My, your metal ball is heavy Jessica.
Sometimes it’s difficult not to feel sorry for computer games developers. They’re in an industry that is heavily critical and fiercely competitive. You only have to look at developers like Nihilistic, given less than six months to complete ‘Black Ops Declassified’, understandably a way too tight development time, and it’s easy to see how deflating it must be when your hard work is greeted by little more than outrage and disgust. Why do I bring this up? I have a feeling that there was probably a conversation between PlayerThree (who developed Chronovolt) and Sony a few months ago that went something like this:
Sony “Hey guys, we know you’ve been working on Chronovolt, and we’re REALLY stuck trying to find some content for Vita Playstation Plus subscribers when it launches. We have a couple of full releases but wanted some more bite sized gaming in the mix. We’re launching it in just over a month, think you can finish before then?”
PlayerThree “Well, we’ve only just finished Alpha testing, we probably have about three months to go before completion.”
Sony “I’m sure you guys can do it!”
PlayerThree “We will do our best!”
Three weeks later:
PlayerThree “We’re not finished….we still have some bug testing, I’m not sure we should be releasing Chronovolt just yet.”
Sony “Don’t worry too much, it’s going to be free for subscribers anyway….just finish the final build and stick in some DLC to try and squeeze a bit of cash out of users.”
And so Chronovolt was released onto PSN alongside Gravity Rush and Uncharted: Golden Abyss, to start Vita users’ instant game collection, and I have to admit I was really looking forward to trying it out as I have something of an admiration for ball rolling games. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to love Chronovolt. I even deleted and reinstalled it on three separate occasions, thinking to myself “I must be missing something here, soon it will click and I’ll get some enjoyment out of it.”, but alas that moment never came, and it’s a huge shame because underneath the rushed, unpolished mess that this is, you can still see the distant vision of a quality title that PlayerThree had wanted to produce. However under the time constraints it is painfully apparent that they had to get this game finished on a tight deadline, and that meant cutting corners, a whole host of them in fact.
Chronovolt tells the story of Jessica, a heroine that travels in a giant globe with time-travelling abilities called the Chronosphere. The Chronosphere was invented by Professor Chase and Doctor Scabious and is powered by little blue battery type things called Chronovolts, but Doctor Scabious only helped invent the Chronosphere because he has an evil plan of bringing the world to an end. It’s your job to track down the evil Doctor Scabious as you chase him through time to defeat his evil plan and save humanity. What this boils down to is the player rolling the Chronosphere around floating mazes in three separate worlds, following a story that is both insultingly bad and boring through 27 levels that are far too similar in structure.
The game (silly story aside) actually starts off showing promise, with controls that are fairly accurate (although perhaps a little over sensitive, with no tweaking options available other than changing to awfully implemented tilt controls) and environments that are very well presented. The music also sounds effective and atmospheric initially, and the game does a good job of enticing you in to the jungle setting, with a vibrant colour palette, very well drawn characters (which appear to be hand painted and are used for the bite sized story telling segments) and lots of greenery; the games graphics are by far it’s strongest asset. The lighting is also very good, and the metal of the Chronosphere reflects in the sunlight nicely and rolls about with fairly realistic physics. As the game progresses and the mazes get more elaborate and larger in scale, some severe problems begin to occur. The first of these is my true pet hate: slowdown. And we’re not just talking to a small degree here either. The game suffers chronically from this, even after the first couple of levels in the game, and it all becomes a jerky, gibbering mess. Given that Chronovolt’s gameplay relies so heavily on speed and accuracy, I lost count of the amount of times the frame rate started juddering for seemingly no reason and I fell off the numerous floating platforms to a cheap, frustrating death. The odd thing ting abut the slowdown is it occurs in the strangest of places and it doesn’t always occur in the same places so it’s difficult to even anticipate. For example, one particularly long and tricky level in the second world had no slowdown at all on my first couple of speed runs, but after I’d restarted the level a couple of times to improve my time or when I’d made a mistake, the game started chugging so badly that I had to quit and re-enter the level to make the game playable again. Pop in also occurs from time to time, and bizarrely this occurs in the background which is the games weakest graphical point. It’s most notable again, in the second world where it is snowing constantly and the backdrop is badly rendered mountains. The highly detailed platforms you traverse are much more detailed, so if it was a measure implemented to try and make the game run at a better pace, it seems odd that the pop in would be from the most sparsely decorated backdrops.
