Some of the best musical compositions ever made subvert expectation, melding the recognizable with the unexpected. Perhaps it’s something as simple as a change in meter or a layering of effects that makes it memorable. Maybe it’s a complex instrumental arrangement or time signature.
It may seem strange to begin a preview of Fishlabs’ upcoming space shooter, Chorus, talking about music. Still, as the name suggests, its development process was directly informed by the ebbs and flows of melody.
This isn’t a rhythm game, to be clear, but there is a tempo to its combat that feels like a musical ballet of bullets, lasers, and rockets, underpinned by a refrain of narrative mystery that exudes the supernatural.
Oh, and its actual soundtrack is pretty terrific, too.
So far, Chorus feels like it could be a hits compilation of multiple genres if it ultimately hits the notes right. That remains to be seen, though I’ve come away from a recent hands-on preview build of the game excited to see more.
Chorus Preview: Almost on Key
Chorus takes place in a universe that could be called post-apocalyptic, where the usual vectors of famine, disease, and war have pushed humans to the brink, causing them to look for answers and direction in anything that will give it to them. Those things are found in The Circle, a cult that promises to set things right and achieve a new “harmony,” as members of the development team put it.
Of course, things don’t go as planned (or perhaps they go exactly as planned), and The Circle takes full advantage of its powerful position, subjugating the inhabitants of the galaxy to nothing short of tyrannical rule.
Calling to mind shades of Anakin Skywalker post Revenge of the Sith, a powerful “Chosen One” named Nara acts as The Cult’s arbiter of terror, using her preternatural abilities and a sentient ship called Forsaken to quell rebellions and destroy worlds. But the galactic harmony is off, and something pushes Nara to ultimately rebel against The Circle, placing her directly in their crosshairs.
The traumas from this era of her life seem to be at the core of the game’s narrative. Nara can’t escape what she’s done, and her internal conflict plays out through dialog segments between her and Forsaken, as well as in her own mind. It’s unclear where the story is headed ultimately — or how the inclusion of the alien Faceless and their space-temples ties in outside of bestowing Nara her powers, called Rights — but so far, it reminds of both Hellblade and Control in its presentation.
Considering the development team consistently refers to the feeling of Chorus as “shamanistic,” I’m interested to see how deeply the final build delves into these concurrent themes of trauma and mysticism.
Regardless, things won’t always be linear narratively. Some missions and subquests present choice-based decisions, where actions can have rippling effects throughout the story. In one preview mission, I could briefly ally with a pirate faction to help escort refugees through Circle space, or I could destroy them on site. Letting them live proved helpful in the immediate term but disastrous in a later questline.
The semi-open world of the game will indeed play into this as well. Locations are self-contained within the larger galactic map (think hubs), but they’re vast, open, and peppered with sub-areas. You’ll have the freedom to explore these places — with asteroids, mining installations, warp gates, and small cities — to uncover hidden items and currency, as well as take on side missions.
The core of any space shooter, though, is the flying and shooting itself. So far, both take a bit of getting used to, even if they excel the more you play. Banking, in particular, is non-existent, which leads to a strangely restrictive inertia during flight. Its absence creates a discombobulating effect in and out of combat, where the camera compensates for it but doesn’t immediately re-orient when coming out of a turn.
This can be fixed with the press of a button, though it’s cumbersome to pull off in a dogfight against dozens of ships, where you’re dipping and diving at a rapid pace. The development team said that there is an auto-orientation feature to take care of this on its own, but it didn’t seem to work as well (or as quickly) as it should in my preview time.
The most interesting and unique aspect of movement, however, is the ship’s Drift ability. This allows Forsaken to glide in a single direction while firing in another. On paper and in practice, it reshapes the strategy of space combat and leads to some unique and compelling tactics that make you feel like a maverick space pilot.
Forsaken can also barrel roll, loop, dodge, and boost to evade fire and comes equipped with three weapons — a Gatling Gun, a laser, and a rocket launcher — all of which come in different rarities with different buffs and traits that you can unlock throughout the game. Ammo is unlimited, too, which adds to the semi-arcadey feel Fishlabs seems to be going for (it’s nice not seeking out ammo resupply after every encounter).
Shooting itself is tight and responsive on controller, though slightly floaty using mouse and keyboard. I appreciate the latter, as it allows for more precise crosshair movement without as much maneuvering, where turrets feel like they’re on a swivel. But a lack of inversion controls for mice specifically (they exist for controller) kept me from truly giving the input method a more extended test.
There isn’t a lock-on mechanic here, as there is in other games like Star War: Squadrons, though its absence didn’t make dogfighting any more difficult since there are symbols at the edges of the screen to keep track of target ship locations (again a la Squadrons).
The missing function did, however, make targeting stationary objectives like turrets and enemy hangars more cumbersome, especially when the camera was tilted at a 45-degree angle. Coming to a full-stop or bumping into structures was a common occurrence in these situations.
Nara also has abilities that aid in combat, such as what’s essentially a teleportation skill called Rite of the Hunt. This allows you to keep up with fast-moving targets or warp to specific objectives to get out of the line of fire.
It’s a neat ability that is almost like a get-out-of-jail-free card that stops short of being a full-on cheat code… when it works. After a few hours of play, I’m still unsure of when or how often it can be used despite being briefed on how it should work in-game.
Despite some of my overall reservations, Chorus has potential and more systems at work than I’ve covered in this preview or was able to experience going hands-on.
The story so far is compelling if nebulous. The environments are pretty and convey the vastness of space, though I hope there’s more variation. And the combat is fun and exhilarating once you come to grips with it, but a lock-on system would be nice.
That’s a lot of caveats, sure. And I am concerned that some hurdles in the combat department could dissuade some players from sticking with Chorus. There’s a definite way it wants to be played. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit understanding some of its mechanics is frustrating. But I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t have fun.
How this all comes together in harmony remains to be seen, but we’ll find out soon enough. Chorus releases on December 3 for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Series X|S, and Stadia.
[Note: Fishlabs provided the copy of Chorus used for this preview.]