Not A Review: Cryostasis
March 29, 2009
Very much Not A Review for this one. I'm only a few hours in and, tasked with writing about it for another site, I don't want to divulge too much information elsewhere just yet. It's also a game I'm still fairly undecided about, and the coming hours are going to very much dictate which direction I'm going to go with this.
One thing's for sure: Eastern Europe churns out some fucking weird games. Cryostasis is one of the less ambitious examples, but it's still unlike anything we're ever likely to see coming out of the major studios in the UK, North America or Japan. It flies around and chops back and forth through time as frequently as Lost. It might even be just as bizarre and confusing.
It took me a while to work out what Cryostasis was doing. Upon first starting the game, I thought it was one of the worst openings in the medium's history, dropping you straight into a rusty, deserted old ship without any explanation of what was going on. I found some dead bodies. I fought a zombie. Then the flashbacks started: weird snippets of what happened before. And only then, half an hour in, did the game whizz me back to the arctic, traversing through a blizzard, with a note to find an icebreaker, The North Wind, stuck in a glacier, unable to move from its position. I was to help the crew get the ship going again.
This walk to the game's primary location is surreal. I've never seen anything like it in a game. It's idiotically slow, with lead character Alexander Nesterov trudging forwards, barely able to see, disorientated, the harsh winds constantly thrusting you sideways. If you stop, you get caught up in the blusters and shift precariously to the right. You're constantly battling the elements. The speed is frustrating, but relevant and impressive. It makes for a nice snapshot of what playing this oddball first-person survival horror game is like.
The whole thing is glacial - not just in temperature, but in pacing too. Cryostasis' walk speed is what most games would call "sneak" and its run is barely a slow jog. Besides, it's best to conserve energy for the moments it's really required: you can only run for a few seconds at a time, before your stamina bar reaches zero, and you need to rest by a source of heat to move quickly again. The same system is employed in place of health mechanics: here, enemies aren't strong enough to do you any serious physical damage, but they are
cold enough to freeze you to death when they touch you. Only by keeping warm do you have any chance of survival.
It keeps the tension sky-high. A stark contrast to the current trend of health regeneration, where stopping for a breather cures most ailments, Cryostasis demands you keep pushing onwards, into whatever horrors await, in the hope that there's a desk lamp or flare in the coming rooms. The majority of the ship is cold enough to gradually drain your health to depletion, and only in these brief areas of respite are you truly safe from the environment. It's an agreeably terrifying tactic.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Cryostasis, though, is its unique time-travel system. It's not explained why (or hasn't been yet, at least), but Nesterov is blessed with the ability to travel back in time and enter the bodies of the corpses he finds scattered about the North Wind. This is where Cryostasis' puzzles come into play. That corridor ahead is frozen solid? Touch the corpse lodged in the ice and zoom back to when this all started, bolt that door shut just in time, and stop the water flooding in. Back to the present day, and it's the corridor behind you that's blocked, not the one ahead.
The system proves repetitive, despite how interesting it is as an idea. I hope it does something different later on, because it's not quite meeting its potential yet. I'd like to see big, multi-faceted puzzles taking place over a number of different time periods. If it can manage that, I'll be very happy indeed.
More impressive are some of the set-pieces. An early one sees you manning a small rubber dinghy around a flooded area of the ship, when a zombie dives into the water from above. On the journey, he periodically grabs your boat, shoves you aside, and eventually clambers aboard with you. It's a genuinely scary sequence, one that doesn't rely solely on jump tactics to convey its sense of fear. Elsewhere, things get a bit Doom 3 - enemies spawning behind you, jumping out of holes or crashing up through the ice when you least expect it - but if it can continue to pull off the finer moments of suspense, I doubt I'll care about the cheap boo moments.
It'll be interesting to see where this journey takes me next. It's certainly flawed in many aspects - the repetition, the nasty combat mechanics and the variable visual performance spring to mind as real problems - but it's without a doubt the most interesting game I've played this year. And if Action Forms can refine these things, either later in the game or in a subsequent release, they could prove to be a very special developer indeed.