Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Great Games You Never Played: Cryostasis

"Fine, obscure gems." Part of a periodical series: Great Games You Never Played.

Cryostasis is one of the more novel takes on horror that I've played in the last several years. Set in 1981, you play as Alexander Nesterov, a geologist working at a North Pole research facility, who stumbles upon a derelict nuclear icebreaker, the North Wind, which has been floating around the arctic circle since 1968. The ship is entirely frozen over, parts of it wrecked and destroyed, with no power running through it, and with seemingly all of its crew dead or missing. As you explore deeper into the vessel, the past manifests itself before your eyes, occasionally letting you relive past events leading up to the ship's untimely demise, all-the-while being stalked by murderous monstrosities coming out of the metalwork.

A unique ability called the "mental echo" gives you the power to take control of a deceased crew member's memories and change the events of the past to alter the condition of things in the present. A section of the ship is flooded with ice, a dead man lying near the surface; touching him gives you a chance to succeed where he failed, to seal the emergency doors and prevent the flooding, thus clearing the way for you in the present. By using this ability, you're able to progress through the ship, piecing together the story of what happened and, should you succeed in your endeavors, alter the fate of the North Wind.

As a horror game, Cryostasis does a pretty good job of mounting tension and making you feel vulnerable. One of its unique twists is representing your health meter in the form of body heat, with the intense cold of the ship lowering your health to extremely low levels and forcing you to seek the scarce warmth of electric lightbulbs, steam valves, and turbines. The things attacking you can look pretty disturbing, and as an ordinary geologist you're stuck fighting them with improvised weapons (e.g., a loose pressure valve as a bludgeoning weapon) and antiquated firearms (like the bolt-action Mosin-Nagant 1891). Combined with the health system, this makes each encounter tense, as you try to survive on your way to the next heat source.

I hesitate to call Cryostasis a "great" game, however, because there are a number of flaws holding it back from true excellence. Glitches and performance issues aside, the game is almost detrimentally linear, there are too many instant deaths resulting from unconscious errors, and some of the mental echo "puzzle sequences" rely a little too heavily on trial-and-error. There are valid reasons leading to the game's mixed reception, but what it does well, it does incredibly well. The story and atmosphere are absolutely top notch, and the unique premise lends it a lot of personality. Imperfect as it may be, it's a novel game worth experiencing.

Cryostasis plays like a more old-school survival-horror game. Everything is in first-person, and you shoot guns at enemies much like a typical FPS, but it emphasizes the survival element more than the action. You move very slowly, enemies are relatively few and far between, you don't have access to a bunch of over-powered weapons, and you're often playing with limited health and ammunition. As an ordinary geologist in a deathly cold environment, you're vulnerable to most every threat the game can throw at you; death can come very easily if you're not careful.

The health system contributes a lot to the survival element of the game. Your health is represented in the form of body heat; one meter measures the temperature of the environment, and the other measures your internal body heat. When you're in an area that's colder than your current body heat, your health will slowly decrease to match the warmth of the environment. Since most of the ship is really, really cold, you spend most of the game constantly losing health or just walking around capped at 25% of your maximum. You replenish your health by warming your hands on heat sources, many of which you activate by restoring power to sections of the ship.

Besides your health, you also have a stamina gauge which depletes when sprinting or attacking with a melee weapon. The colder the environment, the quicker your stamina drains. Since you're losing health most any time you venture away from a heat source, you end up in a dilemma of "Do I sprint through the area to minimize my health loss, or do I conserve my stamina to defend myself against an enemy I might encounter?" So even when you're not being attacked by monsters, you're still fearful of the cold. Knowing that a monster could pop out at any moment, and that some areas are so cold they can outright kill you, it compels you to keep warm and not stray too far from the comfort of a heat source unless you have to.

As novel as the health system is, however, it's a little too easy to abuse the heat sources. The idea is to mount tension by making you more concerned about your health, to enhance the survival-horror element of the game. While the heat sources are infrequently placed about the ship, much like green herbs might be infrequently found in Resident Evil, the heat sources in Cryostasis can be used infinitely, meaning that if you take heavy damage from one fight, you can easily backtrack a little bit and heal yourself right back up. Regardless of whether you backtracked, you can feel relatively safe and secure in the environment because the game tends to give you heat sources before any major fights; if you're low on health and you can't find any heat, you're probably not going to run into any enemies, anyway.

Cryostasis boasts a remarkable atmosphere that pulls you into the experience, making it easy to feel immersed in its environments. The North Wind is wonderfully realized. Every surface is covered in a frosty glaze; icicles dangle from handrails and ceiling structures; snowflakes float about the air; when you reactivate power to a section of the ship, all of the ice and snow melts in real time. Icicles start dripping water, then snap off the ceiling, and shatter on the floor. Most of this happens via the particle physics of PhysX -- none of it's pre-programmed, so it lends a stronger feeling of authenticity to the experience.

