Giant Bomb Review

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Cryostasis Review

4
  • PC

Russian developed Cryostasis is a chilly cult masterpiece thanks to its unique story and visual style. Unfortunately, the game's technical issues and slow-paced combat are valid concerns against wide-audience approval.

Cryostasis: The Sleep of Reason is a game best played with the windows open and a slight draft in the air. So frozen is the world of Russian developer Action Forms Ltd's newest title that more often than not you're fighting the arctic environment itself rather then the common monsters that inhabit it. While the game's various recreations of ice are immediately impressive, it's the completely original story that sets Cryostasis up as an instant cult classic. As such, the game more directly compares to the films of Cronenberg or Carpenter than its peers in the horror-game genre, of which BioShock is the most direct influence. To be more blunt, Cryostasis is less a game and more an elegantly designed experience.

Flashbacks are provided with various grainy filters.
The game begins in 1981 as Russian meteorologist Alexander Nesterov is sent to investigate the disappearance of the the nuclear ice-breaker North Wind. Sled dogs at your side, you run into trouble almost immediately and realize that the surviving crew has been affected by some sort of malady that causes them to become extremely violent. The "what" and "why" of this scenario are unclear, and Alexander weaves his way through 17 chapters trying to unravel the mystery of just exactly what happened. While the plot itself sounds like standard fare, the delivery of the story and the eventual answers you receive are anything but standard.

Cryostasis tells this mystery through some inventive devices that quite liberally use the been-here-before concept, but with a unique twist. Essentially, you navigate the claustrophobic and decrepit North Wind in the present while experiencing real-time, jarring flashbacks from the past. Your protagonist is slowly fed the plot through the found scraps of a narrated folktale, the captain's diary and Alexander's unique ability to jump into the life of a fallen crew member just before their death. The last device in particular is one of the cooler new concepts I've seen in modern gaming. That's mostly because if Alexander can save a life in the past, he can affect his physical surroundings in the future and make good against the darkness that surrounds the ship. If all that sounds a little heavy and metaphysical, it is. The tale of the North Wind, its captain, first mate, nuclear engineer and crew are sure to be picked apart for a long time, much like a great film.

Light plays a big part in Cryostasis' visual style.
It's important to note that due to these devices, Cryostasis is a decidedly linear game. Not only do you progress through the chapters in a relatively straight line, but no lever switch or door opening is without specific meaning. Later levels will reference earlier levels but from a different perspective. You'll see the cause and carnage of the North Wind's stranding not only from three different decks, but many different pasts and many different perspectives on that past. Notice that weird stuffed polar bear? You'll see him again. If games like Braid and its high-concept peers are rethinking the idea of games as art, Cryostasis pushes the boundary of games as interpretive art. The game's ending and its general end thesis is up to the viewer. It's an exciting thing to witness and gives hope for the medium. It's also very weird. 

Though the title is currently marketed as a first-person shooter, Cryostasis should more appropriately be labeled a first-person adventure. The game does contain a fair amount of gunplay, but the enemies in each level can be counted on your hands, not by the dozen. The focus here is on exploration of your surroundings. Action fans also may not welcome Cryostasis' realistically imprecise weapons and lengthy reload times, which are used to heighten tension. Melee battles are specifically anxious affairs due to an exaggerated sway in your movements that draws out the timing and viewpoint of your swings. While this style of combat could rightfully be called clunky, it honestly felt necessary given the pace of the game. You should just know the combat is not for the impatient, and that death is not only a certainty, but a common occurrence. It might very well keep you from completing the game.

You can step into the past of a dead crew member just before they died.
While the star of the show is definitely Cryostasis' story, the game's audio and visual effects are just as impressive. Making heavy use of nVidia's Physx platform, Cyrostasis features the most impressive rendering of snow and ice yet seen in games. You'll navigate the mostly dark lower decks of the North Wind with only a flashlight and the ship's remaining lights, all used to great dramatic effect. Port holes blow in white light brightened by snow. Reflections play off of water. Decade-old lightbulbs creak with the feeling that they'll pop at any second. Then there's the reflective frigid ice, which is a constant menace since Alex's health meter is revived only by warming up near a heat source. The few times you do find yourself above decks, the snow and wind are so blinding and deadly that you simply jump from hotspot to hotspot to survive.

All that frosty glitter does not come without a hefty price, though. Cryostasis is only optimized for single-core processors, so your performance is largely based on the video card you own. As such, there's quite a bit of uproar about the game's performance on some computers. While I personally had no problem running the game with all the bells and whistles turned on, I did run into over a dozen crashes throughout my play-through. Consistent with the feedback from other players' experiences on the official message boards, these crashes happened for me much more often in the later chapters. Luckily, the game makes liberal use of auto-saves and I never had any actual lost progress. It's definitely annoying, though, and these problems seem above average in frequency for a PC game. Players making it to these later levels will likely not be deterred, as the story becomes so meaty that you'll just want to forgive the game outright and keep going to the conclusion.

In the end, Cryostasis is certainly a love-it-or-hate-it game. While the world it presents is breathtaking, the game's core combat and slow pace are what hold me back from recommending it to all audiences. However, if you tend to find yourself with more arty tastes in media, or are one of those gamers who thinks a good game necessitates a good story, Cryostasis might just be the game for you.
Dave Snider on Google+
32 Comments
Edited by theMcNasty

Yay!  It's good to see Dave Snider more and more on the site.  I love his take on things and knack for foreign games.

