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Chorus review: a slow start, but it'll sing if you give it a chance

A space cult classic

I hate to caveat a recommendation with “it gets good later” but unfortunately, the first hour of Chorus (despite the title stylisation, promotional materials do not write it out as Chorvs, cowards) is not good. Yet beyond that lacklustre start is a surprisingly tight arcade space fighter wrapped up in a wonderful bundle of pompous space magic.

Not all the first impressions are bad. Arriving at the main menu I'm greeted by a big orchestral score, choirs quickly kicking in giving it their all. It's a bit rote, but an honest-to-God attempt to grab you by the shoulders and wheel you around the room making big swooshing space ship noises. It feels like the composer, Pedro Camacho, is very earnestly asking, "Isn't this exciting?!", with huge swelling horns and string arrangements, and it immediately put a smile on my face. It's not at all cloying, and is at least a hint of the sincerity that will be one of the game's redeeming qualities.

Redemption first requires a mistake, though, and while we're learning about the one our protagonist Nara has made, the game commits the sin of giving us this backstory through stilted exposition. It's hardly uninteresting stuff. Nara is one of the best fighters in an interstellar cult called the Circle, lead by a scary looking man known as the Great Prophet, who all believe in something called “chorus”. Basically, they've tapped into that classic videogame place, “the void”, which is described here as the “collective conscious of all living things” which... sure. It's where space magic comes from, is all you really need to know. Which means as well as a deadly pilot, Nara is also a space witch. Who wouldn't join a cult for that? But this origin would be much better learned through a story in motion rather than dryly conveyed in an awkward cutscene.

Worse, we only experience the story's inciting incident, in which Nara uses her space magic to kill a planet and subsequently leaves the cult out of guilt, by way of description, keeping us at a remove from something so core to the character. The front-loaded exposition only gets weirder when the game begins proper, starting years later with Nara in hiding from the cult on the edge of space. Hints of her backstory are dropped in, but feel redundant when we just had it explained to us.

Nara and her Starfighter Forsaken, approaching an asteroid field in space in Chorus
Incidentally, the story reminds of the Voidwitch books, which are a fun read if you like angry women with space magic/psychic powers

You start off helping a mining community that Nara has befriended, keeping them in the dark about her past. She helps them with things like salvage and fighting pirates, and apparently everyone is too polite to ask about the weird markings on her head. This far out in space, who hasn't met someone with scripture tattooed on their face? The ship you begin flying is clunky and slow but still, enemies remain easy to pick off. It doesn't control poorly but it's too straightforward to be exciting. Point your ship at baddies and shoot. Even with dialogue choices and optional quests sprinkled in, it's an uninspiring start. Then - and who could've seen this coming - the cult return! As The Circle continue their conquest across space, Nara is forced to pick up her old ways and confront them. Here at last, the game begins to get interesting.

Once you're tucked in Forsaken's cockpit, Chorus finally hits its stride.

For starters, the cult ships are considerably more difficult to fight. Faster and harder hitting, I suddenly felt very outpaced by their nimbler craft. Then we get the introduction of something really cool the exposition didn't bother to mention, though it's probably for the best. With no hope of fighting the cult in their clunky ships, Nara decides to go meet “an old friend” for help. This friend turns out to be a lad named Forsaken, who is a sentient starship built by the cult to kill. Nara lovingly nicknames him “Forsa” so in my head his surname was Horizon Five. Having been left in a dusty cavern for years he's understandably not happy with Nara, but they both need each other, even while their motives are opposed: Nara wants to find a peaceful life and overcome her guilt, and Forsaken wants to, uh, kill and then kill some more. Forsaken doesn't care who, so he's happy to fight the cult for Nara so long as he gets to do some murders. What a good lad.

A menu screen from the game Chorus showing protagonist Nara's different combat abilities - or Rites

Once you're tucked in Forsaken's cockpit, Chorus finally hits its stride, introducing drifting and magical abilities in combat, as well as a ship that's drastically faster. Drifting will be familiar to those who've played things like House Of The Dying Sun, essentially letting you strafe by keeping momentum going in one direction while you point your ship in the other. Coupled with the ability to teleport behind foes (abilities are called Rites in this, for that extra sci-fi fantasy flavouring), Chorus quickly finds a harmony in combat, chaining these powers to not just fight your foes but to avoid their attacks and strike like lightning. It feels good. I'm still not sure if the first hour spent in a clunky spaceship is justified, but the payoff is undoubtedly great. The game contextualises well why Nara and her spaceship pal are a big deal, and why the cult both want them and fear them. So long as you can keep stringing these abilities together, you are unstoppable.

The game threads that perfect needle of staying simple enough to keep it a delightful arcade experience, but layers on just enough complexity to keep you actively engaged with each fight. There's a variety of enemy types, but the real delight is when the game throws a big battlecruiser at you and you have to fly through it, Death Star run 2.0 style. The world opens up, too, and you can move between various hubs with a bunch of side quests that can effect events in the main story. None of it will blow you away, but it all works in a neat way. I got a random encounter with someone whose spacecraft had broken down and needed help fixing their engine. No combat, just a metaphorical push to get them on their way. Nice little moments of humanity go a long way in games like this.

A screenshot from Chorus showing Nara in her space fighter Forsaken, flying towards a group of shielded enemies floating behind a decorative space-gate

Chorus also gets suitably weirder. You pop into ancient temples to tap into eldritch forces and get ever more interesting space spells. Instead of fighting pirates you're destroying “psychic totems” and hunting down acolytes while doing your little space prayers. Not to mention you're also on the run from some cosmic force called “The Faceless”. It's all a bit silly, but delivered so earnestly I can't help but kind of fall in love. Visually it's a little drab but there are flourishes in the effects and details, welcome hints of stranger things in an otherwise standard sci-fi universe. It reminds me so much of that era in the early 2000s where mostly generic games tried so hard to punch above their weight with mixed but interesting results. Things like Battle Engine Aquilla, Mace Griffin: Bounty Hunter or Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. Games of this scale are often pressured into competing with the big AAA trend setters, so it's a true delight to play something wilfully odd. Chorus only exists because a team of people really, really wanted to make a space combat game about a spooky cult and I'm glad someone let them.

It probably isn't going to set the world on fire. A dull first hour certainly isn't going to help. As fun as it is, the story is pretty well trodden stuff. Yet combine an over-the-top world and tone with slick dogfighting and you've a potent package. Chorus will sing for you, even if it takes a moment to find the right notes.

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