☢ Chernobylite | Xbox Series X | 7.5/10 | "A mystery wrapped up in a beautiful misery" ☢ @ChernobylGame #GameDev #IndieGames

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I’ve always enjoyed titles by developers from Eastern Europe, there’s a way in which they embrace darkness and struggle with a twist of idiosyncratic humour that appeals to me.

From the well-meaning but overreaching Boiling Point: Road to Hell, White Gold: War in Paradise and Precursors to the...well, also well-meaning but over-reaching Hard Truck Apocalypse – which has a gorgeous acoustic guitar-led soundtrack that yearns to be released on vinyl.

The games were janky and tough to run on PCs of the day but they had such flair and character that I always got excited when I picked one up.

Of course, a game from that area of the world that was one of the most influential – and is currently coming back with a sequel – was S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, which remains one of the most intense gaming experiences I’ve ever had - alongside Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth - and Chernobylite continues in that vein – a vein that very much scratches an itch that I didn’t even know I had in modern gaming. Good.

Set in ‘The Zone’, an area around the Chernobyl Power plant filled with strange creatures, radiation and shady government operatives called the NAR, the player takes control of Igor, a grizzled scientist who has returned to The Zone in a bid to uncover what happened to his wife, Tantyana, many years earlier. Armed with his trusty portal gun (powered by Chernobylite, a strange substance only found in The Zone), which allows him to slip between areas, Igor begins putting a small team together of trusted individuals to help him get into the heavily-defended power plant and find out what became of his wife.

An FPS title with RPG elements, Chernobylite runs at a solid 30fps and isn’t going to impress anyone that has booted the door open looking for dazzling visuals and ultra-smooth, polished mechanics. This is a rough and ready game that’s clearly been made with passion and a budget and feels all the more throaty for it. What the game really has is a distinctly vintage approach to atmospherics, and that was an absolute winner for me.

Split into two main gameplay loops - after the initial introduction, Chernobylite settles you into the routine of what is to come. Namely, allocating missions to whatever team members you’ve discovered – the game gives a percentage-based score regarding their chances of success, heavily dependent on their physical and psychological state – and, using materials that you’ve collected on your runs through The Zone to upgrade your base (naturally a huge, rusted and gutted factory), equipment and abilities.

Following this, Igor will venture out on the quest you’ve dictated (There are multiple available, usually one that moves the narrative along and some others to get supplies) and the FPS action kicks in – and this is easily the part of the game that shone for me.

Whilst there are only a few areas to explore which get randomly generated by supplies and key events/characters each time – there’s something almost magical about just wandering around, picking up sparse essentials as you scan the ground with your radar, picking up mushrooms, herbs and chemicals etc. in the picking rain, as you avoid patches of radiation.

Sometimes you’ll stumble across a small group of armoured NAR troops chatting and patrolling for you to pick off with your cobbled-together pistol, or a twitching, humanoid creature lurking in the woods - but sometimes you’ll wander around the ruins of civilisation hardly seeing anyone. It’s not the most action-packed design but there’s something creepily relaxing about it and it calls to that side of me that enjoyed the games mentioned above, flaws and all. This heavy, oppressive atmosphere is due in no small part to the audio design, which creaks and bends from melodic Hard Truck: Apocalypse-esque acoustic guitar to searing, metallics and aching synth. Again – this needs to be released on vinyl.

Narratively, there’s a directness and tightness to progression that locks solidly with the core gameplay loop. Every few missions, you’ll find out more about Tatyana and Igor’s situation and, aside from the in-team banter with your growing comrades, there’s little distraction beyond survival, it’s a taut design choice that is well-implemented.

Every character is weary and almost broken by their time in The Zone and they’ll like you even less if you can’t scavenge enough food to look after them. The game is also smattered with choices that have an impact on not only how the game plays out but who will join you as you track down Tatyana, each of these choices had me hovering between doing what my moral compass dictated and second-guessing some unseen result, saucy.

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