Edit: Also, being a huge fan of Braid, I probably would have picked up this "interpretive art" title.  You made it sound really interesting, especially with the realistic, albeit "clunky," combat.

Posted by Death_Burnout

Been readin' your tweets on this Dave, it's a shame about PC specs. even though my PC is great, i have no doubt it would have backwards issues.

Plus im weak.

Posted by Scheds

Can't wait until I have a PC capable of playing this one. A well written review!

Posted by MeatSim

I remember hearing about this game a couple E3's ago. So it finally got over here state side.

Posted by Subject2Change

Been waiting for this for a while however been too lazy to walk into GameStop to pick it up, maybe i'll pick it up tomorrow after work and give it a whirl, need to use my PC for something other than TF2 and CS:S.

Edited by LordAndrew

If Dave's going to become a regular PC game reviewer, then he needs to get some more review images drawn up.
Looks like an interesting game. I can't really run it right now, but I'll keep an eye on it for the future.

Edited by Derangel

I liked the demo, but I think I'm going to wait and see if they patch it or see how well it works when I get a second GPU and use that just for PhysX in this game. I will play with the settings in the demo to see what I have to do to make it playable. PhysX really eats into my 9800GTX at 1920x1200, but I can't bring myself to play games at a lower resolution.

Demo also likes to go totally black randomly.

Posted by mad4it89

Great review Dave! Looks like a fun game..unfortunately though my pc isn't capable of running it :(

Posted by waza

i was gonna buy it if i came out on steam .... and it never exactly looked like a full 50$ game to me
... i'll probably play it someday

Posted by clarke0

Pleasantly surprised to see a review for this game. I've been interested since I first saw this game so I'll try to pick this one up if I have the money for it.

Posted by JJOR64

Never heard of this game.  Might have to check it out now.

Posted by snide

@waza


It's currently being sold at $30 bucks on Direct2Drive. Not my favorite games delivery network, but definitely a steal.
Posted by DavidSnakes

This looks great, but my computer sucks.

Posted by Nemoperson

Looks really intriguing. From the review it sounds something like System Shock combined with The Thing.
I may check it out when I have some spare cash.



Posted by cyrax

Sounds good, I'll at least try the demo.

Posted by TwoOneFive

lol technical issues abound: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptUAfgP1b1g

Posted by chilipeppersman

very cool. ill try this out for sure

Posted by Jayzilla

Snide. I really enjoy your reviews man. Keep up the awesome work! G-Bomb powers that be: I demand more reviews from The Snide!

Posted by Hamst3r

Thanks for the review!

Posted by jNerd

I appreciate this review, I'm very interested in this game now!

Posted by lamegame621

I just played the demo...WHY DO RUSSIANS MAKE THEIR GAMES SO HARD?!?!?!

Posted by Claude

Man, I feel bad... I just made fun of you. I'll find the demo. Thanks for the review and word up.

Posted by Sunjammer

I wish my PC was anywhere near capable of running it alright. The game certainly doesn't scale down very well. Love the sense of cold for the little while i could stomach the 10fps.

Posted by GeekDown

Great review and I just watch some gameplay of it and it looks amazing...too bad my computer can't run this.

Posted by Media_Master

Sounds great, but it would be nice to actually see the game in motion

Edited by MrKlorox

There certainly is a specific feel that Eastern European games have that North American games can't quite seem to take hold of. I hope they sell well enough on this side of the ocean for more devs to keep experimenting like this. Nobody wants to try different things if they don't sell.

Sadly there seems to be an attitude of "broken release beats no release" and I feel inclined to agree. Luckily there are multiregional groups of talented modders dedicated to trying to make things work.

Posted by Cubical

I bought this game it is fraking brilliant.  I mean you play as a bad ass meteorologist it's so stupid it is good. kinda like bad ass photographers.

They need to patch the bug and tech issues though.

Go buy it.

Posted by Cubical
Ohh and Dave Snider is now automatic  the most bad ass reviewer on this site since is seems to be the only one bad ass enough to handle PC games not the crappy console ports of PC games and or crappy console FPS...

He is so tuff and bad ass he doesn’t need to make images or anything else for you people that how tuff he is.   You will be lucky if he gives you mercy when he reviews, it is not for fconsole pansies.

1 Dave Snider does not write reviews the games out of pure terror of his presence write down there biography on paper for him.

2 Dave sinder has been known to fight chuck Norris for PC game reviews and win.
Posted by spilledmilkfactory

this sounds like a great game. too bad it's only for PC, so i won't be able to play it      :(

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@snide: I just watched someone else play the thing, and I definitely enjoyed it quite a bit.  I guess if I was more immersed in it I would have liked it more, because the idea of exploring that floating tomb with the lights turned out seems like it would be pretty fun.
 
The combat seemed like a slog to me, though.  Not so much that it's difficult, it looks to resolve almost like a puzzle, but that when you're in combat you're repeating patterns to beat the patterns of the enemy.
 
I thought it was just interesting enough that I wanted to see how the story concluded, and I was very impressed with what they shot for.  I'm not sure it was all the way backed up by what came before, but I think it was effective enough to earn at least a cult status.  It's too bad they didn't try to optimize the engine; maybe this game would have gotten the wider exposure I think it deserved.
 
Anyone who wants to discuss the ending just send me a PM, I'm jonesing to compare notes :)
Posted by Gonmog

This sounds like the game Penumbra. It was a first person game that had few fights but lots of story and exploring the world around you. Im gona hunt the game down seems just what id like to play right now.

Posted by bcooper56

Game is great just recently got it.