In hindsight, the utterly perplexing announcement trailer for Chronos: Before the Ashes doesn’t seem so odd. We first saw a teenage girl vibing to some vintage synthpop, before buckling down to the game on her old-school CRT television set—clearly a child of ‘80s pop culture. Hypnotised by the frenetic action, she instinctively flinched as her avatar swung a flaming sword at an automaton, the blue-ish glow from the screen cascading into her room as if she’s at the entrance of a Stargate. And when her mother called her in for dinner—reminding her to save her game and come down—she wailed in frustration about how busy she is. Of course, this teenager is a capital-G Gamer.
Despite the trailer’s bizarre presentation, it’s still pretty much in line with the spirit of Before the Ashes. Like the trailer, it tries to appeal to players’ nostalgia for the rigours of classic gaming: the silver age when combat was intricate and sacrosanct, and save points were strewn far apart, across the level, to ramp up its difficulty.
In the vein of similar tough-as-nails action RPGs – the game is set one month before Remnant: From the Ashes – there’s an emphasis on timing your manoeuvres right and punishing you for any lack of precision. Every attack, dodge and parry have to be exact, else your enemies will keenly exploit the openings to pummel you with impunity. For unwary players struggling with figuring out the cadence of enemy encounters, emerging unscathed from even simple fights can be challenging. A poorly parried move, even against a goblin-esque foot soldier, can open you up to attacks that are difficult to recover from.
At the same time, combat is also pared down to the basics; better weapons, while available, are scarce, and upgrades in the form of dragon shards can be expensive. Even though you can add points to attributes when levelling up—your strength, agility, arcane or vitality—enemies are still adept at lunging at you in new, barbarous ways. In the end, you are mostly reliant on your own abilities and reflexes. Before the Ashes isn’t the sort of numbers game that lets you hoard experience points in exchange for slick power-ups.
That’s not to say that the game doesn’t believe in shaking things up; in fact, it does introduce its own quirks into combat. Clearly the most intriguing aspect of Before the Ashes is how it weaves the concept of aging into the rhythm of its brawls, while revising the notion of death. The thing is, you don’t actually die in Before the Ashes; you simply grow older by one year whenever your health bar is depleted, and then respawn from your last saved point. And with every passing decade, you can pick up a new trait, which can vary from a sizable boost in health, to increasing the amount of experience points earned. Become more combat-hardened with the passing of the years, and certain attributes will also cost more to increase.
Take for instance how in the later half of your adulthood, two skill points have to be dedicated to strength and agility, but your arcane capacity can become more potent, more swiftly, since improving your arcane attribute only costs one point. It’s a smart gimmick that forces you to contemplate how you approach every coming battle. Bailing out of dicey encounters, such as when getting cornered by multiple foes, becomes a necessary tactic. A quicker witted player should be able to complete the game without ageing too quickly, while a more careless playthrough may see a more disparate experience, with players in the latter bracket leaning more heavily on arcane powers.
Whether you’re crunching skulls, propelled by the momentum of your hefty axe, or jabbing Krell flesh with the more lightweight sword, combat often feels graceless and weighty. This isn’t necessarily a irksome trait, given that combat is usually pretty balanced and can hardly be considered frustratingly unfair, but this taut line feels like it’s being viciously tugged at by the awkward camera position.
In another life, Chronos: Before the Ashes was simply known as Chronos, an exclusively VR experience launched in 2016 where you can control your hero from a fixed camera perspective, as if an onlooker to the action. Before the Ashes instead places the camera behind you, but that means that in some instances during your battles, you will be nudged towards a corner you aren’t aware is behind you, giving your foes free reign to clobber you till you’re mush. The carrot on the stick in this unwinnable situation, is that finality does come for you quickly enough, at the very least.
Aside from the melee encounters, Before the Ashes also has some perfunctory puzzles, though they usually mostly have you running from one end of the labyrinth to the next. Less can be said about its environments, which are just your typical, dilapidated structures of stone and steel; there’s nothing particularly off-putting about them, but there’s nothing particularly exciting about them either. You understand instinctively that you’ve been transported into the remains of a wrecked civilisation on its throes of death.
I would imagine this would seem a lot more impressive in VR in 2016’s Chronos, but removed from this perspective, it largely fails to inspire. There’s some world-building lore scattered within the fractures of these ruins, and while their discovery can be illuminating, it’s also not that invigorating. You digest these tidbits for a period, and then plunge right back into adventuring.
Before the Ashes doesn’t seem to want to do more than that, content with its tough hack ‘n’ slash gameplay and RPG elements. The game is at its best when you’re thinking about how best to heave your blunt axe against a mechanical golem, or when you’re pulling off that perfectly executed counter attack that knocks the foe back, breaking their defences and giving you ample time to perform a flurry of back-breaking trashing. Even if somewhat formulaic in its fights, Before the Ashes is still deeply gratifying. It almost justifies the teenager’s obnoxious behaviour found in its trailer.