Boring, repetitive gameplay and clunky controls sink Cryostasis
It isn't easy for me to heavily criticize a game like Cryostasis. It is a classic "underdog", a PC-only niche game that comes out of Eastern Europe. I wish that I could say that I enjoyed this game, but I can't. It makes a great first impression, but then it gets boring and repetitive. The one or two interesting mechanics that look promising at first get old before the game is halfway finished. The atmosphere is great and the story starts off very intriguing, but it flops badly at the end. Even with its budget price, Cryostasis is a game that I can't recommend.
Cryostasis is a game that takes place in first person and involves some shooting, but it doesn't really fit neatly into the category of "first person shooter". It is more like a survival horror/adventure game that happens to have first person combat. In the game you play as an explorer investigating a disaster that has taken place aboard a Cold War era Soviet Ice Breaker ship. The ship is totally dead, frozen in the ice along with its unfortunate crew. Exactly who you are and what you expected to accomplish by visiting a gigantic ice cube is never really made clear.
The dominant game mechanic is your body temperature. It functions essentially as your health bar, but instead of finding health packs, turkey legs, or energy canisters, you regenerate by finding hot spots, such as fires, light bulbs, and steam leaks. All of the damage that you take is essentially cold damage, so you heal by finding a glowing red area and holding out your hands in front of it. This is an interesting spin on the concept of a health bar and it fits nicely into the context of the game. However, it never goes beyond that, and the need to frequently backtrack to hot spots and spend a few seconds regenerating gets tiresome after just a few hours.
You explore the dead ship, pushing buttons and throwing levers to open or unlock doors and restore electricity to elevators. It is the typical action/adventure fare and in this game, it gets monotonous in short order. Most of the levels feel like carbon copies of each other. With few exceptions, there is almost nothing to this game besides open door/throw switch/kill monster. Since the ship is full of ice, there is hardly ever anything to interact with and there is almost no exploration to do outside of a tight linear path. By the time the game ends (which isn't very long), it has outlived its welcome.
The game makes a valiant attempt to shake up this formula with another interesting mechanic – a sort of time travel. Along the way, you find dead crew members whose memories you can step into to relive their final moments on the ship. You then correct some kind of mistake that these unfortunate men made and rewrite history so that they survive. In the meantime, you open up doors and remove obstacles so that you can advance in the present day. Reenacting the dead men's memories usually involves some kind of puzzle solving along the lines of running away from danger or throwing the right switch. In terms of gameplay, it doesn't add much, but it does add to the atmosphere. There is something eerie and chilling about exploring the dead ship and then entering the flashbacks where doomed, panicked men desperately try to save themselves and their vessel.
With the flashbacks, you also get to experience this game's unique story. A captain loses the confidence of his crew, and the resulting conflict leads to a major disaster. You also find pieces of a story that tell a Russian fairy tale similar in nature to the story in this game. The story is interesting, but also kind of fuzzy. The flashbacks bounce around in time and that makes the events of the past hard to piece together. The game never tells you how you got the magical power to enter these flashbacks and the ending will leave you scratching your head. The inclusion of the fairy tale is weird and the significance feels lost in the translation.
Cryostasis starts off mostly with exploration and puzzle solving, and as it progresses it becomes more and more combat heavy. The enemies are either ghosts of the dead crew members, zombies, or figments of your imagination – the game never really explains what. They just show up, and they aren't much fun to fight. Your character moves slowly and the guns handle very poorly. You can sprint for short periods, but you have about as much endurance as Jabba the Hut on the top of Mount Everest. When will developers learn that giving you the ability to run for only five seconds isn't fun? The weapons recoil badly and they take a long time to reload. The crappy Mosin-Nagant rifle that you find has a very slow rate of fire and the submachine gun requires half a clip to take down an enemy. In some games, such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R., realistic weapons handling adds a lot of value to the game, but this is not the case with Cryostasis. It makes combat frustrating and annoying. Enemies with guns have an annoying ability to score hits on you by shooting from the hip without aiming. Some enemies rush at you quickly and bash you as you try desperately to hold the submachine gun on target and kill them. The final boss battle is horrible. When Cryostasis ended, I had long since had enough.
Cryostasis has been lauded for its graphics and they are pretty good. The environments are sufficiently creepy and the game sports the technology that you would have expected for 2009. The enemies, especially, look great and they are impressively animated (they may have even been motion captured). There are also a couple of really cool effects, like the time warp effect that you see when you are being sucked into a flashback. The graphics suffer from the same problem as the gameplay though, and that problem is repetitiveness. The frame rate also takes a big dive when you fire the submachine gun. By the end, you will be tired of seeing ice and snow adorning gray rooms over and over again.
Cryostasis is a very unique game, and it deserves a lot of credit for taking some chances. The developers clearly show some talent, but the game ultimately fails because it commits maybe the worst sin in gaming – it is boring. It is not a disaster and you might find some enjoyment in it if you are looking for a different take on the survival horror genre. I think that it is more likely though, that you will be disappointed in the experience.