Souls of Chronos Deep Look
As much as I would have loved to be pleasantly surprised by Souls of Chronos, the reality is that the overall experience is lackluster.
Souls of Chronos is an isometric action RPG; the first game from Shanghai-based developer FUTU Studio. Despite the dissonance between the artwork and in-game visuals providing a strong sense of skepticism, it was still one that grabbed my attention enough to see if it was worth experiencing. It does have a few interesting ideas under the hood, but the end result ends up being pretty lacking across the board.
Fifteen years after a calamity known as the Apocalypse devastated the world, the port town Astella is besieged by a power struggle between two gangs: the Hyenas and the Antelopes. Sid, a member of the Hyenas, wishes to leave Astella to go to the Capitol and see the outside world. He is accompanied by his companion Torii. Torii is a Chronus, someone with time-based abilities such as causing everything to stand still for a short period. After a member of the Hyenas is murdered and the Antelopes are suspected of foul play, tensions escalate between the gangs and the two try to untangle the circumstances behind everything.
While the potential for a gripping story is there, execution is lacking. The story tries to balance several characters and moving parts but is meandering and aimless, never really taking off. Even Sid and Torii end up feeling flat and underdeveloped despite attempts to show their bond and interactions. The supporting cast sadly doesn’t fare any better as while there are some interesting ideas and motivations hinted at, they never really become all that engaging. Part of the problem is the localization, which, in addition to some odd sentence structure and other issues, is dry and lacks any real punch that could’ve livened up the writing. There are also some cases where a huge block of dialogue appears in one unwieldy text box, only to be repeated in more reasonable chunks.
There is a possibility that the story becomes more interesting after the first 10 hours, after which recurring errors halted further progress in the game. However, the weak story presentation, poor pacing, and uninspiring characters aren’t the most promising. The setting has lots of potential to be interesting, but isn’t utilized effectively.
There are dialogue choices throughout that allow Sid to gain points in three personality stats that can determine what responses in later conversations are allowed to be made, even affecting how some conversations play out. This is an interesting idea, especially since Sid technically isn’t a blank slate and the options are generally kept within his established personality. A sidequest early on gives Sid the option to turn a woman in for not paying her debts or offer to pay off the debts for her if the player happens to have enough money on them. This conveys that Sid isn’t exactly a model citizen while also forcing the player to confront how even decent people aren’t above making morally dubious choices when faced with a tough decision. These choices, however, don’t have any noticeable effect on how the story progresses as the consequences are mostly cosmetic.
Similar to how Sid gains points in his personality stats, talking to Torii after she levels up gives her points in her ability stats, which increase her effectiveness in combat and improve her bargaining when shopping for items. Giving her food will also give her temporary stat bonuses. However, its implementation causes her to consume a food item every time the player transitions between rooms, which is a hassle as there is only so much money to keep food stocked. It’s also difficult to tell if these stat bonuses are making much of a difference in battle, especially those times a snake is nearby, as her fear of them leaves her unable to participate until Sid gets rid of it. These could have been a good way to provide additional characterization for Torii and showing how her bond with Sid through the game’s mechanics but they end up, in execution, being underdeveloped in a way that never feels like much is added.
Combat is another area where things are simply lacking. Sid is controlled by the player while Torii is AI-controlled. Sid can use both a sword and a firearm — alongside other sub-weapons obtained over the course of the game including a rifle and an explosive — to fight through the game’s enemies. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for issues to crop up. Despite the game giving the player multiple options for dealing with enemies, it never feels like it really encourages playing around with them as opponents can be taken down pretty easily with basic attacks. This is made all the more obvious by a lack of enemy variety, which is particularly egregious in the game’s early sewer dungeon. Combined with the dull visual design of those sewers, fighting ends up feeling pretty monotonous. A subsequent area at least provides some different enemies to fight — as well as a less boring color palette — even if the enemy variety issue is still present.
Enemies have two bars representing health and “Chrono”. When attacking enemies, their Chrono must be depleted before damage can be done to their health. The exception is when Torii uses her Chronus abilities to stop time, allowing the player a few seconds to take down enemy health directly. However, this first requires Sid doing damage to the enemies’ Chrono in order to fill up his own Chrono gauge. While Torii’s Chrono ability is useful to quickly deal damage, especially against bosses, there really isn’t much reason to use it strategically or carefully since it’s easy enough to build up enough Chrono for several uses while fighting a single enemy wave. Despite the game giving multiple weapons and abilities that should in theory result in combat with genuine depth, it’s ultimately bogged down by the lack of enemy variety, monotony, and uninspired level design.
Menus are a pain to navigate on the game’s Switch port. It’s rather unfortunate that navigating them is so tedious, since it’s a necessity whenever the player wants to switch between or upgrading weapons, as well as when shopping for any kind of items. A particular problem with the shop menus is that the directional pad is used to increase and decrease the quantity of an item while the trigger buttons switch between buying and selling. It’s a little too easy to mix these up, making the item shopping more inconvenient than it needs to be.
Souls of Chronos is a study of contrasts between good character art and underwhelming in-game visuals, with the latter looking like the assets were put through a smoothing filter that doesn’t do them any favors. The in-game character sprites take chibi forms that doesn’t compare favorably to the beautifully designed character portraits displayed during regular dialogue, as well as the occasional full screen visual novel sequence. The music is never actively unpleasant or ill-fitting but blends into the background and is easily forgotten. The only real issue in that regard is that dramatic dialogue sequences are not accompanied by any music change, with the area theme simply carrying on in the background. With the exception of the circular pause menu, menus also lack any kind of sound effect when the player moves the cursor through them, making it easier to appreciate why other games tend to have them.
As much as I would have loved to be pleasantly surprised by Souls of Chronos, the reality is that the overall experience is lackluster. Some interesting ideas with Sid and Torii bond, as well as the personality stats progression, have some potential but lack proper coherence between them. It certainly doesn’t help that a persistent boot-up error appeared roughly halfway through the game, preventing any further progress. Despite the potential for its latter half fulfilling its potential, it’s hard to see it rising above mediocrity, and the primary hope is for the studio to be able to build higher with future projects.
Disclosure: This article is based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher.