RETRO REBOOT - The Kronos Trilogy Of Terror: Criticom, Dark Rift, And Cardinal Syn

Kronos Digital Entertainment. That might not be the most mainstream of names when it comes to video games, but if you've enjoyed or heard of the Fear Effect series on the PlayStation, that moniker might ring familiar. But let us go back a couple of years before to the company's beginnings, where they were more infamous for developing some of the more critically panned fighting games of the late 90's. This is the Kronos Trilogy of Terror.

Throughout the 90's, fighting games were becoming a rousing success. Spearheaded by the success of Capcom's Street Fighter II, many other Japanese companies would take their stab at establishing their own titles to ride the success and appeal of the genre, like SNK with Fatal Fury and Samurai Shodown, Namco with Tekken, and Sega with Virtua Fighter. While the Mortal Kombat series was a rousing and controversial revenue gravy train, especially after its home ports on the Genesis and SNES, not many western studios dabbled in fighting games with great positive reception. Atari tried with Primal Rage, but the brand had been so damaged by mismanagement and financial woes, its sequel was canned before it was even finished. Sega of Japan practically placed a pillow over the face of their American developed 2D fighter Eternal Champions and suffocated any hopes of advertising the game so Virtua Fighter could flourish.

Enter Kronos. According to an interview with Kronos Digital Entertainment's CEO Stanley Liu, Sony had a license for a comic book character and asked Kronos to pitch some concepts and ideas for a fighting game centered around it. 

We worked feverishly and came up with the idea of a fighting game (the rage back then), to which the characters can learn new moves, change physically and raise their attributes through time. Eventually, for political reasons (at least that’s what we were told), the local Sony division we were dealing with had to give up the license to one of their European subsidiaries.

It's hard to find any information to officially confirm this, but it's been loosely speculated that Todd McFarlane had been a part of the talks, and the title in was a change in plans may have ended up being Spawn The Eternal. If that had turned out to be true, it would have been an interesting web of connections that stringed some pretty lousy games together. Kronos took what they had built and created their own characters and stories. The end result would be Criticom.

Up first is Kronos' virgin venture, Criticom, which suffice to say is a 3D fighting game that ranks so terribly, anyone stating Shaq-Fu is the worst fighting game ever made should have their pinky toe struck with a bolt of lightning for engaging in dangerously laughable hyperbole (Pit-Fighter still applies). Released in 1995 for the PlayStation and Sega Saturn with publishing courtesy of Vic Tokai (that company alone is worth its own article), Criticom hit and was actually a decent commercial success. This is thanks to a very strong marketing campaign and clever advertising. To give credit where it's due, for the resources provided, Criticom is a very ambitious game. I just can't imagine why anyone would choose it over Tekken. Or Even Battle Arena Toshinden, a 3D weapons fighter that's less fluid and responsive than clashing two G.I. Joes together. 

The visuals are incredibly rough. Criticom and its characters boast a blend of science fiction and apocalyptic atmosphere involving a power struggle throughout the galaxies. Regarding its lore, the story is packed with a lot of the gritty tropes that  practically made up most of what the mid to late 90's were starting to embrace: Scantly clad girls in chainmail bikinis? Check. Hulking dudes with comically oversized weapons? Check.  A character named DAYTON TRENT. If that name were any more 90's, he'd be carrying a pocket full of Pogs while wearing a No Fear T-shirt doing lead vocals in a post-grunge garage band named Loaves of Fishes.

Plunged in battle for a sacred stone called "The Relic", the Nezom and the Zerai hope to keep it out of the clutches of the many warriors who seek to obtain it for their own ambitions. The controls are abysmal. It feels like there's a full second delay after every attack, it's what you'd expect from a busted controller. General movement makes the characters, regardless of their size, play like they have cement blocks for feet. Jumping feels completely unresponsive, and while the button layout tries to simplify matters by incorporating sidestepping dodge buttons and having special moves mapped to a single button (L and R, along with clunky inputs).

The problem is, you'd have an easier time beating up an entire bar full of inebriated bikers singlehandedly than feeling like you have a grasp of any of these controls. With sluggish start-up and hideous recovery, the attacks teeter between completely useless or something you can spam over and over to win with ease. Even more awkward, the game only has single round battles. So just try to push someone over the edge of the platform, take the money, and run.

The game's best qualities are its music. The soundtrack is pretty great, and Kronos does provide a great deal of detail in their characters and their stories, it really does give off the impression that they had big plans to turn this into either a comic book or a fighting game series. Well, a sequel did kind of happen in the form of Dark Rift.

Released for the Nintendo 64 two years later in 1997 (and on Windows a little later), Dark Rift irons out a lot of mechanics and gaffes from Criticom. This time around, some motion capture was provided, ironing out some of the rougher animations from its predecessor so it looks significantly more fluid. Dark Rift is noted for being the first N64 game to run at 60 frames per second. 

For the plot of Dark Rift, it takes place [let's just say] thousands of years in the future. The "Relic" turns out to be the Prime Core Element, a master key that will unlock all of the secrets of the universe. I'd like to get my hands on it to learn why Planters discontinued my favorite snack food, PB Crisps (you heartless monsters).

