If the name of this game sounds a little familiar, that’s likely no coincidence. Chronos: Before the Ashes is a surprising prequel to the intriguing souls-like third person shooter Remnant: From the Ashes which was released in August 2019. I say surprising as fundamentally the game already existed in 2016 as a lesser known VR game, which then went on to inspire the more notable Remnant: From the Ashes, which exists in virtually an entirely different genre. Before the Ashes appears to be an attempt to bring this original story back alongside its sequel, whereas it might have been forgotten otherwise, and in doing so creates a more solid timeline for the series to exist and potentially grown. It was a good decision, as frankly VR, while receiving some praise for its incorporation to the original game, is a definite barrier of entry and somewhat of a bizarre sounding choice for a third person, Souls/Zelda-like action game.

Before the Ashes’ story is less eagerly explained to the player than Remnant’s, introducing the premise as a fire-side folk tale which turns out to be true. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but for a prequel where you might hope to get more answers to a story which was already a little obscure in some respects, it’s a bit more mysterious than some may be expecting. Essentially, you, as ‘the chosen one’, must embark on a quest to defeat a dragon that has been responsible for the destruction of society, and along the way you will uncover snippets of its mysterious backstory and recognise their relation to the sequel and its overall ‘universe’.

Chronos and Remnant have an interesting presentation of combining fantasy and modern/real world aesthetic. While Remnant features fantasy encroaching on built up cities and more recognisable settings, Chronos focuses more on the fantasy side. You begin your journey with sword and shield, making your way up and into a tower that is filled with computers and other technology, all looking out of place next to your character. Strongly suggested to be earth, or an equivalent, this is where we see the contradiction between how our character is presented and what the world must have been before the catastrophe. After a brief exploration you reveal a way to regenerate a broken crystal (crystals, as in Remnant, act as travel points and checkpoints) which unlocks the first location of your travels, and a portal into this mysterious fantastical land where you will search for a way to kill this dragon.

Gameplay and combat take on a familiar form. Shield in one hand, weapon in the next, you can block, dodge and roll to evade damage. Parrying with your shield requires skill, however if you pull this off you can stagger your enemy. Attacks are simply light and heavy, though you can charge your heavy attack for extra damage. You have a stamina meter which is depleted when sprinting, though rolling and attacking has no effect on it, and you have an arcane meter which enables you to activate various magical attributes unlocked as the game progresses. You unlock fire, electricity, protection and a sort of sapping magic which transfers your enemy’s health to your own when you land a successful hit. You don’t cast any of this magic, but their effects are applied to your weapon and self, increasing your attack power (and protecting or healing you). You also gain bonuses to your attacks when you successfully dodge an enemy’s attack, which once you get used to can be a saving grace against tougher enemies.

The gameplay generally feels like a more forgiving Souls game, right down to using a finite healing source, known as ‘dragon hearts’, which are only refilled at death, and the dynamic of locking on, dodging, rolling and blocking. It carries over the expected difficulty as well, though to a much lesser degree on easy and normal difficulties – still providing a challenge, but not to the extent where you can be defeated in one or two hits by any of the enemies, bosses included. Where this is more comparable to a Zelda game is with regards to its puzzling.

There’s a puzzle or an item search for each area, and these are generally more imaginative than simply finding a key to unlock a door. There’s a puzzle early on, for example, which ties into how you can defeat the first boss – finding a way to change your size by going through a portal. You must unlock this portal by finding the right items, part of which involves shrinking yourself to fit into a cupboard, and then if you’ve hopefully been paying attention can enter the correct code from another location in order to do the reverse with the boss. It was an impressive start to the game. Mostly this continues in the sense of finding items to combine and take apart, fitting into other unknown objects and also enabling you to complete similar styles of ‘match the code’ puzzles. They act to give purpose to your exploration, and unlike some games they are all at least enjoyable to figure out.

