Provocative story-driven FPS akin to Bioshock or STALKER.
As a thirtysomething gamer, it gets tougher and tougher to find story-driven games that actually tell a worthwhile story. Too often standards are lowered for video games, and mediocre plots are praised as "cinema-like" when in reality, they offer nothing more than cheap imitations of cheesy action movies. A few landmark titles broke the mold in recent years, and Bioshock, STALKER and Dead Space showed you can tell innovative, engaging stories right alongside an action slugfest. The lesser-known Cryostasis certainly deserves to be included on that short list, even if weak combat and sluggish performance ultimately hold it back from the AAA elite.
Cryostasis is essentially a mystery that unfolds as you progress through the frozen remains of a large Russian icebreaker ship stuck near the North Pole. It's an incredibly moody, tense game that frequently spooks you with memories and pieces of the past, and a steady stream of monster scares. The developers often tip their cap to Memento by unveiling events out of order, so you may not immediately understand every cutscene or its significance. It's a theme repeated throughout the game to brilliant effect. I found myself genuinely enthralled to find out what exactly happened to the ship's crew and what secrets are hiding within the ship. It's a lengthy game compared to most single-player FPS campaigns these days, clocking in around 15 hours depending on how much reloading you do. The final third of the game can get repetitive in parts as you re-tread back-and-forth over the same levels. It makes sense within the arc of the game, but it does slow the pace down some. But if any game was worth playing through to completion, it's Cryostasis. A wonderfully clever ending gives you a genuinely surprising appreciation for what the entire journey was all about.
The level design and visual effects amplify the mood, capturing the feeling of what exploring a derelict icy ship might actually be like. Performance at max settings is inconsistent, frequently slowing down due to the heavy CPU load from physics effects and liquid/ice transformations. During my playthrough, I encountered a handful of crashes because the system could not properly render a "liquid." Changing all the visual effects to Medium settings and turning off all the extras (anti-aliasing, advanced Phys-X, Shader 3.0) made the game extremely playable at a stable frame rate on a 3.0 gHz dual-core / Nvidia 260 GTX system.
The one huge flaw with Cryostasis is the combat. It's sluggish and a chore to get through, for the most part. You have a few melee weapons and quickly get a variety of guns, including an inexplicable "water hose gun." I don't quite get what they're trying to prove there, as simply hosing down enemies with water often proves more efficient than spraying them with bullets. I can appreciate somewhat clunky combat in a survival-horror style of game because it exaggerates the terror you're feeling as you play, but over a 15-hour playthrough, it just gets monotonous. A bewildering final boss -- while definitely creative -- closes the game with a real head-scratcher.
All in all, Cryostasis is a must-play for fans of story-driven FPS or survival/horror. Once you get past the wonky combat, you'll be in for some of the best video game storytelling in recent years.