It’s always a slight shock that more games aren’t gifted a Steampunk setting, the whole genre screaming the potential for outlandish ideas and crazy plotlines. The latest game to come along and try on the slightly mechanised jacket is no other than Chronovolt, the unknown quantity in Sony’s PS Plus launch line up for the Vita. Put aside your desires for amazing airships and cog-powered guns however, for this game is a 3D puzzler of the marble rolling variety. It’s been fourteen years since Kula World came along and set a Sony console alight with rolling ball gameplay and the Vita has set a great stage on which to impress, and it’s a shame then that Chronovolt doesn’t reach the levels of greatness that it aspires to.
Chronovolt comes with a storyline of sorts; a slightly mad looking Professor with the help of his assistant Scabious has discovered Chronovolts, a kind of time-power that lets you manipulate and travel through time, both forwards and back. However, Scabious ended up being a bit of an evil chap (and who would have seen that coming with a name like that?) and has nicked a load of Chronovolts and set off racing through time to find enough to become the ruler of all time. Or something. Clearly the most appropriate thing to do is to put your granddaughter Jessica into a chronosphere and send her rolling around various danger-filled places in order to catch your evil ex-assistant.
The story is obviously light, but it suffices for the game. Progression is presented in a talking head style, with the cast chirping in one at a time. Annoyingly though the vast majority of this exposition occurs during actual gameplay – while it does pause the action you’ll still find yourself on occasion frozen while desperately trying to corner in a particular way, failure made all too possible. Saying that, the art direction for Chronovolt’s out of game bits is exquisite, with the artwork in the opening load screen and the stylisation of the characters managing to be both quirky and recognisable at once. The in game textures leave a little to be desired however, which is a little disappointing - especially when you consider that it wouldn’t have taken very much polish to have them pop out of the Vita’s screen.
Every level then sees you controlling Jessica’s chronosphere as she races to keep up with Scabious. The levels are filled with lifts, holes, annoying minions in their own spheres and doors which require you to have collected a key item somewhere in the level. As you progress through the three time periods the levels grow in stature becoming longer and more intricate with sliding pathways and fragile dropping platforms thrown into play. Each level awards up to three stars, one for beating a set time, one for picking up all the chronovolts in the level and one for simply completing it. Ostensibly stars are required to unlock the next level in each world but they are so easy to collect it would be a shock if anyone faced a star-block in progressing within the game.
As well as contributing towards your star total picking up Chronovolts helps power up your time control bar. Once you have some juice in there Jessica can employ three additional time-powers – you can double tap the Vita’s screen on an enemy to send them to another time zone (i.e., remove them from the level) you can tap a moving object on screen to freeze it in place for a set amount of time and you can hold your two thumbs on the bottom of your touchscreen to begin rewinding time. The enemy destruction one works fairly well and eats up a lot of your time-power to balance it, while the time rewinding functionality was also easy enough to activate. The time pause however proved to be a pain with it often freezing random platforms off in the distance instead of the one right in front of you that you were attempting to roll onto. And woe for you if you ever try to double tap an enemy on a collection of freezable platforms.
As powers go though they all have their place within the game, but they are woefully underused; the vast majority of levels can be completed with nearly no effort at all with you perhaps only employing your powers on a regular basis when you are farming time challenge stars in the third world. This issue of ease is compounded by the fact that the levels offer very little reward for innovation or exploration; apart from a couple of examples each one is arranged in a linear fashion which sees you taking direct routes to keys and then to doors and so on. As and when you try to pull off an amazing vertical drop on some of the larger levels you will almost certainly find yourself stuck behind a locked door facing either a long roll back to the key or even a full restart of the level. The level design becomes tedious and easily telegraphed, and even the introduction of the requirement to use your time rewinding skill to progress in some of the later levels is too little too late.
This feeling of disappointment grows though each time you start a level, and it’s because as you do so you are shown a collection of four more balls and asked which one you would like to play with. If you deign to click one other than your basic chronosphere you are taken into the PlayStation Store and introduced with a 99p ball pack. This in-game advertising feels wrong and is exasperated by the fact that the new balls actually add very little to the game other than making many of the levels even easier. The pay-to-win style of DLC is always the weakest, and it’s worth pointing out that in the build of the game we played you needed to be using the DLC ball ‘Electrosphere’ in order to collect all of the stars in the game and win Chronovolt’s gold trophy. Playerthree have stated on their website that this is a bug and will be fixed in the next patch, but one wonders how many trophy fans will stump up the cash well before that passes Sony’s approval.
The annoying thing though is that Chronovolt had such good potential; the time-manipulating rolling ball maze concept is a strong one that should have provided masses of fun. Imagine this same game, but with multiple routes through each level, secret shortcuts for time attack runs or a myriad of easter eggs accessed through time manipulation. Throw in then a collection of additional balls, all of which offer you meaningful differences which see you interacting with all of your unlocked levels in a different way and the Vita would really have been onto a winner. Instead we are left with a weak showing that presumes to invite us to accept a ‘To be continued’ ending – it’s likely that any who make it that far won’t care enough to return. If you pick it up as part of the PS Plus Vita launch then it’s likely that you’ll kill a little time ball rolling, otherwise this is one title you would be better off leaving on the store.