I am not sure anyone thought that a prequel to 2019s Remnant: From the Ashes would emerge at all, let alone as a VR exclusive adventure game with Zelda tendencies that quietly made its way to a regular release in late 2020. Nevertheless, here we are, for better or worse.
Drawing on the limited world-building of Remnant (dragons, roots, a world in chaos, jumping through dimensional portals to murder things) Chronos: Before the Ashes casts you as a nameless adventurer who heads to the same abandoned island base as players did in the former sequel.
Here, you travel through a crystal to a fantasy world and promise to help a tree defeat the guardians in between you and The Dragon, the entity that threatens to set the world ablaze, giving you the ashes that this game is set before, and Remnant is set after.
A fancy hat
It’s a lot, I know.
Anyway, defeating these guardians means exploring the land of the Krell – squat dwarven people with a predilection for geometric stone headwear – and then later the world of the Pans – agile faun folk with bestial masks. Near enough everyone you encounter is hostile, requiring you to engage in simplistic Zelda and Souls inspired combat that will see you rolling, dodging, parrying, and hacking your way to victory. The rest of the time, you’ll be trudging back and forth trying to solve a variety of light puzzles.
This’ll be fine, right?
The quest ahead of your character is a long one, and death comes pretty swiftly. In an interesting wrinkle on the Souls style formula, dragon hearts (your estus-like healing item) and enemy spawns don’t renew when resting at a checkpoint. They only return on death, though you can also get a full heal on levelling up.
Punishment for death is… interesting. Every time you die, you age a year. You start at 18, and when you hit 20, 30, 40 etc you gain one of three unique passive buffs. Your strength and dexterity also become harder to level up, but your arcane state becomes easier. Some passive buffs also wear off as you age, meaning there is a light amount of planning in how you build your character.
It’s an interesting idea, adding a slight roguelike feel to progression, but ultimately underbaked due to its implementation. None of the buffs are particularly interesting, generally focussing on slightly increasing your stats passively, so in practice they feel like a crutch for dying a lot. It would be nice if the game committed to this more, because it’s an infrequent approach.
Gains for days
As for the combat… it’s acceptable, with flashes of fun. Enemies tend to have tanky health pools, and animations have long commitments which make for a combat system that encourages playing fairly conservatively. Parrying and dodging attacks with your short hop grants you a slight damage boost, based on the arcane jewel you have in your weapon. Enough hits will power up your jewel so that you can unleash its power and deal extra damage, stun enemies, and so on.
There’s definitely some satisfaction to be had in chaining dodges through enemy sweeps, and parrying attacks. Boss encounters are fun as you work through escalating move sets, making dodging and blocking vital.
The real highlight of the game is its puzzles. They were designed for VR, and as such they rely on visual information – remembering sequences of glyphs, being able to identify where keys and locks are and how to link them. To the detriment of Chronos – and at the risk of sounding belabouring the overarching point – there is nothing groundbreaking here. That aside, the need to write down information on a pad so I could remember it as I explored was a quaint feeling that I’ve missed from games recently.
I look good
There is also one puzzle that involves using codes to transport yourself through different sized mirrors to find items and battle oversized enemies which have all the hallmarks of something that would work better in VR, though it still feels quite unconventional in this iteration.
Even the art style is rather imaginative, following the off-kilter designs of remnants with a few fresh takes on enemy designs and areas, and the austere architecture of the Krell’s domain allows for some lovely moments of chiaroscuro lighting. It’s just a shame that in the end, it all mounts to a rather rote time hacking, slashing, and noodling over puzzles.
The denouement is especially drab, and after six to eight of hours fairly linear exploration, you’ll have seen nearly everything on offer. There’s definitely fertile ground here for further developments, but currently, it’s strangled by a lack of scope and ambition.
[Reviewed on PC]