REVIEW: Chronicon

Sep
20

REVIEW: Chronicon

An expansive pixel-graphic ARPG with Rogue-like elements and masses of loot, but a few issues that prevent it from reaching its potential.

Released: Steam
Type: Single-player, Multi-player
Genre: Action, Adventure, RPG
Developer: Subworld
Publisher: Subworld
Release Date: 21 Aug, 2020

Introduction

Chronicon is a perfect example of an Early Access success. Like RimWorld, another successful indie game that survived, and even thrived in the EA environment, Chronicon has been on Steam since the very early days of EA — August 2015, in this case — and has had regular updates, an active community, and a dedicated developer who has followed it through. Even if the game were a bit rubbish, it would still be an impressive achievement.

But it’s not rubbish. It’s a very capable and expansive ARPG that, for me, hearkens back to Diablo II more than any other game I’ve played.

Story

Chronicon’s backstory is a bit out-there, and probably told a little better on the Steam store page than through piecemeal delivery from in-game NPCs. You’re one of a few lucky (?) people chosen to visit the Chronicon: a magical place where you’re able to relive five centuries-old battles of bygone heroes, taking on their roles yourself as one of four character classes: Templar, Berserker, Warden, and Warlock.

While I have watched the game’s development for some time myself through the store page — it was on my wishlist for a number of years — I confess I’ve not paid too much attention to exactly how the setting evolved, or even if it was always this way. But now that I find out more details through actually playing the game, for me I feel that it takes away from the immersion and importance of my actions: effectively all I’m doing is playing a game within a game. There’s certainly none of the world-ending fear that drove me in Diablo II, at any rate.

The game is divided into five acts, each of which portrays a different hero (I think) in a completely different battle. I’ve only seen the first two so far, but they’re completely different. The first is delving into dark dungeon-like religious buildings in search of a priestess gone bad, while the second begins in a bright green forest against the backdrop of a human-elf war. So while — at least for the first two acts, anyway — the setting does detract from really caring a lot about what’s happening, it does give the option of a lot more variation when compared with more traditional ARPG stories.

The writing itself is fairly good, though there are occasional grammatical errors. The presentation of it detracts from its appeal, though, with the fairly ugly speech dialog boxes being somewhat hard to read at 4K, even after playing around with the numerous UI settings, and the delivery being broken into small chunks for display through the useable, but not overly pleasant, UI.

Presentation

Look, I’m going to just come right out and say it: Chronicon is pretty ugly.

The game is presented in a sort of “2.5D” view with blocky-looking pixel graphics. It does have a lot of pretty nice-looking fancy effects for a pixel-graphic game, and a fairly large array of objects, enemies, and world tiles, but it also has some zoomed-in “cut scenes” that are truly hideous to behold in 4K on a 28″ screen (I can only imagine they’d be even worse on a larger screen). They’re not terrible, but for the most part they’re not great either. And those zoomed-in parts really should be removed; just play the scripted interactions at the normal zoom level and be done with it!

There’s no visual impact on equipment changes, so your character wearing a cloak and crown looks the same as when wearing armour and helmet. Animations are mostly pretty good when the game can keep up with them, but playing on an i5 desktop PC with an RX5700 video card, the game slowed to a crawl often when there was a lot going on — particularly with my five summoned skeletons running amok. Sadly, when it enters this slideshow mode it tends to discard controller button input on occasion, too, making it not quite as much fun to play as it should be. It’s not the sort of game with which I expected to have performance problems.

Music is good and fits the game perfectly, with a sort of dark fantasy feel to it. I wouldn’t buy the soundtrack, but I didn’t turn it off either, though I did notice a lot of repetition of the same few tracks quite often.

Sound effects are variable, with some really good ones and others that grate — and for a game in which you’re likely to use a favoured power many thousands of times, having an annoying sound effect attached to that power is rather painful. The same is true of the little snippets of voice acting: the Warlock, for example, is excellent, and has me laughing with glee on every 50-kill combo, whereas Medella is simply awful and would have been better not voiced at all. (At least I only had to see her once!)

The UI is full of many features that aren’t well explained, but also lacks some features that other games in the genre have had for decades: a side-by-side inventory item / equipment comparison probably being the most important one to me. As mentioned earlier, the text in NPC dialog boxes always seems hard to read no matter the UI settings, but after some fiddling around I did get the minimap and status / inventory parts of the interface at least looking mostly okay. The fixed bottom-left inventory window took a lot for me to get used to it.

In-game help is okay, but doesn’t explain some things at all, and many things as well as it should. Many of the skills are confusing even after reading the help, and some of the modifiers aren’t explained anywhere from what I could see. I’d love to see tooltips for all of these, so you can see a reminder of what you’re looking at when examining an item. Oh, and the bokeh-style blurry effect on the pause/help menu is hideous!

Ahhhhh my eyes!

Gameplay

Part of me wants to say that if you liked Diablo II’s gameplay then you’ll love Chronicon’s, too, and just leave it at that. But that’s not really fair, and it certainly doesn’t seem like it would make for an in-depth review. But the comparison definitely holds; Chronicon feels more like Diablo II to me than any other game I’ve played.

The core gameplay is typical of the “Rogue-like” ARPG genre. The game is broken down into procedurally generated open-plan levels in different environments across multiple acts. Each level layout is fixed for a run once you first visit it, but loot and enemies are regenerated / respawned every time you reload that character, making saving of progress a sort of stepped affair rather than continuous: if you don’t complete a level and unlock the next waypoint, then enemies and loot will respawn next time you play that level.

Enemies come in multiple forms and with different reskins and abilities for each. There are also named enemies similar to those in the Diablo games, which do extra damage, drop better loot when killed, and often have large groups of dangerous creatures following them around. Then there are the various bosses, each of which is unique and appears in manually crafted rooms (though still with procedurally generated loot).

