HD Video Review
Developed by Action Forms [full credits]
It’s telling that Cryostasis’ favorable reviews on Metacritic take the apologist’s stance. Cryostasis is a game that possess an ambition and vision uncommon in the medium, which makes it all the more difficult to point out the game’s many faults. I can’t ignore mentioning all the problems you’ll run into the game, but part of me worries that others will ignore the good that is there because of these grievances. There is no doubt that Cryostasis is one of 2009’s most frustrating titles, but it’s also one of the year’s most noteworthy.
Cryostasis doesn’t have any qualms in addressing that it is a narrative first experience. This is after all a game that opens with a Hermann Hesse quote, not exactly a heart-stopping Halo opener—unless early 20th century existentialists give you a boner, in which case you are playing the right game. The story begins with an air of surrealism but you’ll soon discover that you are a Soviet Metrologist sent to explore a ship that wrecked in the 50s—the main plot itself takes place in the early 80s. This setup means little in the grand scheme of things, as the plot soon develops into a cerebral study on how humans act in the face of tragedy and what we would change if given a second chance. There are some absolutely fascinating themes at play here, but Cryostasis fails to develop a cast of characters to make the player care. Instead, you have characters that are nothing more than the role they play on the ship, which is a shame.
If you thought Fallout 3 was the pinnacle of 2008 games, you’ll find much to disagree with in Cryostasis. This is by far the most linear shooter I have ever played. Before you accuse me of hyperbole, let me explain the heat system in the game. Rather then applying a standard health bar, the developers (Action Forms) conceived a heat gauge that you’ll rely on throughout the game. Basically, the cold is your greatest enemy and you are always cold in Cryostasis. Various heat sources, lamps and such, serve as a means to replenish your health that will in turn be eaten away by enemy attacks and the merciless Arctic wind. This means two things to the player. First, you must always progress at a brisk pace to find the next heat source. Second, your health bar is always in the hands of the developer and by this I mean different heat sources are set to give you a certain amount of health. If this sounds limiting, it’s because it is.
For those of us who don’t perceive linearity as a barrier of entry, Cryostasis does an admirable job of delivering a rollercoaster ride that delivers both the unsettling feeling of a survival horror title and the robust set pieces of a triple-A action title. There are many moments in this game that will stick with you for some time to come. Sadly, the same can’t be said of the game’s combat. It is as incompetent and inane as the ship’s captain. For the first third of the game, you will rely on melee weapons that control more like The Elder Scroll series then the Condemned series. For the better part of the game, however, you’ll be using standard shooter weapons. This wouldn’t be such a problem if the aiming controls weren’t so bad. Thankfully, fighting isn’t all that the game is about.
Cryostasis’ main plot device and gameplay gimmick is that of possession. Throughout your crawl of the ship you’ll find dead shipmates who you can possess, transporting you to the moment that lead them to their death. It’s a brilliant device that allows the player to change their fate, as well as receive insight into what caused the ship’s demise. Unfortunately, these sections are plagued by trial-and-error attempts that will have you repeatedly dying as you try to figure out what you are supposed to do next. These are hardly the rewarding logic puzzles of Portal.
Cryostasis was released back in December 08’ in its native Russia, but it came to the US months later with a full-fledged English dub. 1C Company did an excellent job of acquiring a cast that captures believable characters subjected to a less then fortunate reality. The real center of attention that garnered the game a cult following back in 2006 is its graphic engine. I can’t speak too much on this since my system can hardly handle the game and the same can likely be said of most PCs. It’s become a well-known fact that the game doesn’t take advantage of multi-core CPUs, which means a bad frame rate for most players.
I feel bad about all I have said about the game, since I can’t faithfully capture what makes Cryostasis worth playing despite all of its issues. I like to think this isn’t a failure to articulate on my part, but that Cryostasis is an experience that can’t be translated into facts and figures. Here is a game that gives the “games as art” argument fuel until the next Team Ico project drops. Sure, the story is often confusing with characters spouting cryptic lines just to sound cryptic, and the combat is far from exceptional. But much like the game’s protagonist, it’s worth bearing the storm in order to get to the heart of the mystery. With one of the most memorable last hours in recent memory, Cryostasis is an experience you’ll hold onto even if you can’t exactly explain why to others.