Chronos — Eveything old is new again
As a younger man, I played a lot of games. The majority of them were computer games because my family never really got into the console scene. At one point there was a SNES in the house, but despite Mario Kart being the most fun you can have with a D-pad and 2 buttons, it was showing its age.
Occasionally I’d visit friends and we’d play their console games, so I did actually get to experience some console exclusives. There was always at least one game that made me dearly want to buy the hardware, but it was never quite enough to make me part with the cash. (Actually, that’s not quite true. I bought a PSP out of a desire to play Loco Roco, and I maintain to this day that it was worth it.)
Of the console games that were forever slightly out of reach, a few stand out above the rest. I’d grab some time with the Resident Evil series whenever I could, my friends and I would play Soul Calibur long into the night, and I absolutely adored Super Smash Brothers.
Eventually, I did end up in command of a Nintendo GameCube. I borrowed games from anyone who’d lend them to me and those that I could complete, I played through and returned. If memory serves, I never made it to the end of Baten Kaitos (astounding game, similar to Final Fantasy but with a deck-building element to the combat). I hope that went back to its owner, because if it didn’t, I have no clue where it is now…
Anyway, the reason for all this digression is to bring up a game from many moons ago that as far as I can tell, quite a few people missed: Eternal Darkness.
Eternal Darkness was a phenomenal psychological horror action puzzler, similar to Resident Evil, released on the GameCube. I got a first look at it while round at a friend’s house, and ended up borrowing it to play through. It was absolutely stunning. The story eludes me at the moment (I’m sure it was interesting. More likely my memory is at fault than the story was easily forgettable), but two things about it stick in my mind quite clearly.
Firstly, Silicon Knights had decided to implement ‘sanity effects’ into the game. They thought up a reasonably decent selection of ways the game could mess with the player while you were trying to play it and had them happen with increasing frequency as your player character became more unstable.
I remember quite clearly that it would occasionally overlay a green (I think) “VOLUME ||||||||” display on the game screen and turn the volume down on your TV as if you were sitting on the remote. It was a bit cheesy, but pretty effective.
Another stunt the game would pull was to let you wander around a location for about ten seconds, then explode your avatar’s head. After they’d fallen to the ground, you’d restart at the edge of the screen where you entered the room. If I recall correctly, they didn’t let this happen often enough to be irritating, which allowed it to be shocking without totally pissing you off.
The last one that I remember is where you’d walk from the edge of the room toward the centre and the closer you got to the middle of the room, the smaller your player got. Walking back out from the centre to the opposite side would return you to normal height.
These effects were made possible by the second thing that sticks in my mind about Eternal Darkness: the camera system.
Unless I’m mistaken, the whole game was played with fixed camera locations. The camera would be in a corner of a room, or halfway along a corridor, and when you stepped out of frame (either through a door, or round a corner) the game would swap to the next camera location and carry on from there. In retrospect, the Resident Evil games were this way too, but I actually preferred Eternal Darkness to most of the RE games. I suspect that’s an odd position to take.
I remember it being a bit awkward keeping the controls consistent from one location to the next. If you’re pushing right on the control stick to run right off the screen, then your character enters the next from from the top of the screen, should you carry on running top to bottom with the same stick input? If so, when should the stick get reoriented so that right is right and down is down? It’s not an intractable problem, but I suppose it’s one of the trade-offs you make when you design for fixed camera positions. The benefits of using fixed cameras from an artwork, programming, or even testing perspective are probably huge, and fixing the control consistency issue shouldn’t be so tricky, but I think it’s interesting nonetheless.
Which brings me to Chronos.
Chronos lets itself in for all the problems of fixed camera angles, and it does so while exploring the relatively new ground of VR. It’s a strange mixture of old and new that I feel quite cleverly mirrors some of the themes of the game.
*** Minor potential spoilers regarding game mechanisms ahead! If you’re the kind to not even read the synopsis on Oculus Home for fear of spoilers, well, I’m not sure why you’re reading this, but you’d probably better just go play it. ***
Chronos is a third person VR hack’n’slash puzzler, with fixed cameras, and a light RPG system with some unique tweaks. The flow of the game is a little like Dark Souls in that the death of your avatar is pretty much unavoidable as you throw yourself against ever more powerful enemies. Take heart though that as with Dark Souls, death isn’t massively punishing. You don’t even need to trundle off to your death location to retrieve anything. Inventory and XP are preserved.
