Saturday, December 4, 2021

Chorus Review

I love a good space shooter, but my biggest pet peeve when playing them is endlessly circling an enemy as you try to line up a shot, chasing that target indicator at the edge of the screen until someone messes up. A few smart games have solved that issue one way or another, and Chorus’ is among the most direct: push a button and you’re instantly teleported behind your target, ready to blast them to bits. Described that way it sounds like a cakewalk, but Chorus definitely isn’t; when the pressure ramps up, even that trick and a few other god mode-like abilities might not save you. But one thing’s for sure: you’ll look pretty cool pulling them off, and the story that accompanies that action is respectable even though it threatens to drown you in lore.

When you boil it down, your character Nara is basically “what if Darth Vader defected after the destruction of Aldaraan?” She’s certainly well written and acted, coming off as genuine rather than whiny as she’s dragged into the resistance, but it does become a bit tiresome to hear a repentant war criminal wallow in guilt for the entirety of her roughly 30-hour fight to take down the space-cult leader who ordered her to commit atrocities. There is a clever touch to her delivery in that we get to listen in on her inner monologue during conversations, whispered in a voice we can hear but the people she’s talking to can’t.

Getting to see Nara as a highly detailed and well animated character model during cutscenes certainly helped me get attached to her, though it’s hard not to notice that developer Deep Silver Fishlabs pretty clearly only had the budget for exactly one model of this quality. That becomes hilariously obvious when you count the number of times Nara encounters versions of herself, and absolutely no one else who isn’t either a misty phantom or wearing a mask. Where that’s an actual problem is that much of the story is told through other people’s residual memories that Nara can sense, though we only see the ships the characters are piloting and their portraits as their dialogue plays out, so it’s not always clear what’s going on.

Each new area I unlocked impressed me with how much it differed from the last.

The same constraint of limited models is evident when all of the pirates you fight are flying the same handful of ship types as the cult you’re battling. So even though Chorus is a good-looking game, there were clearly a few corners cut to get there. On the other hand, Chorus’ map is open, with new star systems unlocking as you progress through the story, and each new area I unlocked impressed me with how much it differed from the last. While they’re all set in space, there is a surprising amount of diverse terrain to fly around, from enormous chunks of ice to space station cities, swirling stellar anomalies, and the weird geometric shapes of the evil aliens. Coupled with the respectable explosion and weapon effects and some slick lighting, it paints a pretty picture.

A short time into the campaign Nara is paired up with a sentient space fighter known as Forsaken, who is very much like the non-sentient fighter she started with except that he has an extra slot for equipment mods and a personality I’d describe as “Venom meets R2-D2 doing a pretty good impression of James Spader’s Ultron voice.” I do wish there were more of a gameplay impact to supposedly having an intelligent sidekick flying with you at all times – outside of cutscenes he never really does anything – but I do enjoy his aggressive, openly resentful attitude and the intriguing backstory of his origins. It’s a missed opportunity that he’s almost never used for comic relief in the dour story.

The plot itself is easy enough to follow, since it’s largely about righteous revenge, vindication, and letting go of baggage, and there are some interesting revelations along the way. It’s a bit of a drag that the lore of Chorus’ universe feels so overstuffed with sci-fi religious philosophies and interdimensional threats that feed on negative emotions. It’s the kind of thing that might’ve worked better if I had been introduced to it gradually rather than being thrown more or less into the deep end and seeing it through the eyes of a character who doesn’t need to learn along with me. It redeems itself with the ending reveal, which adds something extra to the relationship between Nara and Forsaken.

When the pressure is cranked up, rites are essential for survival.

What makes Chorus’ space battles play out differently from and faster-paced than the typical space shooter are its powerful moves called rites. They seem like they should trivialize battles, but when the pressure is cranked up and you’re under attack from a swarm of enemies or a boss rites are essential to survival. The first rite you get (after the starting one that scans the area around you) lets you drift; the classic maneuver where you keep your momentum but freely rotate your fighter to bring your guns to bear on a pursuer or strafe the turrets off of a capital ship. (Let’s just ignore that this is a trick of zero-G physics, not a superpower, and yet no one else can do it for some reason.) Chorus puts this move to good use, not only in combat but also in puzzle sequences where you need to drift to quickly blast a series of targets.

Later, you get that rite that instantly teleports you directly behind an enemy fighter so that all you have to do is pull the trigger to score a hit, eliminating much of the tiresome trait of the genre where you’re constantly chasing an indicator to line up a shot on your target. It feels ridiculously powerful, and it’s extremely handy for thinning the herd of pesky light fighters before going to work on larger targets.

Another rite simply disables any enemy for a short time, crippling previously impenetrable shields or, if properly timed, lets their momentum carry them straight into an asteroid or wall for a hilarious kill. (This is something that’s tracked and, if you do it enough, you get a stat bonus.) Used together, you can blink behind an enemy, disable them, and blast them to pieces. And there are a few more to discover, too.

I have had some spectacular moments where it sure looked like I knew what I was doing.

You’re given an almost insurmountable advantage, and yet there were a handful of encounters and boss fights that killed me more times than a seasoned space pilot like myself is enthusiastic about admitting when playing on normal difficulty. I can totally see someone becoming an artist with this system and dodging every incoming laser-sniper beam with well-timed rolls, switching to the correct weapon to chew through the defense of every enemy, avoiding obstacles, casting rites, and weaving through the chaos to efficiently take down targets. As of this writing I am not one of those people, but I have had some pretty spectacular and satisfying moments where it sure looked like I knew what I was doing.

Some of the most impressive moments come when you’re battling capital ships that are bristling with turrets and can only be destroyed by taking out weak points like engines and glowy power generators, then flying inside their structures to torpedo their cores. It can be a little frustrating on the largest ships when you’re trying to track down the final destructible piece so that you can expose the core, but for the most part these battles are thrilling, especially when multiple ships are involved.

One area where Chorus doesn’t knock it out of the park is its weapons and mods: there aren’t a lot of options that will encourage you to change your build up, aside from leaning into your favorite among the Gatling gun, laser, and missile launcher weapon classes, or boosting your ability to cast rites faster. It certainly makes an impact, in that you can increase one weapon’s damage, decrease reload times, or increase your movement speed (among other things) by about 15%, and across the three mod slots you can stack up some significant bonuses. But while that’s definitely effective at ramping up your power, there’s nothing that radically changes the way a weapon works in the same way that a game like Hades lets you reinvent a weapon with lifesteal or chain damage or something crazy enough that it opens up new playstyles.

I’m sure you could power through the story a lot quicker than the roughly 30 hours it took me if you ignore the frequent side quests, but I wouldn’t recommend it because there are some good ones out there. Sure, there were a lot where I’d be zipping around a sector, hear a distress call, and stop to mop up some pirates only to be rewarded with a handful of credits, but surprisingly often those seemingly simple fights would turn into long quest chains with fleshed-out stories and characters and maybe the opportunity to temporarily pilot a capital ship, all leading to a powerful new weapon or upgrade. The prospect of running into more of those had me sidetracking to chase a lot more random events than I normally would in a game like this.


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