It's a better game than Criticom, special moves still do have a chunky delay to them, but execution is significantly more cohesive. Instead of a single round, Dark Rift is now a best of three rounds and arenas are now vast scrolling areas instead of being limited to the ring-outs. These changes may have been due to the limitations of the hardware, can't confirm that. Dark Rift is probably the most popular of the three, being noted as one of the few native fighting games on the N64. It can hang out with Flying Dragon, Dual Heroes, Clayfighter 631/2, and Fighters Destiny (which was actually pretty sweet) until Smash Bros arrived. Yes, I left out G.A.S.P., no one cares.

I think the special moves are still pretty lame, namely projectiles that take so long to wind up that you can successfully connect flights at O'Hare by the time it launches and is easily avoided. Showing more advancements, Dark Rift actually has COMBOS and chains! There's some depth, like OTG (on the ground) attacks, counter strikes, the throwing range feels different (a little cheesy and can be spammed, though it doesn't do adequate damage), and it now feels important to block!

It doesn't have the overly drawn out and epic cinemas (cuz Ninty 64), but a lot of the lore is still retained and some of the characters are pretty neat ideas, like the walking weapon Aaron Maverick. Demonica also returns, as well as Sonork (it's still catchy, isn't it???). The OST continues to be solid. Dark Rift's problem is, while it's leaps and bounds a more playable game than Criticom, it's 1997, and there's much better fighting games available by this time. 

A bit of an overhaul, Cardinal Syn (now published by Sony's 989) would be released a year later for the PlayStation in 1998, and would be the finale in the semi-trilogy. It's worth noting that while Dark Rift was supposed to be a legit direct sequel to Criticom, but ended up just taking place in the same aesthetic universe. I could never find any hard data on why, but I can only assume that Kronos Digital wanted to distance any connection with Criticom as possible.

Unlike the Criticom and Dark Rift, Cardinal Syn drops the sci-fi atmosphere in favor of a medieval setting. The plot is just as ham-fisted and epic as the previous two. As the lands were at each others throats and cast the world into bloodshed, a being from...somewhere...brings forth a Book of Knowledge. Through the readings, the pages spoke of how the lands could live in harmony, and the clans soon dropped their weapons. Then (for reasons) the being divided the book into scrolls, gave one to each clan, and soon fighting ensued again. There is something overly hokey, but at the same time incredibly amazing how much heart is put into these games' stories and the backgrounds of the characters, it feels like something that should be a budding success, but just misses the mark by THAT much. I feel like the only thing that was missing was a true mascot protagonist to center the events around. I suppose Gorm or Sonork are the closest the series gets to main characters.

And even though it's 1998 and the novelty was long over, Cardinal Syn got what it could out of the fumes of finishing moves in fighting games. Resident Evil aside (because the atmosphere spoke more volumes), gratuitous violence couldn't really carry a game as strong as it could 4 years ago, and with this period of 3D models, the bloodshed comes off significantly less visceral and looks closer to an episode of Itchy & Scratchy.

Sporting the best visuals of the series, Cardinal Syn has free-roaming movement and plays like an arena fighter, akin to Power Stone or Ehrgeiz. A vast improvement over its predecessors, Cardinal Syn introduces new mechanics along with ironing out the stiffness of the previous two. Now counter attacks are introduced, as well as a more ironed out combo system that incorporates juggles. Kronos Digital Entertainment feels like they nailed a formula, though I'm mostly off-put by the arena fighter format. Unless you're Power Stone or Bushido Blade, I think this subgenre is the fighting game equivalent of chaperoning a preschool class on a trip to Chuck E Cheese; it occupies time and has activities, but I learned nothing from this experience. 

But in 1998, with options like Marvel vs Capcom: Clash of Superheroes, Street Fighter Alpha 3, Soul Calibur, and Bushido Blade 2, there were much better options available, and there isn't much that Cardinal Syn can do to pull many away from those other offerings. Stylistically, this was a pretty ambitious game, and was the only fighter at the time developed by a western studio. Kronos really did put a lot of passion into these titles, and that is commendable. It's hard to find definitive sales numbers, but based on what I've learned, I don't think Cardinal Syn did as well as Criticom. That have have been in part of missing the backing of publisher Vic Tokai. Reviews were nicer to this game, but many publications still found it lacking and pointless. 

And that's the Trilogy of Terror. How bad are these games overall? Criticom is definitely the worst of the three, but improvements were seen with each installment. Dark Rift and Cardinal Syn are improvements, but they don't outshine other fighters that are available. Kronos would shake off the stigma and get around to developing Fear Effect, games that have a strong cult following and are revered, though the controls aren't necessarily the best. Hmmm, I wonder what it takes for a title that actually plays clunky can be remembered so fondly? Maybe strong characterization, a deep and interesting lore, or...

Ah, that's the ticket.

I've always wanted to talk about these games in some capacity, they fascinate me greatly. Not really household names or anything I'd recommend going back to visit, these games are pretty rough to play nowadays and haven't aged with grace. But the "never say die" mentality of Kronos, and the self-aware attitude that Stan Liu has regarding how these infamous fighters eventually lead to the team's success is a tale that was worth recanting. Just check out the Fear Effect games to really get the best of what Kronos Digital Entertainment has to offer.

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