Chronos defies the common wisdom that VR is best used—and at its most immersive—in first person. Chronos also made me rethink the idea that VR needs truly new genres to shine. This is a tried-and-true action RPG in the Zelda vein, with timing-heavy combat and puzzle solving that feel more than a little familiar. But Chronos did something for me that Zelda never could. That no game I’ve ever played on a monitor or TV has ever done for me. Even when I’m utterly absorbed in a game’s world, I don’t feel like I’ve been transported inside my monitor. But that’s what it feels like to play Chronos in VR. I was there, and I didn’t want that experience to end.
Chronos’s third person camera frames a series of rooms and corridors and ancient ruins from fixed positions, quietly pulling you into the scope of its environment as you control your hero with a gamepad. (Think Resident Evil’s HD Remaster for a close analogue). It’s such a simple trick, and yet the combination of Chronos’s fantastic interconnected world, evocative art and smartly placed camera angles made me feel like more of an explorer than I ever have outside of VR.The fixed camera works surprisingly well for combat, too, with a few exceptions. On occasion I found myself too far away from the camera (or too close) to read an enemy’s attacks, but that happened rarely in the 15 hours or so it took me to finish Chronos.Chronos hews closely to the basics of sword and sorcery RPGs, with a simple experience system and combat that relies on attack, block, roll, and parry. Developer Gunfire Games knows how to imbue combat with weight and a sense of rhythm;the Chronos team previously worked on Darksiders and Darksiders 2, and like those games, Chronos requires that you master the basic techniques of attacking, dodging and parrying, or even simple enemies will take you down. No matter how many points you put into its four stats—strength, agility, magic, and vitality—if you don’t read enemy attacks and learn when to block or dodge, you’ll die over and over again.
Chronos is an Oculus Rift exclusive that depends more on solid, traditional gameplay than experimenting with virtual reality to put new twists on an action RPG. To survive, you need to excel at patient, calculated combat with major consequences littered between multi-faceted, Zelda-style puzzles. And while it could comfortably exist without VR, there’s nothing quite like a front-row seat to a giant cyclops fight, and that new perspective gives Chronosanother edge.It’s not a unique formula – kill the guards, then kill the boss – but there are hours of wonderment in getting lost in the sprawling dungeons that all present their own intricate maze of locked doors, curious runes, and even inter-dimensional travel. Each of the uniquely designed labyrinths requires careful memorizing and retracing, and things that make no sense initially all end up being satisfying pieces of one giant puzzle. Chronos carefully pieces together its different dimensions, requiring items from one to be brought into the next, which provides a constant alluring mystery: in what bizarre dimension will I need to use that small bag with the nonsensical description? And for what purpose?Chronos places enemies in your path sparingly, but the timing of combat is demanding enough to make fighting even two enemies at a time challenging. Even the small goblin-like Kell Chronos throws at you first, who let out a war cry and barrel forward with knives, have two or three different attacks to choose from. Later enemies will often alternate between fast lunges, powerful swipes, and multi-hit combos, all of which are telegraphed as you learn their animations. I focused on parrying with my agile character and cursed myself almost every time a failed parry caused me to take a few hard hits to the face. I knew immediately when I’d parried too early.My favorite enemies to fight were faster than me and had longer reach, leaping into range with brutal curved swords or thrusting at me with ornate spears. I was constantly on an adrenaline edge fighting them, dancing around attacks, dodging in close to deliver a follow-up combo, then dodging back at the right moment to avoid the retort. Chronos gives out few healing items along the way, and enemies hit hard enough to kill you in just a few attacks, especially early in the game. Coming out unscathed thanks to a perfect set of parries and dodges was consistently thrilling. In the toughest fights, this meant reading an attack, dodging a vicious fast thrust and a follow up, delivering three sword blows of my own, and stepping back out of range.An actual “whoa” escaped my mouth. It’s hard to understand until you see it, but this view reminded me of standing on a cliff in Taroko Gorge, looking at mountains surrounding me on all sides. In that space, I felt small. VR adds tremendous scale to game environments, and Chronos’s fixed camera perspective and brevity of UI (there’s no HUD, and only a menu if you press a button to pull it up) repeatedly told my brain that I was moving through this space on a level I’ve never experienced in a typical third person game.There are bits of story and lore to pick up as you explore the labyrinth, some brief histories of its creatures, which I enjoyed finding and reading. Much of the game’s atmosphere comes from your isolation and the sense of mystery of piecing together the history of a strange land. The bit of narrative framework surrounding the labyrinth isn’t nearly as interesting and takes what ultimately feels like a pointlessly dark turn at the end—Chronos would’ve been better served by simply playing it straight and committing to its fantasy setting.Fighting my way through that labyrinth kept me enraptured for 15 hours, and by the end all I really wanted was more. Chronos keeps things intentionally tight, with only a few weapons to find and upgrade and very little in the way of NPCs to interact with, but it’s still the longest, meatiest game made for VR that I’ve played. By the end I still enjoyed its combat and exploration, but yearned for a bolder, more complex RPG in the exact same vein. It’s a rare thing for me to be halfway through a game and already excited to play a sequel.