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.
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.
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.
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.