Cryostasis is a FPS horror game about a man on a very cold ship.
You’ve got to hand it to them, they make it very easy to sum the game up in one sentence. That ‘frosty bulkhead’ texture skin gets a lot of use. A lot. You’re on a frozen soviet icebreaker. Pretty much for the whole game. If you don’t think you’ll like a game about being inside a freezing cold ship, this game’s other merits are probably not going to be enough to make up for that.
And merits it does have. Primarily, the narrative is very strong. Three separate-yet-linked stories are told simultaneously through a series of thoughtful storytelling devices. Probably the main way in which Cryostasis differs from other horror FPSes is that you can travel into the memories of certain frozen corpses you find in the ship, taking you into a sort of ‘playable flashback’ sequence. Oddly, you can actually change history in these sequences, usually by avoiding the death that caused the corpse to be there in the first place… which will then return you to the present day, back to your own body, with the things you changed in the memory sequence permanently changed. This not only (usually) allows you to progress further through the ship, but also directly involves you in the developing back-story to the game. It’s an inventive idea and it works well.
Rather than the usual health gauge you’d expect from an FPS, your life force in Cryostasis is measured by your temperature. Find a pile of embers, a burning machine, even a desk lamp and you can warm your fingers up and restore this valuable heat. Spend too long in a deep-frozen area or… well, get hit by an axe, and you get colder. Yes, the violent onslaughts of the ship’s (inevitable) zombie inhabitants lower your temperature rather than leave actual wounds, and this damage can be cured by standing next to a light bulb. It doesn’t have to make sense! The game’s subtitle is ‘Sleep of Reason’, after all…
The zombies themselves were clearly trained in the Doom Academy of Undead Scare Tactics. They’re never just hanging around in the room you enter if there’s a chance to appear right behind you with a piercing roar and a sneaky backstab. It’s jumpy, I guess, but to be honest when you get into the mindset of ‘I wonder at what precise moment the monster will appear behind me and attack?’, it’s hardly really a surprise any more. Nor is it really scary – it’s just sort of tedious.
And there’s no way around it, either. Think you’ve played a railroaded FPS before? Think again. If there’s ever, EVER a choice in directions, you’re going to have to go both ways sooner or later. There’s really only one way to play through this game. Sometimes you will die just by falling about two feet, simply because you’d opted to go a direction the game doesn’t want you to go. They’ve got a story to tell, and you’re damn well going to see all of it whether you like it or not.
There are some fairly interesting weapons available – nothing quite beats the satisfying feeling of smacking an undead Russian in the chops with a rusty water valve. Firearms however seem woefully inaccurate even when aimed, but the game was pretty jerky on my admittedly aging setup, so I’m willing to concede that this is perhaps because I’m too stingy to upgrade my processor.
I know I’ve said it before, but I’ve got to come back to it – the story is very well-told. It’s not really all that groundbreaking a tale in and of itself, but the way the three narratives intertwine and pose questions as quickly as they answer them is a sublime work of craftsmanship. There’s no doubt that the game itself is built around this central concept. A change of scenery would’ve been nice, although impossible within the confines of the story. A little more in-game introduction to your own character also would’ve been welcome.
Overall, Cryostasis should be applauded for its story-driven approach and refusal to compromise the way it tells this story, even at the expense of gameplay. If you only buy one game this year about zombies and mutated monsters on an icebreaker, this should be it. Unless Half Life 2: Episode 3 comes out.