Prequels are always a tricky proposition. On the one hand, you're trying to keep the story consistent with the established lore, and disrupting the given canon can backfire badly (just look at the Star Wars prequels). On the other hand, adhering too slavishly to the earlier games in the series risks creating a sense of ho-hum sameness, making fans wonder why the effort was even made. And at either extreme, the production has to be top quality in its own right. Chronos: Before The Ashes takes the "Soulsborne" formula its predecessor Remnant: From The Ashes tweaked and brings it back to a more traditional implementation which doesn't quite capture the essence of the genre.
Set an indeterminate number of years before Remnant, Chronos puts players in the role of a lone champion, a youth of eighteen years who must venture into an abandoned facility from before the world ended, and do battle with an enemy only known as "The Dragon," armed with a simple wooden shield and either a plain iron axe or sword. The champion is warned that death is not the end of their adventure, but it will take a toll on their body, a year of their life basically ripped away to restore them.
Through seven undefined "chapters," players will traverse a number of unusual and cyclopean environments, meeting a broad array of creatures, and trying to kill virtually all of them. Defeating monsters will provide experience, which will lead to leveling up, which in turn leads the player getting stronger, faster, tougher, and smarter. At ten year intervals, players will earn a perk, enhancing certain skills or making it easier pull off certain combat maneuvers, though it means dying a lot to fill out all those perk slots. Certain attributes are more easily bought when the champion is younger while getting more expensive as the character gets older, and vice versa.
Visually speaking, Chronos is incredibly deft in a number of areas. From the brutalist design of the research facility to the soaring architecture of massive palaces, the environments are wonderfully conceived, though there are cracks here and there where meshes and textures don't quite match up right. There are plenty of nifty visual effects, from fiery auras to pathways which fill in as you approach them. The creature designs are distinctive and informative, making it clear for the most part when you're dealing with a bruiser or a scrapper. However, the player's avatar comes only in two flavors, male or female, and there is absolutely no ability to customize them visually. This is perhaps the first warning that players are not going to be getting a particularly deep experience.
The music and sound effects in Chronos are excellent. While the score may not be quite the thing to listen to on its own, it does a good enough job to convey and accentuate the mood. Clashing steel, rusty hinges, and period-specific minicomputer beeps among other effects help add the right sort of auditory textures for the environments. Voice acting, though, is pretty minimal. The player's avatar does little outside of grunting in effort or grunting in pain. The few NPCs that are present in the game do well enough, but they're not especially memorable. Even the final boss doesn't seem to project the right sort of menace that we expect from a being which brought about an apocalypse. The performances seem too earnest to suggest the actors weren't taking the roles seriously, but not energetic enough to convey the feeling they enjoyed the parts.
If you've played other Soulsborne-type games, Chronos is probably going to feel somewhat slight. From the variety of weapons to the limited advancement options when leveling up, you're not going to be experiencing the sort of game the staples of the genre have defined. The developers at Gunfire Games seem to have mistaken "broad" for "deep." There are just enough clever ideas to tease your interest, but they're not expanded on or developed past the areas where they appear. Whether this was an attempt to keep certain ideas thematically associated with those areas, or if it was just a questionable design decision, it's hard to say. At first blush, it seems like there's a lot of ground to cover, but it becomes clear after a few hours that the game environments are far more compact than you're led to believe. There are plenty of "loopbacks" to areas which the player has previously visited, but those expecting the expansiveness of Yharnam or Lothric are going to be bitterly disappointed.
By the same token, character advancement and build strategies are ridiculously simplified. You have four stats you can directly improve (Strength, Agility, Vitality, and Arcane), a short list of weapons, and an even shorter list of shields. Chronos clearly expects you're going to get your ass kicked or you're going to discover just how far of a drop you can't survive, hence the Perks handed out every ten lives you burn up. There's not a lot of nuance or variety within the weapons, being either Strength or Agility based, nor are there a lot of magic options. While the weapons can be improved, the shields (strangely) cannot.
There are a small number of healing items which are single use, replenished only after the character dies, but completely ineffective during the final boss fight for reasons unexplained. That lack of explanation is pervasive throughout, not simply in the final boss battle. There are hints about basic systems like attack moves and increasing attribute points. But other information - such as how many regular Dragon Shards you ultimately need to spend to improve your weapons, or the practical effects of a given Perk - is completely non-existent. Where FromSoftware might give a player information overload, Chronos is something of a black box.
Knowing that Chronos is a Soulsborne-style game might cause gamers of a certain bent to flinch involuntarily, given the genre's brutal difficulty. Gunfire Games has done those players a mitzvah by creating a "Casual" mode, one which focuses more on story and puzzles than on the combat. But as encouraging as that might sound, the story itself seems unusually thin. The fact Chronos is a prequel means that some aspects of the story are probably not going to mean much to players who haven't gone through Remnant. Even so, there should be a rich and full featured tale which players can enjoy. As it is, there's the outlines of a tale, fragments and hints which suggest without providing a whole lot of detail. Certainly a lot less detail than you would expect from a typical Soulsborne game.
Ultimately, Chronos: Before The Ashes comes across like an extra large demo rather than a full featured game, the sort of thing an indie studio would put together to show off to the press or major investors who really wanted a hands-on experience. It falls short of being a truly satisfying title, neither being sufficiently fleshed out to stand alone or serve as an appropriately illuminating prequel to its predecessor. The mechanic of the character aging is a gimmick which is a poor substitute for character customization, and which doesn't give players any compelling incentive to explore it further. Which is a shame, because it almost feels like it could have been a blazing success instead of fizzling out.
Axel reviewed Chronos: Before The Ashes with a code provided by the publisher.