Listen, I’m a simple person with simple needs. I like mechs. I like watching anime that feature mechs. But as any nerd that likes mechs will tell you, what I really want is to pilot a mech. (Or at least feel like I’m doing so; I don’t necessarily assume I have any natural talent for it.) And that’s what got me excited about ALTDEUS: Beyond Chronos. Piloting a mech in a video game is one thing, but doing it in VR on my Oculus Quest sounds like the closest I’m going to get, for the foreseeable future, to actually being inside a mech—and I wanted in.
ALTDEUS: Beyond Chronos
December 3, 2020
Sidequest was provided with a copy of ALTDEUS: Beyond Chronos for Oculus Quest in exchange for a fair and honest review.
All that said, Beyond Chronos isn’t a typical mech game—at heart, it’s a virtual reality visual novel that features mech segments. But in many ways, it pushes the boundaries of what a visual novel can be! The nature of virtual reality makes it feel inherently more immersive than other visual novels I’ve played.
The premise of the story is surprisingly layered. You play as Chloe, a “designed human” who works as a pilot for Prometheus, a government agency tasked with keeping humanity safe from the mysterious aliens called meteora that have devastated the surface of the planet. But not even Prometheus understands exactly what the meteora actually are, and their head scientist, Julie, hasn’t been able to thoroughly research them because they disappear after being killed, leaving no samples to study. At Prometheus, humans work with AARCs, Artificial Augmented Reality Crystals—essentially, AIs represented by holographic projections, similar to vocaloids. (The main AARC in the game, Noa, is also a singing idol, so I found it hard not to draw the vocaloid comparison.) Noa is also Chloe’s partner, but their relationship is strained because her humanoid hologram form was designed after Chloe’s best friend Coco, who was killed by the meteora two years before the start of the game. So even before the story of Beyond Chronos begins, there’s already a lot going on.
And the player is just dropped right into it and left to figure out a lot of the backstory on their own by exploring the environment and intermittent flashbacks to Chloe’s memories of when Coco was still alive. I found it a little jarring to not really understand the universe around me at first—although I admit that I didn’t play its predecessor Tokyo Chronos, which takes place 200 years earlier—but there was something interesting about having to slowly piece together what society is like and how it got to that point. It’s not the most thorough method of storytelling, and even after playing the game there are some gaps in my understanding of the universe, but it does make the setting feel rich, complex, and realistic.
There are a lot of interesting things about the Tokyo of Beyond Chronos. I used to live in Tokyo, and I gasped when I first found myself standing in Shibuya Crossing in virtual reality, as it felt so much like the real thing. But even though it looks like the real Tokyo, I learned that Beyond Chronos’s city was actually underground, and most of what I was “seeing” around me was made up of augmented reality “textures” that mimic buildings, skylines, advertisements, and even the sky, perceived through a contact lens style AR display device called GraiEye. At different points during the game, Chloe changes her GraiEye’s “layer” which affects how many textures she can see, and it was super interesting to see how the vibe of the city changed as the false textures were stripped away, revealing more of what the dark city streets are actually like. (As it was, I could only change my layer when it triggered as part of the story, but I think it would have been a cool and immersive game mechanic to let the player change their layer whenever they wanted and experience different areas in different ways.)
Another device that makes a neat mechanic is Libra, officially called the “Psychological Stress Reduction Decision Support System.” The in-game premise is that it can analyze your past conversations and experiences, presenting the player with optimized decisions and providing predictions about how those decisions will affect Chloe’s relationships with others. Of course, all visual novels need some sort of mechanic to let players make conversational choices, but I find it compelling that Libra is also an actual part of the in-game universe that the characters are aware of and talk about.
Using stress reduction as a world building tool is also interesting, and the Libra system is only one of many times that it comes up. Despite all the technological advancements, the world of Beyond Chronos is decidedly post-apocalyptic. Humans live underground, where all their surroundings are fake and they have no access to natural light. Of course it would be a major societal worry that people would become overly stressed or depressed—living through a pandemic for the past year has certainly shown me the truth of that. Details like that make the world feel real and well thought out.
Dropped into this setting, I found it very easy to fall into Chloe’s mindset. I mentioned before that she’s a “designed human”—this means that she’s made of the same stuff as a normal human, but she was created by a scientist for the purposes of being a Prometheus pilot, so she has the best reflexes, best eyesight, etc. It also means she has some baggage about her place in the world. For Chloe, this mainly manifests as a discomfort around her own emotions, and she struggles so much with processing and expressing them that she claims not to have any—except when she was around her friend Coco, who treated her like her own person and encouraged her to open up. The game does a great job of setting up Chloe’s emotional hangups, and that allowed me to take on her baggage and let it inform the decisions I had to make during the story. While I had the headset on, I felt like I was Chloe in a way that I haven’t in other (non-VR) visual novels. (I also noticed that looking down while wearing the headset lets you see Chloe’s chest and Prometheus uniform in place of where your own body would normally be. I can see how this could feel immersive for some, but I found it distracting, and honestly, a little dysphoria-inducing.)
The sections of the game that focus on mechs, which are called Mahkias in the ALTDEUS universe, are cleverly done. They feel more like traditional action gameplay than I’d normally expect in a visual novel, and they’re delightfully immersive as well. It really did make me feel like I was sitting in the pilot’s chair, in the middle of a large-scale battle. I enjoy the virtual reality aspects, with holographic controls floating in front of me, able to be touched and activated by my virtual hands. There’s something about being able to control my environment so easily that legitimately feels good, and seeing my Mahkia’s large-scale response to my controls through the cockpit windshield does feel pretty real. It made me feel like I was controlling the battle, even though I didn’t have the power to actually affect the outcome of combat.
Of course, the actual way Beyond Chronos allows the player to affect the outcome of scenes is through their decisions in the visual novel sections (often aided by Chloe’s Libra device). This sometimes feels a little clunky—despite the immersiveness, it takes after traditional visual novels in that it’s not fully animated, and there are sometimes loading screens at awkward points in a conversation, just so a character can move around or change their body language.
But there’s an interesting visual novel mechanic, too. Players are expected to go through the whole story multiple times, getting to make different choices than they did on previous playthroughs. (The in-game explanation for this is that it was a dream that Chole barely remembers, which I found a little hokey, but there are a lot of dream sequences in this game anyway so it doesn’t seem totally out of place.) It was neat being presented with the same scenarios multiple times because I really wanted to make different choices than I had previously—not just because I wanted to see different outcomes, but also because other events that had unfolded made me (as Chloe) actually want to do things differently, so it felt like Chloe was growing and changing. On the other hand, it did also feel a bit repetitive. I lived through many of the main events of the game several times, and sometimes even if I was trying to do something different, it would play out in pretty much exactly the same way and I’d be stuck having conversations I’d already had. I appreciate how complex Beyond Chronos’s story is—how many different decision trees, different interactions to unlock, and different endings there are—but complex can also mean confusing, and I had trouble navigating the various paths, even while using a guide.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the story, because it’s legitimately compelling, so I’ll stop myself before I give too much away! But overall, ALTDEUS: Beyond Chronos is an interesting game, one unlike other visual novels I’ve played before. The world is fascinating, the mechs are extremely cool, and the VR format is surprisingly immersive. Even though there were some aspects I found a little clunky, my understanding from what I’ve read of Tokyo Chronos is that Beyond Chronos has already improved a lot since its predecessor in 2019, and it’s a great example of what kinds of unique games might be possible with VR in the future.