Enemies and chests drop loot that is generated from many different modifiers, from bonus damage, to floating orbs that circle your character, to poison trails, damage modifiers, and most of the other loot modifiers you’ve probably seen in other ARPGs. This is all categorised and level-based, though some equipment is also specific to certain character classes. Your character progresses through levels by earning experience from killing monsters, with each level granting a skill point to spend on the expansive skill trees. Unlike many ARPGs, though, there are no player-chosen base characteristic improvements in Chronicon; you specialise your character only through skills and equipment.

Levels are connected by a sort of portal network to a central hub where you can visit shopkeepers, enhance equipment, and stash anything you want to keep for later.

As with most other ARPGs, what this all means is that you spend vast amounts of time chopping or blasting your way through hordes of enemies, quaffing potions when necessary to top up health or mana, and collecting loot until your inventory is full. You then use the town portal scroll (sorry; I can’t remember what Chronicon calls it) to shoot back to town, sell almost all of the loot you collected (since the probability of getting something you actually want to keep reduces as you progress), and then zap back to where you were to continue your rampage.

It’s a well-known and addictive formula, and Chronicon mostly implements it well.

Differences

Chronicon does depart from the standard ARPG recipe in a few ways, some of which are completely original while others are simply not ubiquitous to the genre. It also has some design or implementation ideas that are a bit different, but not always in a good way.

In many cases, the procedurally generated levels are a bit too big. This results in situations in which there are two or three hours between waypoints, which is impractical and frustrating for gamers who have difficulty finding blocks of free time that large. I’ve found myself leaving the game paused for hours while I go and take care of real-life responsibilities, but that’s a waste of real resources. At other times I’ve just bit the bullet and quit, knowing that I’ll have to go back and grind the level again when I have more time to make it to the next waypoint. There’s also a lot of backtracking at Chronicon’s rather slow movement speed during normal play, such as when wanting to completely explore a level or reach a goal on the opposite side. Both of these issues could be solved with more waypoints on each level, or simply having smaller, connected levels such as Diablo II’s.

With regard to character development, each character has multiple tabs of skills with connected themes, with some slots within these trees having multiple related choices to further customise your character. Each character also has a final tab for skill masteries, which use a second level of skill points to add overall bonuses or modifiers to the skill trees in which a player wants to specialise. This all creates far more varied opportunities for different character builds than any other ARPG I’ve played, and subsequently more replayability. Skill re-specs are also easily available, giving the player plenty of scope to experiment. But the learning curve is significantly steeper as a result, especially given the not-so-great in-game help.

Equipment modification is very thorough, with multiple ways of customising your favourite collected loot. It’s all pretty complex and grindy, though, with multiple gem types, each with different shapes and different levels of effectiveness for those shapes, as well as enchantments, and it just goes on and on! If you love this stuff then you can powergame your legendary items to your heart’s content, matching them with your chosen skills and bonuses, but I found it all a bit overwhelming and hard to get my head around. I did love the town NPC names, though: Chantie. Hee hee!

Combat itself is pretty standard for the genre, though impact is minimal; it’s often hard to notice when enemies are taking damage or damaging you, and more complex effects are lost in the chaos on screen. It looks impressive, but all feels a level removed from the sort of enemy and character response one might be used to from other games. The combo / kill counter is a great addition, though! I loved racking up the count and laughed maniacally along with my warlock whenever a blast was triggered as a result.

There’s only a small number of hotkeys / buttons available for mapping quick-use items or abilities. Given the number of active skills available, this is a bit of a shame, I think, as it makes combat much more repetitive and grindy than it could otherwise be. For example, though my warlock could have over a dozen active skills available, only half of those can actually be used at any one time. I typically ended up just spamming the same area attack button repeatedly, with other buttons reserved for three cooldown abilities: an area debuff, summoning skeletons, and imp explosions. I would have liked to be able to use more variety without having to go in and remap buttons to do so.

Probably related to the limited hotkeys available, is that controller support is implemented, which takes the simple approach of mapping individual buttons to items or skills. Annoyingly, though, the game locks itself to a single control method at start time, which has two consequences: if you don’t have a controller turned on when the game first loads, you have to quit and restart to use the controller at all; and if you do use a controller, you can’t revert to keyboard and mouse until you quit and restart. Grrrr.

There are also a few bugs remaining. I found a particularly annoying one with skeleton spawns sometimes not working, usually at the worst possible times. Even worse, the ability cooldown would take effect and my soul would be used up, but my skeletons wouldn’t join the party. Lazy undead bastards!

Verdict

The first time I loaded Chronicon I played it for over four hours straight. That’s pretty unusual for me these days, and I played it that long in my first sitting for two reasons: first, the main gameplay loop is very addictive; but second, it can be very slow and time-consuming to play. Presentation-wise it has good and bad points, but it also has some severe performance issues on my PC. Though these don’t quite make it unplayable, they are pretty unpleasant. The UI also has a few issues, and for some reason lacks a side-by-side inventory / equipment comparison feature, which is almost unforgivable in a game with this much loot.

I’ve put in over 15 hours into Chronicon so far and only made it partway into Act 2 (of five), mostly on Heroic difficulty, wading through enemies for the most part with very little challenge. Then I died for the first time, to a boss who could one-hit kill me. That sort of massive difficulty spike doesn’t fit the genre well, and I don’t really feel like doing a character re-spec or grinding for better equipment that fits the play style I like, so I think I’ll leave it there for now.

I like the game enough that I want to go back to it at some point, and at least play through each act once, but I think I’ll wait for a while in hope that the UI will be improved, it’ll be easier to compare equipment, and the performance issues might be addressed. Perhaps that boss could do with a bit of rebalancing, too.

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