Whenever I play a game in virtual reality, I’m always thinking about how blown away my 10-year-old self would be by the concept of actually having a physical presence inside a virtual world - and that feeling of sheer childlike wonder and astonishment has never been stronger, than with Karnage Chronicles. With a fantastically satisfying and responsive combat system, jaw-droppingly gorgeous environments, and bone-chillingly immersive sound design, Karnage Chronicles utterly transported my inner 10-year-old straight into the fantastical worlds I always dreamed of.
The 9 hours I spent with a friend clearing Karnage’s three extensive dungeons were some of the most fun I’ve had in co-operative VR, with its intense difficulty spikes rarely getting in the way of actually having fun, only inspiring us further to conquer its intimidating challenges. Though it’s not a perfect game by any means, Karnage's few, minor flaws thankfully do little to detract from the sheer whimsical fun that comes from successfully tag-teaming the larger-than-life bosses with a friend.
By the time I had cleared the first dungeon, I recognized that Karnage was something special. While battling through its second, I knew that the memories my co-op partner and I were making were unforgettable. After finishing the third, I realized that Karnage Chronicles is a VR essential.
Immersion To The Highest Degree
The most immediate aspect of Karnage to make itself apparent is undeniably its strongest: the high-fidelity presentation of its completely immersive and visceral world. Just as Half Life: Alyx sets the bar for crafting a virtual world with an almost photo-realistic art style, Karnage Chronicles is the perfect stylized realization of the fantastical. The magic of Unreal Engine 4 creates gloomy caverns and haunted towns that demanded I stop in my tracks to simply take in its breathtaking views. New environments boldly announce themselves with stunning vistas or beautifully painted landscapes that put even my overly modded Skyrim to shame.
Even with such impressive visuals, it's the hauntingly atmospheric sound design that is most effective at creating such a strong sense of immersion. Eerie whispers bounce off of cave walls, swirling around the binaural headphones of my headset, creating a constant sense of unease as I explored.
The mythical beings that the player encounters on their journey are just as artistically designed as the world they inhabit. Characters feel like perfectly realized sketchbook drawings brought to life through great animation, with the introduction of Seven the Orc, in particular, being one of the most lifelike performances I’ve seen in VR. Each dungeon introduces unique enemies with colorful, varied designs amongst their ranks, allowing you to easily differentiate which enemies require specific tactics. Though it’s worth noting for any arachnophobes out there - the first dungeon has an excessive number of spiders that leap at your face.
The only aspect of Karnage's presentation that falters is in regards to its sound mix, particularly with its otherwise impressive music. While the scores that accompany high-stake battles are fantastic at creating a sense of epic scale, they’re a bit too overbearing in the mix, drowning out communication with my partner, and at the worst times, peaking to the point of actually hurting my ears, forcing me to remove my headphones.
Though gameplay doesn’t do an awful lot to innovate on the typical VR swordplay and archery systems that have been seen in countless other titles, it’s certainly one of the more robust and satisfying interpretations that I’ve seen. Melee is brilliantly responsive and thankfully finds a way to discourage the frantic sword waggling that plagues most VR swordplay titles. In Karnage, melee damage is defined by the velocity behind players' movement, significantly reducing the effectiveness of manic waggling - though it doesn't completely eliminate it.
Player’s choose between either a warrior or archer class, but both are fully capable of melee and ranged combat styles, with Warriors equipping swords, shields, and crossbows and Archers utilizing daggers and bows. It’s a shame that there are no special abilities or skill trees to distinguish these classes though, with the only difference being the types of weapons and armor they can equip, which doesn’t really add any replay value - but at least it’s a convenient way of players dividing the loot.
Most enemies will drop gems on defeat, and keen-eyed players willing to explore every inch of a dungeon are rewarded with chests full of new gear and valuable items to be sold to vendors - sharpshooters can even bolster their pockets a little extra by bursting ceramic jars littered around the environments. Collecting loot is addictively gratifying, with a simple hand wave hoovering everything up with a satisfying jingle. Adventurers can then buy new weapons, armor, and potions from various shops, which acts as a truly engaging motivator throughout the journey. Kitting yourself out with the most expensive gear you can afford and tearing through a barrage of enemies that were previously overwhelming is incredibly rewarding, and I was constantly chasing that next set of gear.
Collected loot is gathered up into an intuitive inventory system that thankfully avoids becoming a heaping mess of ugly menus, though its limited size did cause some frustration. You're able to upgrade the size of your inventory once early on, but that's it. As dungeons get more expansive, not being able to continually expand the inventory as you progress held me back from taking advantage of the increasingly frequent valuable drops, and duplicate undroppable quest items clog this up further.
Four Swords Are Better Than One
Karnage's gameplay loop is great fun as a solo player, but it’s battling through dungeons with a friend that makes Karnage such an unforgettable experience - especially on the harder difficulties. While I played through Karnage with just one partner, up to four players can seamlessly drop in or out at any moment to tear through dungeons as a group. With difficulty scaling to match player count, I found it was worth spending time to plan tactics with my fellow adventurers before engaging in the more complex battles. Sending one player to take aggro from a boss, while another takes out enemy healers made me feel like we were winning battles because of our strength as a team, rather than just the statistics of our equipment. Though, it’s worth noting that melee combat isn’t hugely viable for players that don’t have the best internet connections.
With three difficulty options, Karnage is pretty much accessible for players of all skill levels - through the whole experience feels very much crafted around hard mode. Dungeons are just plain empty on easy, and combat lacks any real challenge in normal, making the punishing, but rewarding hard mode feels like the intended vision. I’m not one for sadomasochistic difficulty in games typically, but Karnage strikes a perfect balance of keeping victory just enough in reach that I never found myself getting frustrated. It does pull some cheap moves occasionally, such as spawning enemies behind the player in areas they thought were cleared, but this mostly just kept me alert and didn’t annoy me too much.
A Quickly Forgotten Tale
The one area where Karnage did disappoint me was in its story. Its narrative didn’t engage with me at all, and the world itself has a rather generic fantasy setting that doesn’t really make any effort to create its own personality. The hero’s call to action is nothing more than a simple quest for a MacGuffin explained through tedious, dragged-out exposition, and there’s no carrot on a stick to keep me adventuring, not even any significant plot beats to keep the journey interesting.
Yet, that typically egregious flaw did very little to detract from my overwhelmingly positive experience. Though Karnage might not be able to add an engaging story to its list of achievements, it does everything else so brilliantly that I frankly didn’t miss it. Instead, Karnage prospers in its arcadeyness. I kept adventuring for the thrill of becoming more powerful and discovering the next set-piece that the game had in store. Smaller moments of world-building fill the void left by a lack of narrative. One totally optional encounter I had with the ghost of a long-deceased warrior gave me physical chills in a moment that only Virtual Reality could make so special.
When it was time for my journey to come to an end, I was desperately hoping for a secret fourth dungeon to unlock. Any excuse to keep exploring new worlds as immersive as the ones Karnage builds.
Karnage Chronicles is a fantastically challenging dungeon crawler that sets a new bar for how immersive our game worlds can be in virtual reality, as well as being an unforgettable cooperative experience. Though it’s not quite the platform-defining blockbuster experience that VR skeptics crave, its incredibly competitive price tag makes it an easy-to-recommend title. The utterly astonishing presentation of its world, well-balanced difficulty, and fantastic cooperative mode combine to create one of the most generously valued packages in VR.
TechRaptor reviewed Karnage Chronicles on PC using a copy provided by the publisher.
- Incredibly Immersive Presentation
- Satisfying and Responsive Combat
- Great Co-Op
- Forgettable Story