“Fifty thousand people used to live here. Now it’s a ghost town.”
This single quote is enough to instill that sense of nostalgia – the awe and desolation you felt when you first set foot on the radioactive wastelands of Pripyat. A once-thriving city, now just a sprawl of forsaken ruins where the only sounds are of rustling leaves and dosimeter clicking. And that’s why games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare are revered, because they enabled gamers worldwide to virtually explore the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (the 30 km zone where radioactive contamination is highest).
Now as the release of S.T.A.L.K.E.R 2 draws close, there’s one more game on the platter – Chernobylite, that mixes a non-linear sci-fi narrative with fps and base building. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what Chernobylite offers and how it sets itself apart from games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R and Metro: Exodus.
You’re on Pripyat Bratva turf now!
Chernobylite is essentially a story about a man’s trial of love. You play as Igor Khymynyuk, a professor who worked at the Chernobyl Power Plant where the eponymous material called “chernobylite” was being tested. His fiancée, Tatyana, also working at the Plant, disappears the night before the disaster, following which the entirety of Pripyat is evacuated. Now 30 years have passed since then, and Igor is back in the Zone to find out what happened that fateful night. He’s driven by his love for her, has haunting dreams and eerie visions of her wherever he goes, even during the loading screens where Tatyana questions Igor’s motive and every decision he takes throughout the campaign. And Igor is willing to face hell and high water in order to juice out every single clue regarding her disappearance and how she’s connected to the chernobylite experiments.
The main objective of the game is to assemble a team so that Igor can carry out a heist on the Power Plant, which is now under NAR’s jurisdiction, and learn the “truth”. Meanwhile, the land around has bore witness to 30 years of chernobylite corruption, spawning monsters from the bowels of hell ravaging the countryside. Braving all odds, and with the help of an acquaintance Olivier, Igor has to carry out missions everyday to gather everything – raw materials, personnel, tools, and more importantly, information – to see the heist to fruition. But there’s a catch, everyone you meet in the Zone has their own agenda and trust will only go so far. Chernobylite is heavily plot-driven and therefore your choices will result in branching narratives that will drastically affect your relationship with your team. You might end up convincing all the 5 main NPCs to join your cause, or you may fail to do so with some of them. Even among those on the team, some might leave if your relationship with them gets strained. And the outcome of almost every decision results in strengthening your rapport with one while worsening it with another.
The Cosmic Chessboard
As I said, the campaign is non-linear – missions can be completed in any manner. But you don’t get a roster to choose from. It’s non-linear because of the choice-driven mechanics as well as the fact that you can travel back in time and change your choices. Where normally I’m a complete nut for Quick Save and Load, Chernobylite is one such game where I suggest playing without loading previous checkpoints. Because then, the game reveals unforeseen levels and mechanics. On natural death (radioactive poisoning, falling from heights, killed by monsters), Igor’s exposure to the mysterious chernobylite allows his consciousness to travel to a metaphysical world where he can alter his memories. Doing so alters the choices midgame. So when he wakes up the same morning, he’s in a parallel reality with a completely different set of outcomes. But a word of warning, as lucrative as correcting your mistakes in the short-term may sound, in the long run (especially in the final heist mission) the effect could be adverse.
Chernobylite shows exactly why you don’t give time-traveling powers to a common man. Due to Butterfly Effect, you might wake up to a reality where you’ve fewer team members, more NAR patrols, and a strained relationship with the rest of your team just because you altered your past to look for clues instead of doing what you were told. You can also “forget” a memory and completely erase events from reality. This means you open your eyes to a future where you’ve not yet completed the missions tied to the one you’ve deleted, and they will pop up later in the timeline. Good thing, your progression (XP, or the clues you gathered in that mission) does not vanish. But all these causality manipulations exist when you die due to natural causes. If you’re shot down by NAR soldiers, you’re captured and sent to their FOB. And to escape, you’ve to retrieve your inventory including your Rick ‘n’ Morty, chernobylite-powered portal gun.
The metaphysical state of mind
Igor has a device called Ariadna that allows him to recreate past events based on a certain number of clues and facts. Throughout the campaign, you’ll gather photographs, emails, and diary entries, which Igor charts across a board in his room. Once enough clues are gathered, Ariadna recreates a VR simulation akin to the fractal world inside chernobylite where he can unravel the conspiracy about the state-sponsored chernobylite experiments and NAR, and how Tatyana’s linked to both. It doesn’t solve the mystery but sheds enough light on the plot. My only gripe is once you complete a simulation, you can’t run it again; Ariadna has no recording mechanism for some reason. I don’t know whether it’s intentional by the devs or oversight, because revisiting the simulations would’ve helped in understanding the story better. As all you do there is walk on linear corridors while the scenes play out with Igor explaining everything like the professor he is.
