Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Cryostasis

Ever since Half Life's release, the shooter formula had since found itself changing a few chemicals to still keep the fundamentals while changing its structure. Instead of maze-like levels featuring heaps of monsters, they're more linear with an emphasis on in-game scenes and set pieces to keep the player immersed into the action while still telling a story. Sadly, very few games actually used this formula the way Half Life did, with the majority just using this formula to showcase explosions and old war quotes often heard in year 8 history classes. Thankfully, we do have the likes of Bioshock, Singularity and this game, Cryostasis, to keep the hope alive while we patiently wait for Half Life 3... and if I didn't make it clear, then I'll do so now by stating that Cryostasis is a very good game... if you can actually play it. Oh no, it's not broken like Action 52 or an interactive movie like Asura's Wrath, but it's more a case of it being a hardware monster – the sort that makes Crysis look like a joke.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. You play as a meteorologist who is on an expedition through the Arctic Circle near the North Pole to investigate an icebreaker. The twist is that it has been shipwrecked for a bit over a decade, but it'll only make for more intriguing discoveries, so the temptation to explore is too great... plus it's warmer than the outside, which is bloody freezing. It's an interesting enough premise as it can reveal some very big spoils and maybe a twist or two that'll explain why this ship is more than meets the eye. Through a series of flashbacks, you'll learn more about its crew and the events that lead to its own demise, and it not only teaches you about the shipwreck but also has you caring for the crew members, making you wish you could save them from dying due to an unfortunate situation.... which you can thanks to the Mental Echo feature, allowing you to interact with a dead body and stop them from dying at the last second. Admittedly, it can take a while for the story to really unfold, but the pay off is more than satisfying, especially the ending. Perhaps it seems confusing at first, but upon a second playthrough, it just starts to click and suddenly, you'll find yourself being able to really sympathize with these characters.

Cryostasis plays like a first person shooter, though it isn't a fragfest like Doom or Serious Sam; it has a more deliberate pace, like Half Life. You will meet the occasional mutated crew member(s) that will charge at you with various weapons like crowbars, axes and even blowtorches, and it becomes a case of “kill or be killed” as they are quite relentless in their assault. They also don't seem to take much damage... hell, they don't even stagger much if at all when they get hit by your attacks, meaning that they can beat the living tar out of you while you try to wind up for a sort of killing blow. The idea is to basically knock them down and make sure they stay down by wailing on them hard enough. Don't think that guns will make things much easier, because even a few shots to the head won't slow these guys down – they're not even human and don't live by human rules.

Oh, and the guns – ranging from pistols to bolt action rifles, semi auto rifles and SMGS - are from the 1960s, so they'll take a while to shoot and even longer to reload, meaning that every shot must count, and given the scarcity of ammo, well, that just drives the point further home. The only good things would be that you can at least attack from a distance and that it consumes no stamina, unlike melee weapons you'll find on the ground or your fisticufs. While it's easy for me to say that combat is very deliberately executed as you'll need to pay attention to your enemy as well as your stamina, it's also really clunky. This is definitely Cryostasis's weak spot, but like any good horror game, it's not all that often, which at least gives them more of an impression than constant encounters. It's a shame that it's the way that it is because the rest of the game is brilliant!

Remember when I mentioned the Mental Echo feature? Well, when you get into one of these, you'll find yourself needing to solve a puzzle that'll wind up saving this person's life. While puzzles can be as simple as stepping to the side so you don't get hit or as complicated as figuring your way out of a room before you drown, a lot of the puzzles can be solved with basic logic, although the means of solving them tend to require some trial and error. However, unlike a lot of games that require trial and error, there aren't any huge penalties as you can reattempt the Mental Echo scenarios as many times as you want until you bring that person back to life. That, and it's the good sort of trial and error where you can either figure it out quickly or not so quickly and feel a sense of satisfaction from doing so, not that bloody “nope, here're some really fast and obnoxiously loud laser beams” crap kind of trial and error where you will almost always die the first couple of times, minimum, and only feel relief for completion! In other words, Cryostasis seriously has the right idea for this kind of thing!

Really, outside of combat, the general feel of the game is just right. Given that the Arctic Circle is freezing cold, your body will gradually freeze up as it gets colder, and the icier your body gets, the less health you'll have. You can't freeze to death, but enemies will deal significantly more damage to a colder body than to a warmer body. To counteract this are various heat sources you'll find throughout the ship. Stuff like lanterns, burning torches, firey debris and even desk lamps (since when?) can heat you up, but this mechanic can make things feel very tense as you can be ambushed at any time and you could be quite cold by that point. Sometimes though, heat sources can be located at very convenient points that'll make combat less tense... though that's not to say you'll not be getting colder during the fights, but still.

This is quite possibly one of the most demanding games I have ever played, requring some real top of the line hardware to get it to run properly. Forget running Crysis on max settings – playing a session of Cryostasis without a decent amount of lag on moderate settings is nothing short of a miracle, and that's if you've upgraded to the best hardware you can find NOW! It's a shame, because this is a beautiful game... err, technically speaking, of course. Maybe a few low quality textures and a couple of jagged edges here and there will be found, but otherwise, it is technically sound. But where it counts is its atmosphere... this IS a horror game, after all, and let's just say that it's got the look you'd expect for a game taking place in the arctic. Halls around you are icy with some snow and even a bit of water here and there, and as you get colder, the screen will get icier and icier. That kind of thing helps immerse you into the experience, especially when you interact with the environment and something happens in it. You hit some icicle and it'll either fall or break apart, or you light up a torch and all the ice around it melts. There are plenty of little details which I assume is the reason why it's such a hardware hog.

The sound design is fantastic. There's no music, but there are more ambient sounds. From footsteps to the wind blowing outside, it manages to keep you on edge as you could find yourself in the heat – you know, that cold sort of heat - of battle before you know it. The more combat oriented sounds, like swinging your weapon or shooting, have a kick to them that adds intensity to any given fight, plus they sound like you'd expect swinging weapons or guns from the 60s to sound like, as if you are there doing all of this. Then there's the voice acting, which is actually pretty good. Usually when voice actors attempt foreign accents, they sound silly or at least off, but either the Russians in this game are voiced by Russians or really good actors because none of them sound out of place, further keeping the immersion factor up.

Despite some clunky combat and demanding specs, Cryostasis is a very good game and what you would expect from not only a game inspired by Half Life, but also a horror game. Most horror games have jump scares with very little buildup, feeling way too action oriented, which is the antithesis of horror. But here comes Cryostasis, a game that reminds the player of true horror – one that is full of tension and expecting the unexpected, and clunky combat be damned, it is a very immersing experience with a fantastic story that you'll find yourself playing repeatedly.

8.5/10 (Great) 

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