They always say that Russia is a mystery, and the same could largely be said about the country's games industry. They do things differently over there – 1c, the Russian publisher, are a company of a type that's simply unknown in these parts. As well as developing and publishing games, they also operate a huge chain of official games shops on the country's high streets and distribute a huge slice of western games released in Russia. Conversely, the UK release of Action Forms' new game
Cryostasis is being handled by the relatively
small-time 505 Games.
Whilst clearly an FPS, Cryostasis shuns many of the FPS archetype's conventions. Set aboard an icebound Soviet icebreaker, the North Wind, in 1981, the game does not offer a health meter but instead uses only heat to express the player's fighting fitness. Playing as the rather lonely figure of Alexander Nesterov, freezing to death is almost more of a tangible danger than that presented by the game's enemies. It's an impressive system, which also acts as a means by which the developers can subtly control how much "health" the player has at given moments. The heat meter comprises two bars: an outer one, which represents the environmental or external temperature, and an inner one, which represents personal or internal temperature. When the former is very low (ie. when you are in an extremely cold zone of the ship) your internal temperature will slowly drop accordingly. Much of the game's design and technology has been crafted around this persistent idea of cold - Action Forms' engine gives us immaculately lit shards of ice, torrents of meltwater flowing down walls and across floors, and a stunning effect of life-sapping sub-zero conditions for the brief moments Nesterov is forced to venture outside.
impressively varied game..."
Cold influences everything. The environment is completely defined by it, and thus so too are the game's challenges. The enemies are bizarre variations on that classic "frosty reanimated Russian sailor" theme, and puzzles frequently involve tasks like finding ways to melt the impassable ice rinks that the North Wind's rooms have become.
Happily, and perhaps surprisingly, these tasks largely don't become repetitive. A lesser developer might have forced us through countless identikit corridors forever thawing out another frozen door, but whilst still cramped, claustrophobic and lonely,
Cryostasis is an impressively varied game. In one section we're navigating a tiny boat around a flooded zone, using a mounted light to help beat off murderous Davy Jones wannabes with gloved fists; in another section, we're venturing into the past, into the body of a junior crewmember, while his superior guides him as he replaces a fuel rod on the icebreaker's nuclear reactor.
Ah yes, "mental echo". A much talked-about feature of the game, this ability allows Nesterov to travel into the past by occupying the bodies of others he comes across in the moments before their death. In so doing, you're able to correct mistakes these crewmembers made, saving their souls - and, at the same time, aiding your own situation in the present. The system is a little confusing at first, especially given how it is often tied into the supernatural flashbacks you experience – but it's a fantastic game mechanic which
Cryostasis confidently and effectively employs.
innovative and attractive..."
On one occasion, you're able to occupy the body of a crewman who operates a clunky dive suit to complete emergency repairs underwater; on another, you take control of a man who must use a mounted light to illuminate the undead creatures so that his colleague can accurately shoot them. There's all kinds of other brilliant and frequently odd situations you find yourself in through these echoes, which I won't spoil - but suffice it to say that they all help to tell the game's intriguing, chopped-up story and show us the game's world from many different perspectives. The criticism that needs to be
leveled at them is a design one – too often, we have no idea what we're meant to be achieving in these echoes, because they can be so far extracted from typical gameplay. The result is that you often have to replay them several times - they are brief, but it's still frustrating.
It's testament to Cryostasis' change of FPS focus that I haven't mentioned combat until now. It's an odd affair, and is where some of the game's failings lie. One of the strange things is the selection of weapons
- there are no less than thee melee weapons (actually four if you count bare hands) and all the guns are very old and clunky, even by the standards of the game's setting. This can be a boon in some cases
- as with the Mosin Nagant rifle which encourages nervy, cover-based fighting
- but a nightmare in others, as with the PPSh-1
submachine gun, which is usually nigh-on useless unless you're close enough to your opponent to trim their frosty beard.
Tense, frequently innovative and attractive, Cryostasis can also be a frustrating and baffling game at times. Nevertheless, its shortcomings are definitely outweighed by its strengths, giving us a weird, flawed gem of a shooter. Given the game's slow pace and the punishment the exotic visuals can inflict on your PC,
Cryostasis isn't a game you're likely to return to time and time again, but it's an extremely interesting experience nonetheless.
brave and captivating game, but a flawed FPS.