As you explore the ship, its lifeless, frozen steel makes it feel much like a genuine ghost ship. It's claustrophobic, spooky, and lonely. The hull sometimes creaks and groans, but for the most part the only sound you hear is your cold, heavy breathing, and your feet crunching against the ice and clinking against the metal floors. Thanks to the health system, there's an air of tension everywhere you go, and the calm desolation presented with the ship's atmosphere puts you a little on edge as you progress through the ship, anxiously trying to anticipate the next enemy that will jump out at you or the next piece of the ship that will break down in front of you.

The enemy encounters accentuate the tension fairly effectively. A lot of modern horror games undermine the horror by over-emphasizing the action and making you a badass killing machine. Others make you so vulnerable that you're expected to hide from enemies and avoid confrontation completely. Cryostasis fits somewhere in-between those two ends of the spectrum. You're expected to fight (and kill) every enemy that presents itself to you, but it feels more like a mechanism for self-defense than a means just to kill things. The combat is functional and gets the job done, but it's not particularly fluid because it's not the main emphasis of the game.

Cryostasis gameplay.

When you get down to it, the combat is a bit clunky. You're a cold, freezing geologist using awkward melee weapons and old bolt-action rifles most of the time, against enemies that generally take four to six hits to put down. You have very limited mobility in the cramped corridors of the ship, and the camera makes pretty exaggerated movements when you attack with a melee weapon or recoil from firing a gun (relative to mainstream FPSs). In the beginning it feels really laborious just to kill a single, basic enemy, and avoiding damage is often a challenge. As cool as the period firearms are, they're really just not that satisfying to use.

The combat certainly mounts the tension, though, because you're not an expert warrior with high-tech equipment. You're vulnerable and easily susceptible to death, which makes it incredibly gratifying when you manage to beat an axe-wielding brute to death with a lock-and-chain without taking any damage. And then usually some other enemy will get the jump on you and knock you right back down to low health.

The enemies all seem to be twisted, mutated personifications of the ship's former crew members. Whether these are the actual crew members transformed into these monstrosities or merely paranormal projections of a ghost ship is unclear, but some of them are genuinely disturbing. Each enemy type is distinctly humanoid, with most of the basic enemies resembling icicle-like zombies, but later varieties become increasingly uncanny -- the kind of deal where they still look vaguely human, but are otherwise so bizarre that they're creepy or downright frightening because they're not just typical, stock horror monsters.

Occasionally you're treated to flashbacks, watching crew members having conversations and doing other things in the ship's pristine condition before the accident. These sequences are meant to give you the backstory of the North Wind, showing you what events transpired leading up to its accident, cluing you in to possible solutions to later puzzles, or just giving you an impression of how different areas were meant to function on the ship. Besides that, it's pretty cool just to see the contrast between the past and the present, sort of filling in the gaps based on what you've seen of the two time states.

The story, therefore, develops in a fairly interesting way, albeit at a remarkably slow pace. It takes several hours to even begin getting a sense of what's going on, and even then you're still only getting snippets of the larger story. Sometimes you see different parts of one scene from two or three perspectives over the course of the game, so it's pretty fun to see how different perspectives all come together to form one whole representation of an event and how everything progressively builds towards the climax.

The story is really not that dramatic, apart from the very end when things start going completely off the rails. It's generally a very human story about characters who have different flaws and aspirations, and how the small moments between different characters ultimately clash to bring about the ship's demise. Your role in the story is not to do anything particularly grand or heroic, but merely to make small changes to people's behavior for the good of the entire crew, which resonates surprisingly well at the end of the game.

Besides the flashbacks and mental echoes, every now and then you find pieces of paper that tell a completely different story -- excerpts from Maxim Gorky's short story The Flaming Heart of Danko. The game actually opens with a narrated introduction of this short story, before it even introduces Alexander or the North Wind. The events of the short story are meant to parallel what happened to the crew of the North Wind, so it gives you a little extra substance to wrap your brain around when you're interpreting the flashbacks. But honestly, the way you hear the story of Danko was a little too detached to stick with me, personally.

A bulk of the gameplay revolves around using the mental echo to alter past events in order to produce some kind of effect in the present. Right-clicking on a dead crew member grants you access to his memories of a critical moment on the ship, and lets you take control of his perspective to do things differently. Usually it's a life or death situation, and you have to find a way to save the crew member's life. At other times, you have the option to perform a different task instead. Figuring out specifically what you need to do is typically the challenge -- this is how the game presents its puzzles.