What’s unique about dying in Chronos is a side effect that Gunfire Games decided that your player should age one year for each respawn. Added to that, younger avatars lean toward strength and agility, and as they age they turn more to arcane arts. I’m not 100% sure how this plays out (I think you start aged 18 or so, and my player just turned 29 when I closed the game last night), but it’s a character development dynamic I haven’t seen before.
You still level up as the XP bar fills which allows you to place two attribute points on your choice of strength, agility, arcane, and vitality (blunt weapon power, sharp weapon power, magic power, and health respectively), but the level of your character only seems to affect those values. The part of character development that would ordinarily be a perk system or skill tree is linked to avatar age.
Every ten years (starting from age 20) of your character’s life brings a new ‘trait’. You pick from a selection of three traits as you respawn after the triggering death. As an example, for my 20th birthday I chose the trait that increased the rate of XP gain from enemies. There’s a semi-cryptic message from the game during this process that implies that traits might evolve over time, but I’ve yet to see the effects of that.
Given that it’s third person, you’ve probably already guessed that it’s gamepad driven. The controls work very well for the most part, I only suffered control confusion once or twice, and never during combat. Speaking of which, the combat is excellent (IMHO). You’ve got block, lock on, dodge roll, backstep, parry, standard and heavy attack, all the standard trappings of Dark Souls style combat, but without the stamina meter. Attempting to block a barrage of attacks will get you guard broken though, so while you can roll around like a madman, you can’t block forever.
You can also spice up your combat with the effects of dragon stones. The first is given to you as you progress, but the rest are for you to find. Once you have a dragon stone equipped, you charge it by parrying, dodging, landing heavy blows etc. Once charged, you can use the stone’s power. The first stone adds fire to your weapon, providing arcane damage and increasing your attack speed. I’ve found another dragon stone in my three hours of play which provides increased weapon power and a temporary invulnerability shield (which is *really* handy).
Weapons can be upgraded along a linear track of increased damage. As you explore, you’ll find dragon shards either dropped by enemies or hidden in little boxes that you pick up and open. These are used to perform weapon upgrades, three for the first level, five for the next, and so on. There might be more to this mechanic hinted at by a special dragon shard I managed to acquire, but I’m not clear on the details of that yet.
The graphical style is impressively stylised, eschewing photorealism in favour of something closer to Dishonored, or later Zelda games. In fact quite a few of the enemy designs feel like they’ve been heavily influenced by Hyrulian technology. That’s not a bad move in my book; they look and feel exactly right for the setting.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m only three hours in. Unless I’m being deftly misled, the scope of the game seems pretty grand. Howlongtobeat.com only has one report at 12h, and I can believe it because the game lets you know pretty early on that there are three sub-bosses before the final encounter, and I’ve yet to deal with one of them.
For gamers of a certain age, playing through Chronos will feel like a return to games of old. It’s comfortable, yet new, familiar, yet surprising. I hadn’t realised before I played Chronos, but now that I have, I feel like I’ve always been missing games that take new themes and place them squarely inside a game that feels like something I played twenty years ago.
It’s not just the addition of the headset that makes it feel so fresh. I accidentally skipped the intro sequence, so I don’t have a clear picture of why the hero is on this adventure, but the story elements that are woven into the game are brilliantly executed. When you stumble upon an area that’s only really there to help tell the story, it’s a very vivid tale that it tells. A tale of technology gone awry, of consciousness being subverted and creating creatures and worlds from pure imagination. That’s how I read it anyhow, but I’m only three hours in, and you might see it differently.
I’m anxious to get back in and find out more, so I’ll wrap up here.
Chronos, so far, has been engaging, well executed, visually pleasing, entertaining, challenging, thought provoking, and exciting, while simultaneously being comfortable, familiar, and as if I’d taken a step back into the best parts of my distant gaming past.
Unless it all goes to hell between now and the end, I’ll be talking about Chronos for years to come.