Chronos: a third-person action RPG for Oculus Rift
At one point during my Chronos demo, Gunfire Games studio director Matthew Guzenda warns me not to stop cranking a particular crank. “Just don’t stop,” he says. The warning makes me instantly cautious of the Extremely Large Stone Robot Man statue kneeling in the back of the room.
“That dude’s gonna wake up,” I said. And I was right -- five seconds later I was dodge-rolling across the floor to escape the angry stomps of this gangly golem. And I wasn’t safe when I got into the next room, either -- it kneeled down and started pounding its fist on the floor to grab me. And because Chronos is a fixed-perspective third-person VR game -- like Resident Evil in VR -- the golem was thumping its hands on the ground only a few inches from my “face” while my character danced nervously in circles on the other side of the room. I think I might have yelped something rude out loud.
Guzenda told me that Chronos is a lot like a cross between Resident Evil and Dark Souls, but for VR. At GDC 2016, we’ve been seeing a lot of stuff that advertises itself as “X plus Y, for VR,” and I’ve been getting extremely suspicious of lines like this -- but I can say that Guzenda’s comparison seems to be a reasonable one, particularly the Resident Evil side of the equation.
Like in Resident Evil, Chronos asks players to watch the action from fixed points in each level, their perspective hopping from dark corner to dark corner as their character fights and travels from room to room. Sometimes the player’s perspective hovers over an impressive drop -- once, I turned around in my seat to see the ocean raging beneath me and a ruined, post-apocalyptic skyline behind me. The parts of the game I saw never forced me to tire my neck out leaning and peering all over the place, but I did enjoy the moments when turning to my right or left revealed a surprising horizon.
The team’s decision to go with the fixed-camera perspective was based more on their previous VR development experiences than a desire to make “Resident Evil for VR,” though. Guzenda told me, “Chronos was really inspired by our initial VR work on Herobound for the Gear VR. Herobound also had a third person camera but from an almost isometric viewing angle. What really drew us to Herobound was that it wasn’t gimmicky, it was the type of game we loved to play (RPG) that happened to be in VR.” Chronos’s camera was designed to be very comfortable. “Instead of looking down at the action the player feels the immersion of being in the environment with the character, but the gameplay still feels intuitive or similar to a regular non-VR game.”
Guzenda told me that “The biggest challenge was making sure that the transition from each fixed camera position was as natural as possible… Basically we wanted it to be as seamless as in a non VR game. No one ever mentions the camera in a regular non VR game unless it’s a problem so we were looking for that with our camera system.“
As for the Dark Souls comparison -- I can see where it’s coming from, but I’d need additional time with the game to be convinced. The combat I saw followed a fairly typical light attack/heavy attack design, with some magical effects that required a certain number of kills to trigger. Like Dark Souls, there are shield-parries, a lock-on mechanic, and a lot of dodge-rolling. But merely sharing similar mechanics isn’t enough. Most of the games Dark Souls has inspired lack the precision and depth that Dark Souls’s combat has, and the time I had in the demo wasn’t long enough for me to figure out whether Chronos’s combat measures up.
The penalties for death in Chronos do, however, remind me a little of Dark Souls -- in their melancholy mood, anyway, not their mechanics. Every time the player dies, they grow one year older, and must return to a level now fully repopulated with enemies. As the player slowly whittles away their years, their appearance and abilities will change every decade. When the character is young, their strength and agility are easier to increase, but as they grow older they will take penalties to upgrading those stats (while wisdom-dependent magic abilities will grow stronger).
This is actually the game’s most exciting element, I think. I am actually pretty excited to see whether this progression system does well -- pretty much every other RPG in the world treats character progression as a constant rise into all-powerful godlike majesty. I’m interested to see what it’s like to play a game that actually forces you to get old.
And if the aging element works well, I hope someone working outside the VR space borrows this idea and expands on it. With the recent spate of high price announcements, I’ve become a bit of a VR skeptic. It would be a shame if some of the extremely cool ideas that people in VR are cooking up get lost in the turmoil of the many expensive platforms releasing over the next year.
Chronos releases on Oculus on March 28.