These glaring issues that destroy what could have been a really good game continue pretty much across the board, and it’s a shame because I’m sure another month or two of development time could have ironed a lot of this out. The game has already received a patch to “improve stability” but it appears to have made little of a difference, if any at all. As I mentioned previously the soundtrack is actually pretty good; but there is approximately five minutes of music in the entire game. The soundtrack only ever changes when you are suddenly set a strict time limit in which to finish the level while you’re half way through (“Doctor Scabious is closing the time gate! I cannot let him get away!” we are told). Even though the game is pretty short (even by downloadable game standards), the music becomes incredibly annoying very quickly. By the time I was in the final stages of the game I really wanted to scream at the music to just shut up! Luckily you do have the option to turn the music off in the options menu, but the sound effects are so bare the game feels barren without it.
To it’s credit Chronovolt has implemented quite a few features to assist you when it comes to the camera angle. You can use the right stick or rear touch pad to pan around the Chronosphere and you can also use the face buttons to zoom in and out, or raise and lower the camera. This does ease frustration somewhat, but the zoom barely moves the camera at all, so even when fully zoomed out it’s still impossible to see a long way into the distance, making it difficult to plan your route ahead. There is also very little variety on offer here, other than the three major environment changes of the game. The first two or three levels are very short, and later levels can often be completed in less than two to three minutes. There is that three star scoring system that’s all the rage these days, and a star is given for completing the level, collecting all of the Chronospheres and beating a set time. This does add some replay value to the levels, but the constant interruptions that occur during set moments really annoy. The little snippets of story cannot be skipped, so every time you replay a level you have to skip through each bit of text individually, which is a terrible oversight. I’d much rather have the story (though it’s not even necessary with this sort of game) before or after levels so they can be skipped.
The main feature of Chronovolt that it uses to set itself apart from other similar titles is the ability to control time, though in practice this quickly gets old as the levels are all so similar in structure. You can tap moving objects on the touch screen to get them to freeze (helpful with moving platforms), or you can reverse time by putting both thumbs on the touch screen, which can save you from death it’s you’re quick enough. It also reverses platforms that have crumbled, enabling you to backtrack if you need to. The final feature of time control involves double tapping an enemy (huge spheres that Doctor Scabious has placed to knock you from here to next week) to send them into another time dimension. All this means is you double tap them to make them disappear. Using any of the time based abilities uses power from the Chronovolts you have collected, so it is useful to gather them all in each level. Making enemies disappear however uses nearly half the fully powered Chronosphere, so this seems disproportionately unfair, given that rewinding time uses barely any power at all. Enemies could also have been implemented much better. They are incredibly stupid, as all they have been programmed to do is roll towards you. This means that if you are on the other side of a gap, the enemy will roll towards you and fall off repeatedly. They do respawn, if only to roll to their death again, meaning it’s quite easy to just wait for the gap between them dying and reappearing to pass them, which is hardly a challenge. Really it would have been much more entertaining if they could actually traverse the platforms and chase you, so it feels like another missed opportunity here. It is also very frustrating that it is impossible to escape them if they reach you, as they just shove you off and your only option is to restart the level as rewinding just puts you right back in the same situation.
The rushed feeling continues in the level design, which never really changes from moving and crumbling platforms and finding keys to open doors. The keys are all the same but open specific doors as well so you may find yourself getting a key and proceeding to a locked door, only to find that you are at the wrong door for that key and you have to find another to proceed. This is an inexcusable flaw, as even Doom managed to work out that you needed colour coordinated indicators for keys and doors back in 1993! All in all you’re left with a game that has the right framework to be competent, but has so many pedestrian design errors that it ends up frustrating and boring. I doubt many will play through to completion as by half way through the game, about an hour in I was bored stiff. With some more care and attention Chronovolt could have been so much more, and it’s a shame as there is only Super Monkey Ball to contend with on the Vita in this genre. I’m glad I picked up Chronovolt for free as I would have been disgusted if I’d have paid the £4.99 price tag it now has on the Playstation Network. Add in a few different and slightly better Chronospheres that you have to pay extra for, the incredibly short longevity and the lack of variety and you have the worst Vita game I have played so far. You’d be much, much better off spending an extra 50p and getting the 2D blob rolling mania that is Tails of Space: Mutant Blobs Attack if you really want to see what a ball rolling game can be, or if you’re feeling a bit more flush check out Paul’s review of Super Monkey Ball, as it’s streets ahead of what you will find here.