Levelling is simple in concept, and unlike a Souls game you do not lose experience on death. You gain XP form defeating enemies and can apply your earned skills in a few essential areas. You can improve your strength, agility, arcane and health. These are all fairly self-explanatory, though if you have a preferred weapon then you will want to pay attention to how this effects your ability to use them. It isn’t particularly in depth, and I got through the game on normal while switching between heavy weapons and light weapons, but perhaps on higher difficulties if you want to make the most use out of your axe or mace, you may want to spend more points on your strength.

You can get a small selection of weapons, each with a distinct feel and small series of attacks. The sword is your basic starting weapon which is reliable and fast, the axe or mace is slower but more powerful, the spear is quick and effective at long range, and the scythe is low powered but very fast. You will start off with one weapon of choice (either the axe or sword) and can unlock all of the rest by searching for them. But these aren’t just useful depending on your stats, as some weapons are better for use against armoured enemies and so on, and there is legitimacy in mixing things up as you go.

I’m glad that this is the case as this gives more purpose to finding them, and of course each weapon is fun to use in its own way – sometimes with games like this there is a temptation to stick with the familiar, lest you become overwhelmed, but Chronos is approachable enough that this isn’t a concern. You are also able to upgrade your weapons by applying ‘shards’ to them. These are dropped by enemies and can be combined with dragon oil (also dropped by enemies) to make an infused shard which is used to upgrade higher level weapons – you can do this a total of 5 times for each weapon.

In Chronos, as you don’t lose XP upon death you may be wondering what risk there is in the long run, and Chronos’ answer to that is an interesting gimmick. When you die, your character is booted back out of the most recent crystal you have ‘check pointed’ another year older. Starting the game at the age of 18 each time you die another number is added – ending I believe at the age of 80, when this process stops (the game doesn’t end though). For much of the game this aging process is actually more of a benefit to you than not, as at certain milestones you unlock a choice of perks which grant you an advantage – more damage on parry’s, more defence and so on. However, where the anxiety enters the equation is with the knowledge that reaching higher ages means you lose your ability to improve skills in agility, health and strength, now having to rely on arcane alone if you need to grind at all.

It’s an intriguing method of recognising a player’s death. On the one hand, you are given a helping hand via perks, but on the other you are encouraging them to avoid being reckless. I feel like for a much longer game this system could have been explored further and would be interesting to see how playstyles evolved, but as it is in Chronos, while a fun addition, it doesn’t fundamentally change how the game works like you think it would, and unfortunately in some ways this is a theme that runs through the game.

A lot of what makes Chronos appealing is surface level. The combat, which is exciting and challenging in general, is also simplistic in design, particularly when combined with its levelling – creating a linear feeling process (you can really feel this simplicity when in boss fights. While the bosses themselves are cool and have various attack patterns you must learn, your fundamental strategy for defeating them remains the same). There’s no item use in combat, and beyond applying magic to your weapons, there’s no other variation which might have made things just that little bit more interesting. The level design and enemies are charming and fuel the imagination, with these other worlds belonging to some grander struggle and some very cool looking bosses and enemies, but the areas are also small and short and enemies very quickly lose their punch after a few times through their specified zones – the first time you meet a dual wielding enemy, for example, it feels like a mini boss fight, but an hour or so later you won’t treat them with as much caution (experience from playing on normal difficulty). And sadly the story as well, which could have been one of the strongest points about the game given how unique and mysterious Remnant: From the Ashes was, it offers the key premise to you and a goal to uncover it, but then ultimately leaves you looking for more.

I suppose some of this has to do with its status as an overhaul of an older title, but in acting as a prequel, which is what many will treat this primarily as, it does leave a little to be desired. But leaving a little to be desired isn’t the worst crime in video games, and overall Chronos: Before the Ashes engaged me a great deal. I loved its style and challenging, yet approachable combat, and its tone combined with the concept of ageing on a grand quest is poignant and a little sad. Even though you only know this silent protagonist for a short time, the game is effective at getting you invested in them – whether this was achieved though the narration or something else I’m not sure.

I wouldn’t describe this as essential for either those who want to expand on their experiences with Remnant: From the Ashes, or just for those who are looking for their next action RPG, but it is a solid little experience, and you will find some relation between the two titles to enjoy, even if this is fleeting.