Preview: Chronos changes up the VR gaming formula

The consumer version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality gaming system is coming early next year, and with it a slate of launch titles that will go a long way towards determining how the system does in the months following its release.

One of the titles that will be available when the Rift releases is Chronos from Gunfire Games, a development studio with a pedigree that includes Darksiders and its sequel. I had a chance to try out the title at the recent Oculus Connect event in Hollywood.

You are the camera

The most interesting thing about Chronos as a VR game is what it doesn't do. In contrast to every other VR game I've played so far, Chronos doesn't place your vision inside your player avatar. Instead, Chronos places your perspective in semi-locked camera angles in each room, allowing you to look around each area while you control your character and his movement on the screen. If you think back to how the camera worked in the original Resident Evil, for example, you won't be far off -- and indeed that's one of the games Gunfire cites as an inspiration for this new take on VR gaming. 

I asked the developers why they went this route with the VR perspective, and one answer they offered was to contrast Chronos with how the camera works in most similar action titles. In games like Darksiders, for example, the player controls the camera in addition to controlling their character. These games place the burden on the players of acting as "cinematographers" at the same time they star in the action. But with VR-powered camera controls everything happens naturally, without players needing to think about managing the camera at all. It works beautifully in practice, and it was freeing to never have to worry about positioning the camera while I was busy fighting for my life. 

With your head directing the camera, Chronos is free to present the player with puzzles that involve looking around the room, which is exactly what I experienced in my time with the game. In one memorable moment I began turning a crank on one wall, glanced over to the other side of the room when I saw the crank was slowly opening a portcullis, then looked at a large enemy in the back of the chamber as I saw it slowly beginning to stir into action. The scene became an exciting race to crank the gate open in time to run through it, and the excitement was heightened by my need (and ability) to move the camera around the room by naturally turning my head.

Respect your enemies 

When I took off the Rift headset at the end of my 45-minute hands-on with Chronos it was notably sweaty (gross, I know, and it sparked a conversation about how people will manage hygiene issues when sharing VR headsets with their friends). I hadn't exactly realized it while I was playing, but Chronos was a tense experience. I died often, almost always thanks to my own carelessness or haste, in a manner that was nicely reminiscent of Dark Souls (another title referenced as an influence on Chronos). When I asked about how the difficulty of the Souls series compared to Chronos, Gunfire said that while their enemies probably aren't as brutal as those in Souls games, they will definitely kill you if you don't respect them. 

I ran into the most trouble when I tried just avoiding enemies and running past them through the level. As it turned out, the enemies didn't give up the chase easily, and I soon found myself trapped in a dead end facing down four foes at once, and I quickly died. When I tried the next time I focused on killing each enemy as I encountered them, and progress was slower, but much easier. 

Much of the lore surrounding Chronos is still a mystery, but what we do know is that the player is exploring a mysterious labyrinth that only opens once every year. When you die (which you will, a lot) an in-game year passes, and when you return to try again your character has aged. Play (and die) enough and your play-style will have to change, as your youthful adventurer shifts into an elderly warrior. 

And yes, if you die often enough, you can lose the game due to old age. 

Gateway to VR

Compared to other VR games that I've tried out, Chronos was one of the least revolutionary in terms of content. In many ways it's a familiar action platformer in the Ico and Dark Souls mold, and aside from the VR camera controls (admittedly a big deal) it doesn't do much that's different from what we've seen before.

The thing is though, after playing the Chronos demo, I found myself wondering if it isn't exactly the sort of game that needs to be part of the Oculus launch package. Many of the more experimental VR games have steep learning curves, but Chronos will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played an action game in the past 15 years. The barrier to entry is very low, compared to the dizzying (and potentially nauseating) new experiences offered by boundary-pushing VR titles. It's actually easy to forget you're playing a VR game when you're playing Chronos, and just focus on the experience of a super-immersive action platformer with cool environmental puzzles. 

Chronos, then, might find a niche as a gateway VR game. If you're new to the technology and worried about being overwhelmed, it offers a subtle introduction that might be just right for you. And if you're at all worried about motion sickness, the relatively static positioning of the camera in Chronos will offer the gentlest introduction you're likely to find. Combine all that with a challenging action game and slick, stylish visuals, and it's clear Chronos is a title to watch when VR explodes onto the scene in early 2016.