Plan, manage, and execute
For most parts, Chernobylite is an fps, but it’s not a complete shooter like say, Metro: Exodus. Both the monster and NAR presence is not enough to send you guns blazing throughout the 5 districts where the entirety of the game takes place. At medium difficulties, you’ll encounter a maximum of 4-6 NAR soldiers at a time. Exploration is prime; you’re supposed to scavenge for raw materials like herbs, food rations, fuel, electric and metal parts etc. that will be required for crafting various types of machinery back at your base. And when you’re out there in the field, the same can be used for crafting traps, health packs and environmental modifiers that would affect the onset of weather anomalies. Unlike S.T.A.L.K.E.R or Metro, the only anomalies are the chernobylite storms – clouds of supernatural thunderstorms that bring with it The Black Stalker. He’s like that hunter from Jumanji, but far from a challenging foe. Even with minimal weapon upgrades, you can send him back into the chernobylite portal he stepped out from.
It’s up to you when you want to end a mission. When you feel like there’s nothing more to see, you can use your chernobylite portal gun to get back to the base. And the first thing you do on returning is the food distribution between you and your teammates (whom you can send to explore the wastelands each day). You’ve to also take into account their health and ensure the base’s air quality, radiation, comfort, etc. by building various stuff. Each machinery (crafting or non-crafting) will consume power and increase pollutants which will adversely affect your teammates as well as their success percentage for completing various side-missions. Don’t cater to their needs and you end up ruining your rapport with them. But hey, you can create a mushroom garden and grow flowers everywhere!
Even with all its sci-fi tropes, Chernobylite is still rough around the edges. At medium difficulties, you’ll get more than enough resources resulting in unwanted surpluses. The XP you gather can be traded for various perks by talking to your teammates, which makes your explorations even easier. To summarize, for 20+ hours, all you do is complete small missions, scavenge resources, craft stuff and construct upgrades. Enemy variety (both humans and mutants) is extremely limited. The humans utter the same set of dialogues throughout the game, and their body physics when you perform a takedown is hilarious. Not to mention there are some glitches like the objective marker not fading after you’ve completed the objective (which made me waste time backtracking). I wish the A.I was a bit more complex because the NAR soldiers do not take any cover at all and just walk around in the open while shooting, making it easier to pick them out one by one.
And this doesn’t change even if the difficulty is highest where the game just increases the number of bullet-spongy armored soldiers and mutants. But my main gripe is with the fact that you can’t fire from hip by left-clicking; you can only shoot by aiming down the sights. This is detrimental especially when the chernobylite mutants are rushing at you and your left-clicking results in a simple melee attack. Not to mention the gun reloading and aiming animations are dangerously slow (maybe because Igor is a scientist and not a gun-trotting Rambo). And finally, the Quick Saving and Loading system (sigh)-It simply doesn’t work!
Visuals, Sound, and Performance
The world of Chernobylite is extremely gorgeous and hyper-realistic. The right amount of ambient and volumetric lighting combined with fog, rain, and other environmental effects, give a decent visual treat. This coupled with a soothingly eerie ambient music unique for each area, makes you feel like a real stalker exploring the remnants of Pripyat. The entire world is constructed from several 3D scans of the actual Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and despite being an indie studio, the amount of environmental detailing is on par with that of a AAA game. The more the game’s physical world is based on realism, the more bizarre and alien the metaphysical world inside the chernobylite is. It will remind you of The Void from Dishonored games with real-world objects melding and warping in an endless space overgrown with shimmering green crystals.
The voice acting is also well done but as for the performance, it feels like the game is a tad unoptimized, at least for modest 10 series GPUs. Also, once I had an infinite loading glitch where I had to restart the game. Not to mention fps drops in many areas.
Even though somewhat rough around the edges, Chernobylite has enough to actually keep you hooked for 20+ hours. Despite all the missions are set in only five regions, each run feels completely fresh because of the mission design, weather conditions, and radiation that limit’s the paths you can take. The game is extremely atmospheric and you won’t notice the combat-related shortcomings if you’re playing slowly and stealthily. And since the release date of S.T.A.L.K.E.R 2 is still far off, Chernobylite is enough to quench that radioactive adventurist thirst. So put on that gasmask, grab your Kalashnikov and drop into the Zone!
Final Review : Recommended