but sooner or later we are punished with higher costs for character improvement. But maybe we’re only a few years away from the next helpful, passive character bonus?
In fact, after Code Vein, I believe Chronos is the best entry point to carefully approach the soul-like genre. The game runs smoothly, all mechanics work and the story told through texts scattered around the game world is interesting, while the various levels of difficulty open the game to a wide audience. And it does not only consist of fights, because here you can and must be plucked!
The pen is mightier than the sword
Once an area has been cleared of opponents, the question arises: what happens next? The answers to this question couldn’t be more different. Sometimes items picked up have to be used in the right place, sometimes different items in the inventory have to be combined before the new item can be used to solve the riddle. For example, at one point in the game we find a pedestal that presumably opens the opposite wall with the right object. Some time later we find a similar base with a large gemstone on it. This is still simple and immediately understandable. But apart from precious stones and keys, it is also important to keep an eye on the surroundings. Because collectable items are highlighted by flashing. But other puzzles demand our memory: on one side of the area there is a statue and on the other side a kind of slot machine. If we recreate the statue in the machine with the correct details and colors, we get an object that opens a new passage for us elsewhere.
Again and again we come across portals and a control panel. The portals are aligned to new goals by the correct combination of three glyphs. Here it is advisable to write down the combinations with a pad and pen. OK, screenshots are also possible, of course.
Visually, Chronos: Before the Ashes is clearly showing its age. There are nasty popups and the characters and the game world are, apart from beautiful atmospheric lighting effects, not very detailed and do not win a next-gen prize for technology. But the mix of fights and puzzles, spiced with a pinch of aspiration (depending on the selected level of difficulty) is wonderfully rounded, polished and motivating and rewarding at the same time. Even beginners can experience the thrill here when the healing options are empty, the character’s heartbeat becomes audible due to the damage taken and you don’t find another opponent around the next corner, but finally a shortcut to the last checkpoint. The exploration left and right in the otherwise quite linear game world is rewarded: new weapons, new magic and more charges for our dragon hearts motivate. The linearity makes it clearer than Dark Souls and Co. while the puzzles are sometimes quite demanding. Despite its outdated technology, Chronos is a convincing oeuvre and a clear recommendation for Action-RPG fans and for all those for whom soulslikes were previously too difficult. The bosses are demanding, but are by no means hurdles as you know it from Bloodborne, Demons Souls and Co. Chronos: Before the Ashes is a great soulslite and also worth a tip for soulslike genre veterans. Even if the latter may see the credits in 6-8 hours and everyone else spend 10 or more hours with them. I’m really excited to see what the Gunfire Games team will play in the future.