Half of the time the game gives you some pretty good clues about what to do, and the mental echoes become fairly satisfying to solve. At one point you enter a meat freezer near the kitchen, seeing a bunch of cow carcasses dangling from meat hooks. One crew member lies dead in the freezer, trapped under a huge chunk of meat. When you access his mental echo, you find out he was the guy in charge of operating the conveyor belt that led the cattle into the slaughter house. If you activate the guillotine to kill the cows then he gets trapped under the carcass as usual, but if you instead open the gate and let the cattle run free, then they won't be around to get him killed later. It's a logical puzzle that gives you a proper set-up.

The other half of the time, the mental echoes offer zero clues whatsoever. They end up relying heavily on trial and error, where you have to fail a few times just to figure out what's going on in the scenario and what all of your options are, thus making some of them far more tedious and frustrating than they really ought to be. There's one sequence where a stuffed polar bear is blocking your path, and the mental echo gives you the chance to save the bear's life, thus getting it out of your way in the present. Accessing its memories puts you inside a cave with two crew members talking outside. After a short while, one crew member gets sent in to kill you.

0:00 Polar bear sequence; 3:55 movie theater sequence.

What you're supposed to do is go up onto a ledge and knock a chunk of ice down, blocking the entrance and sealing the first guy inside, thus causing the second guy to panic and run away, allowing you to escape out a side exit. But if you knock the ice down too early, with the intention of preventing them from ever getting inside the cave in the first place, you fail the mental echo. If you try to crush the guy with the ice chunk, eliminating him as a threat and preventing the second guy from getting in, you fail the mental echo. And there are a handful of other seemingly logical solutions to this situation that all inexplicably cause you die. It can be really frustrating trying to figure out exactly what you have to do, as well as the proper order and timing.

While the mental echoes are sometimes hit or miss, exploration in the present can be a little mundane because it's so linear most of the time. Outside of enemy encounters, flashbacks, and mental echoes, a lot of the exploration consists of following extremely linear paths until you find the one, single button or lever in the area. You have no idea what it does, but you can't go anywhere or do anything else, so you just press it to see what happens and follow the new path that opens up.

It's kind of like you're just passively going through the motions a lot of the times. There are rarely any clear objectives or things to motivate your actions, things to make you feel more actively involved in your progression through the ship, things that give you a sense of gratification for solving a challenge or getting past an obstacle. Moments like these do show up periodically throughout the game, but a majority of the time you're just mindlessly going forward for no other reason than to advance the game to the next stage, and there's not always an engaging sense of satisfaction from doing so.

You also encounter a lot of seemingly random and unpredictable one-hit kills. You'll be walking along a catwalk somewhere and then the floor will collapse and send you to your death. It's only then that you realize "Oh, I should've gone around the other way," but there's no way to know one path would kill you in advance. Sometimes an enemy will pop out at you suddenly, and if you don't dodge you get killed instantly. Sometimes there are environmental hazards, like the floor being covered with an electrified puddle of water, and touching the floor kills you instantly if you happen to time your jump improperly. Inside some of the mental echoes, you can fail or die in a single instant and not understand why until several tries later.

The ultimate effect is that Cryostasis can be a little more stressful than a game really ought to be, even for survival-horror, just because some of the mechanics don't seem as well polished or thought-out as they could've been. It's a classic case of having a great idea and then not executing it quite right. The game is very still very enjoyable, though, and it offers some really memorable experiences on top of a well-told story inside of a unique setting and premise. So if you like survival-horror, then you should definitely consider looking into Cryostasis. Just be warned that, even though it's a three year old game, you'll need a pretty good computer to run it comfortably.


  1. I'm glad to hear someone else liked this game so much. I found that, even with a beast of a rig, I had to scale the resolution way down to get an acceptable frame rate. Even at low resolution though, I thought the game looked beautiful. Truly a unique experience, and terrifying at times. I actually felt cold most of the time.

    On a side note, do you have any idea what the ending was all about? That was possibly the most frustrating aspect of the whole thing. It made zero sense to me.

    1. I realize it's probably far to late to answer this now, but maybe somebody will find this interesting:

      The last combat-sequence before the end. Well, I won't lie, I don't get some of the things that are happening in that setting, but the thing with Kronos as a boss was pretty easy to understand. Kronos is the greek god of time. My understanding is, that the player is supposed to defeat thsi represantation of time, so as to be able to change the course of events. One does not do so by defeating Chronos himself, but by releasing the "undead" crew members. A lot of this is just interpretation, but I thought, that maybe Chronos also represents the three "leaders", which left the crew. They are fighting "Ice with Ice" so to speak. Maybe it is also supposed to represent that they are stuck in the dark past of treason, starvation, fear and hopelessness. Maybe Chronos represents their fears and other negative feelings. They are trying to kill it, but the way they are doing it has absolutely no effect.

      I don't really know, but I have finished the game only recently and have thought about some of this for a while. So maybe you (or anybody else) will find this helpful or at least inspiring.