"It's called Cryostasis. "
It's called Cryostasis.
It's such a ludicrously hammy name that I've decided I'm most comfortable saying it in a gruff American accent, like the guy from the movie trailers. Which is funny, because Cryostasis is about as far removed from the big-budget blockbuster releases as it's possible to get. This is an ambitious and quirky first-person something-or-other from Russian developer Action Forms, previously known for their flawed but imaginative shooter Vivisector. It starts well, with an abundance of heavy, spooky atmosphere and glistening visual effects. And then it gets confused, panics, and wastes away beneath its own creativity and a pile of game-breaking bugs.
It's a shame, because there are shades of a truly remarkable game here. The early levels are packed with intriguing ambiguity, fantastic set-pieces and frequent genuine scares. Riding through a flooded area of this gargantuan ship on a rubber dinghy, while a murderously insane former crew member tries to wrestle you from your meagre boat, is an astonishingly brilliant piece of design, thoroughly terrifying for the whole duration. Cryostasis sets the bar high for itself, and just can't seem to live up to it. What follows is a disappointingly repetitive game, hampered further by a string of serious problems, in both the design and the technology.
And it should, by all rights, have been brilliant. Playing as Alexander Nesterov, you find yourself tasked with boarding an enormous nuclear ship, stuck in ice near the North Pole. Why you're there isn't immediately obvious, and the timeline flies startlingly back and forth, as if you were watching an episode of Lost. The intriguing narrative plays out through a number of flashbacks - some playable, some not - as, very slowly, the riddle starts to fall into place.
This pacing is a problem, and not just because the movement speed is so achingly slow. It assumes a lot of patience on the player's part, and it's not an accomplished enough game to demand that. For at least the first few hours, you're wondering if it's going to go anywhere at all. There's no context to the opening, and the delivery doesn't really promise any resolution. It does come, eventually, and it's an impressively thought-provoking one, hinting towards Russian folklore and ancient mythology. In a sense, it makes a similar mistake to BioShock, leaving its big sucker-punch far too late in the narrative, but at least BioShock had the decency to create a vast and fascinating world to explore in the meantime. Here, the story's defining moment is its conclusion, and it struggles to remain captivating up to that point.
Until then, it's grey, frozen bulkheads en masse. Each segment of the ship, and by extension the game, plays out in the same manner. You enter a new area, work out a way to turn the lights on, travel back in time using your bizarre 'Mental Echo' ability, and solve a lightweight puzzle that enables further progression back in the present day. At various points during these escapades, an enemy will burst through the ice, or drop down from a high platform, or spawn inexplicably behind you. Each new area is so visually similar to the last that you'd find yourself getting lost, if only the game didn't invariably find a way to block the path behind you almost every time you leave a room.
Linearity isn't an inherent problem, but it becomes one when it's as lazy as this. Look at Valve's games for a lesson on how to do it right: you create levels that guide you into making the only reasonable decision for progress. You give the player clear goals, so they instinctively make their way towards them. Here, you're just going through the next door or solving the next puzzle because you know it's the only way to progress in the game, not because you're so steeped in the fiction that it becomes the only thing you'd want to do.
Quickly, the repetitive environments are joined by repetitive scare tactics, like Doom 3 without Doom 3's budget. Frozen, zombified crew members frequently leap out of nowhere (on one occasion, I actually saw one spawn out of the ether), but there are only so many times you can use this trick and have it still be frightening. In the end, the gloriously sinister atmosphere subsides in favour of regular startles, which leaves a lot to be desired. And, while the early melťe combat is deliciously disorientating, when the guns come into play things descend even further. It's all very survival horror - you can't just run and gun - which could lend itself very nicely to this sort of action-adventure setup. But it doesn't, because the firearms are unfairly imprecise, and zooming in with scopes and ironsights - essential in accurate aiming - reduces the framerate to rubble.
The engine is consistently troublesome. It's often remarkably beautiful - though the infrequent outdoor areas look blocky and artificial, the inside of the ship glistens with frost, and melting ice forms into accurate, dripping water. But the technology is horrendously optimised, and each time it shows off a flashy new effect, the slowdown is unforgivable. Cryostasis is also a game filled with atrocious glitches. A few times, I got so hopelessly stuck on a piece of scenery that I had to reload; on another occasion, during a painfully awful boss fight, I fell through the floor and out of the game world. One particularly hilarious moment saw a crew member flail wildly with an axe at an enemy that simply wasn't there. Such bugs were widely reported when Cryostasis was released in its home nation last year. That it's not been fixed to a respectable standard in the months since is unacceptable.
Still, there's one real ace up this generally disappointing title's sleeve. The subzero nature of this climate means the trend for health regeneration has been completely reversed. In Cryostasis, your health degenerates. Much of the ship is so cold that your life gradually saps away, forcing you to rest by sources of heat in order to recover. It's a splendid mechanic, one that's impressively scary, as it compels you to delve further into this foreboding world, in the hope that there'll be a lamp or flare residing in the nightmarish locales to come.
This is something I'd love to see future releases explore, hopefully in more complete games than Cryostasis. While there are some intriguing ideas toyed with here, and the opening is admirably creepy, the tedium becomes a little too much to bear. It's a clumsy game, meaning that although Cryostasis is certainly more interesting than its name suggests, it's not really any better.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (April 01, 2009)
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