Souls of Chronos Review (Switch)
Release Date: February 14, 2023
File Size: 1.4GB
Publisher: Astrolabe Games
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
I will always root for the independent developer, especially the one that aspires to make an RPG. Though there are plenty of mediocre examples on the market, a bare-bones, boilerplate approach to this sort of game design has become so reliably familiar that it does exist as a sort of standard of quality. One can likely find an audience for a fairly unambitious product, as there is something to be said for “comfort food.” To rise above these efforts, however, is to succeed in the mind of an RPG enthusiast like myself.
Now, that might make me sound somewhat elitist, but the core of this sentiment always comes from a desire to see developers succeed. When they don’t, it’s always terribly disappointing. But when they attempt ambitious goals and don’t succeed… that can be worse.
Hey, why don’t we talk about Souls of Chronos?
Souls of Chronos is an Action RPG where players control dual protagonists Sid and Torii as they seek to accomplish their goals and operate within a corner of a world in a state of unrest. You’ll spend most of your time navigating isometric environments, completing quests, making choices in dialogue trees, and fighting enemies. It’s standard RPG fare, though it does also lean into the visual novel genre with the branching narrative that it possesses.
Having played Eternal Radiance on the Switch last year, I was disappointed to see the game blend the aesthetic tendencies of a visual novel with more traditional 3D Action RPG gameplay. The visual novel aspect of the game really only seemed evident in the amount and density of its dialogue. Souls of Chronos has the same problem(?), but it manages to make things more enticing by offering stat-based dialogue options.
Essentially, by committing to a certain dialogue choice, Sid will be locked into a certain result for a scenario, which in turn further boosts a specific trait number and further limits his choices down the line. The game does a decent job telegraphing the options that you are missing out on once locked to a certain path, encouraging replays and further exploration. Considering the whole title is a fairly brisk 10ish hours, this is a welcome means of extending longevity.
Dialogue choices are not the only form of gameplay, though they do appear in great frequency. There’s also the game’s action combat, which balances Sid’s melee and ranged inputs and Torii’s own abilities as they engage other enemies. This is arguably the game’s weakest feature, as attacks are strictly locked to an auto-targeting system and the game’s overall complexity of combat is rather surface level.
You will play with elemental and status-inflicting abilities and attacks as you progress, and Torii can learn a variety of skills, but she is unfortunately the one character of the pair that you don’t have direct control over in combat. This makes sense for narrative reasons, but it doesn’t necessarily make the experience more fun. The nicest thing I can say about the combat is that skirmishes usually end quickly.
Aside from progressing the main narrative and fighting enemies, the player can complete sidequests to net more money, accessories, and materials. These often have their own substantial dialogue sequences and can even improve Sid’s traits, but they don’t vary up the previously established gameplay loop. Still, they can be toyed with in a similar way as the main narrative across multiple playthroughs.
Aesthetics and Narrative
This game has an odd mixture of aesthetics, to say the least. There’s a mixture of chibi overworld art and visual novel-style character portraits that don’t coalesce in any fashion. Not only are these different visual styles at odds with each other, the visuals across the character portraits also vary in quality, making the overall product feel very slapdash. Some of the art is genuinely compelling and professional-grade, but some feels a bit amateurish. It doesn’t help that the outfit design feels very inconsistent, with some characters looking like anime-styled gangsters, and the characters that are actually gangsters… don’t look like gangsters. It’s all over the place.
On the other hand, the game maps are aesthetically consistent with the character models, and do evoke the fantasy setting very well. Some are actually very aesthetically pleasing, as can be seen in the screenshots. However, the town setting is pretty dull, and also happens to be frequently-retread ground. The music is hardly worth mentioning, though you’ll have a hard time getting it out of your head. The size of the environments and the amount of dialogue means you’ll be hearing the same tracks as they loop over and over. While the music itself isn’t bad, it never approaches anything resembling style or artistry in relation to the narrative.
Where Souls of Chronos is most successful is in using dialogue to world build. The game does feel as if it has established lore, though this is more due to repeated references to a larger world than smart narrative design. The main setting of Astella is the stage of rival gangs that may or may not have had previously benevolent intentions. There’s varied politics, questionable motivations, and a general low quality-of-life.
What’s more fascinating is that the protagonist breaks tradition as a member of one of these warring gangs, whose behavior can range from “thug with a heart of gold” to “actually a pretty lame guy.” This is all dependent on the dialogue choices you make, but it doesn’t change the fact that you generally aren’t really the greatest person. That’s okay, though, because Sid’s best friend is an extremely powerful being who has no understanding of human concepts and morality. She really just loves him.
There’s a copious amount of dialogue here, but it’s negatively impacted by the very rough localization that feels like a direct translation. It does the extensive lore and multitude of character archetypes no favors. Occasionally, a dialogue prompt will seem completely unrelated, and characters sometimes will repeat themselves in what I can only assume is a localization error. Despite the genuine intrigue that might exist in the script, it falls flat due to the sheer abundance of lines that lack a true sense of personality.
Impressions and Conclusion
Due to the bland combat mechanics, inconsistent visuals, and spotty localization, Souls of Chronos is not a particularly engaging game. There’s clear potential and ambition here, but the sum of these parts does not feel cohesive or satisfying. Those who spend money on this game can get their mileage out of it with its inventive dialogue choice gameplay, but this does little to change the overall narrative thrust, and is hardly easy to stomach due to the localization.
The idea of integrating narrative choice into typical RPG structure is so much in line with the origins of the genre, it’s hard not to root for Souls of Chronos. This is a great idea, but it doesn’t get the treatment it deserves in this title. There are certain audiences who would likely enjoy the character portraits or in-game character models, but these are not polished enough to serve as a selling point.
So, in conclusion, while I would love to root for independent developers, and I certainly think there’s a great deal of untapped potential here, Souls of Chronos needed a bit more time to refine just about every one of its concepts before it could compete with other releases on the Switch.