The freezing environments in which you spend the duration of Cryostasis are a peculiarly useful metaphor for the creaking, glacial game itself. On a marooned Russian nuclear ice breaker, meteorologist Alexander Nesterov must discover how this enormous boat came to be wrecked in the frozen wastes of the Arctic. The entire ship is rigid with ice, and Nesterov is constantly in danger of freezing to death or being attacked by the freakish zombie-like creatures that inhabit its 70 billion identical rooms.
The premise is so stark raving silly that it could have been fun. Apparently the extreme cold has caused the human crew to become mutant beasts, whether aggressive, bearded axmen or metallic-legged spider creatures.
But Nesterov does more than simply survive: he’s also imbued with the gift of Echo Memory. This means he is able to tap into the last memories of frozen corpses (because they were frozen, see!) and relive them. In doing so, he can change the decision that led to that shipmate’s death, and save him. For some reason. As if this weren’t daft enough, your agonisingly slow clomping around the metallic boat-belly is incessantly interrupted by flashbacks of events that happened before the accident (the plot!).
A few details are nice. Your own misting breath appears before you, and when scared, your character breathes heavily. Rather than health, you have warmth, topped up by warming your hands over everything from lightbulbs to toasters (oddly, when attacked, you lose heat, not blood).
And while ludicrous, the idea of undoing others’ dying mistakes is a neat one. It’s best appreciated when you realise your actions in their past have changed the room you’re in when you return. A locked door might now be open, an unreachable switch flicked.
Had you been aiming to do this, rather than realising it in hindsight, it would be a great piece of design. As it is, it’s a distraction from the dreary tedium. For this is a game that takes place at the most tiresome, miserable crawl. The monotony of the level design is almost impressive. Grey metal chamber after grey metal chamber asks you to turn the electricity on, fight off a beast, then open the door. And if Nesterov’s shuffling wasn’t slow enough, the engine can’t cope with its own attempt to cram in every PhysX effect ever, even on the very lowest settings. Most fight sequences are a slideshow, interspersed by load times that will have you checking your calendar.
Perhaps Cryostasis had designs on being a survival horror game, but sadly there’s only so many times you can turn the lights off and spring a surprise before the player is expecting it. That number is one. Cryostasis was hoping it was about 200. When even the shocks are predictable, you’re in trouble.
Flaky design, an apparent inability to work with its own tech, and the most depressingly grey and ugly palette make it all feel incredibly shoddy. But even if this were all ironed out, it would still be the gaming equivalent of being stuck in a ventilation duct behind a 900-year-old woman with a shopping trolley.
Feb 27, 2009