We take a look at this chilling FPS.
Review by Lewis Denby
Published 31st March 2009
- Developer: Action Forms
- Publisher: 505 Games
- Release Date: 20th February 2009
At the start, you’d almost be fooled into thinking Cryostasis knows what it’s doing. The atmosphere is solid and spooky, and the bleak, frozen surroundings shine with PhysX-driven delight. The first time an enemy springs up on you is a genuinely frightening experience, a combination of the grotesque wailing and imprecise combat mechanics instilling sheer panic into the proceedings. If only it knew how to keep all this up. Because, as Cryostasis reaches the halfway mark and beyond, things melt away into repetitive, bug-ridden tedium.
You play as Alexander Nesterov, a silent fellow sent to investigate the happenings onboard an ice-ridden ship, the North Wind. Nothing’s really explained. You simply go there because the game tells you to, and the history of this dilapidated icebreaker plays out in flashback sequences – some playable, some not – throughout the duration the experience. There’s a real problem with the delivery. What starts odd and intriguing loses impact when you start to wonder why you’re even bothering playing the game, instead of just watching a film about what happened before. Though the majority of Cryostasis takes place in the present, this bulk consists only of clunky shooting and light environmental puzzles. Everything vaguely plot-related is kept very separate, resulting in an awkward and incoherent experience.
Though cosmetically a first-person shooter, it’s all very survival-horror. There’s an abundance of flickering lights and heart-pounding bumps in the night, and every enemy poses a considerable threat. It stems right down to the very core of the gameplay: everything is excruciatingly slow. This is obviously very deliberate, and is occasionally effective – the painful trudge to the icebreaker in the first level stands out as one of Cryostasis’ finer moments, driving home the difficulty of traversing the snow in such treacherous conditions – but more frequently it’s just annoying. The standard walking speed is little more than a shuffle, and you can only run for a couple of seconds at a time, before having to rest to build up your stamina again.
Melée combat works. This sluggish pace and the wild flailing of Nesterov’s axe-swings make for some chillingly disorientating fights. But the occasional ranged weapons are decidedly useless, if only because the enemies seem to have a distinct advantage. Their aiming is inch-perfect every time, and their rate of fire seems to be strangely quicker than your own. In a game where taking just a couple of bullets lands you in a pool of your own freezing blood, and one so slow that moving out of the way is rarely possible, combat begins to feel somewhat unfair, and quick loading every couple of minutes becomes weary.
There’s a constant feeling that Cryostasis isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. The early, close-quarters survival-horror sections are easily the best, complete with exhilarating set-pieces and lots of creepy, edge-of-seat ambiguity. But once you get your hands on a gun, it seems to encourage a more straightforward FPS playing style, one it just can’t cope with. Additionally, all the intricacy of the early levels quickly fades away, with the game favouring a hopelessly monotonous approach. Each section follows the same basic pattern: enter a new area, find a way to turn the lights on, kill the monster than inevitably pops up, travel back in time for some reason, then move on to the next identical sequence.
These time-travel sections, triggered by Nesterov’s inexplicable ‘Mental Echo’ abilities, form the basis of most of the puzzle-solving. By touching a dead body, Nesterov can instantly transport himself back to moments before the poor soul’s death, possess his body, and do something slightly differently to avoid a grizzly demise. Doing so invariably leads to a changed state back in the present, and often a door will be unlocked, or a passageway cleared of an icy blockage.
This would be fine, if there were any logic to its application. You only activate this Mental Echo feature because you know the game wants you to, not because you’ve carefully established what you have to do in advance. Once back in the present, realising the path ahead is now clear yields no sense of reward, as it’s only the incidental result of something you weren’t really trying to do in the first place.
Far more impressive are Cryostasis’ fascinating health mechanics. Instead of patching yourself up with medkits, or allowing the game to automatically regenerate your health over time, you have to rest by sources of heat in order to recover to full fitness. Since much of the ship is so cold, your health gradually seeps away in the meantime, forcing you to push onwards into the foreboding darkness, always praying for another lamp or flare in the rooms ahead. Though it doesn’t always make a lot of sense – why do you lose heat instead of blood when shot? – It’s all very impressively tense, and breathes some much-needed life into an otherwise stagnant game.
The advanced lighting and physics features in the proprietary engine also contribute to this heavy sense of atmosphere and place, but it’s unfortunately where things begin to descend even further. Watching the ice melt and puddles forming on the ground is extraordinary, but the game can’t deal with its own technology. The second any of these advanced features appear, the framerate drops alarmingly, often into single-figures. Worse is the tendency for slowdown during combat, particularly when zooming in using scoped weapons. When ammunition is so scarce, such a problem can be devastating, as you fire your last bullet into nothingness. The outstanding sound design goes some way to picking up the pieces, but by this point it’s too late.
The moment a particularly glitchy enemy spiralled and flailed erroneously in mid-air, before I literally fell out of the game world, was the moment I fell out of love with Cryostasis. It’s a game that shows so much promise during its early sections, yet completely fails to live up to its own standards. There are plenty of exciting ideas toyed around with here, but when the game can’t implement most of them to any useful degree, it’s difficult to remain interested. When it’s also a game that fails to perform to even a reasonable technical standard, it becomes impossible to recommend. A wasted opportunity, and a genuine shame.
Review Score: 6.4/10
Please note, this review was scored using our old system. For more information please see our review policy. More on Cryostasis >>
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