An Arctic Quest
Natural disasters have always formed great plot devices for many stories told. They served to bring out the best in human beings, let them explore their courage and willingness to stand up to the most devastating forces of nature. Heroic feats, indeed, considering what a marvelous villain nature is cut out to be. Faceless, relentless, devoid of any kind of motivation and morality, a perfect adversary for our brave protagonists. Cryostasis definitely belongs to those numerous stories of valor and self-sacrifice, but it does have a one important distinction.
I guess, it has to do an unexpected side effect of its videogame heritage, that is belonging to an immature, struggling medium basing its lackluster stories in escapist realms of fantasy and science fiction, other two popular teenage pastimes. What I am trying to convey here is that «realistic» would be the last word used to describe Cryostasis. Apart from other «disaster stories» it is firmly rooted in supernatural, it gives an Arctic cold an embodiment, it summons the monstrosities out of the ice and generally reeks with the elements of the «worst» kind of fiction. Which, amazingly, works in its favor, giving it a leverage needed to be a much more interesting deal, than simply another «man vs volcano» type of story all over again. As famous Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson has once put it: «There are two kinds of Arctic problems, the imaginary and the real. Of the two, the imaginary are the most real.»
Cryostasis treats cold with respect, it admires its force and adores silent elegance of the patterns on the walls of defeated icebreaker, it gives it a atmospheric aura of mysticism and beauty. It's a definite symbol, one of many you will find here. As it turned out, Cryostsis is a goldmine of symbolism and subtexts. Icebreaker, frost, mysterious hooded figure, atomic reactor, snow, captain, protagonist, a framing story of Danko and even monsters themselves — everything here is just a stand in for some concept or an idea of the story. Some are easy to identify, like Captain and reactor are obviously related to the heart Danko rips out off his chest, both symbols of passion and devotion. Others will require a bit of thought, while some will remain the mystery forever.
And, personally, I have no problem with that. Even more so, I feel that those blank spots in the story are there for a reason. It's refreshing not to have everything explained and cataloged, something many developers have been guilty of. «Trust your audience with doing some thinking on their own» is a nice motto to have indeed.
At this point you might be asking: «Alright, I get all that pseudo-philosophical bullshit, but how does the thing play. Is it any fun? Does it look good?». Well, the short answers are «yes» and «yes» . The longer ones are as follows:
With all its rich arthousey ideas and content, it's surprising to see Cryostasis not shying away from the technological advantages made in recent years. Which is something I applaud with tears of joy in my, otherwise manly and emotionally secure, eyes. Regardless of what some folks say, technology is great, bumpmapping is great, four layered textures are great, dynamic fluids are also fantastic and motion capture is simply the second best thing since French Baguette, to choose another bread allegory for a change. Sadly, it only becomes apparent when all those fancy words are translated into haunting atmosphere of the icebreaker trapped in Arctic glaciers, long forgotten by its God and people, in the middle of nowhere, at the time of nowhen. Cryostasis presents a great union of artistry and engineering, and shows that one shouldn't exclude another, but rather help and enhance each other instead.
As far as core game mechanics go, Cryostasis is rather straightforward. A first person shooter with the health meter, window dressed as a temperature gauge and «mental echoes», which on closer inspection reveals itself to be nothing but interactive flahsbacks, all of which are obligatory in order to proceed. It all plays and controls itself rather well. Just don't look for any serious gameplay depth here for even the Bioshock
is a monster of incomprehensible complexity compared to this game. To its credit, Cryostasis doesn't position itself as a hybrid of any sort, so no black points from me.
On the closing notes of the Good section, I'd like to give some deserved praise to the music. Thank you for not being there. That's right, apart from the closing «period» song, the game is virtually musicless. On first glance it might seem as a pretentious gimmick of some Dogma 95 enthusiasts. Upon completing the game it became clear that the music is not there not for the purposes of «purifying» the experience, but rather for the silence to stand in as its rightful ruler.
Cold, death, darkness, silence, bagpipes. Pick the odd one out.
Oh, such a splendid game I gave you a picture of, didn't I? Wouldn't it be a shame if it all crumbles to dust in this section? It, certainly, would, so let's keep it as brief as possible.
What is bad with Cryostasis? The answer is much more precise than you might think. It is all in its third quarter. Somehow, the developers thought it would be an awesome idea to give the player a rest from all the story, symbolism and hidden meanings, which mercilessly bombarded poor gamer in the first half of the game. They didn't anticipated, however, that the game has absolutely no chances of staying above zero while stripped of the very things that make it so charmingly appealing in the first place.
It's pathetically linear. Each room has just two doors, one for entrance, another one for the exit. Other hatches, somehow, lost all their handles. Ironically, having trusted us with thinking, the developers deviate to trust our vestibular systems and navigational skills.
It's painfully repetitive. The game takes place on a atomic icebreaker, an industrial soviet beast of machine, created with absolutely no regard for aesthetics and variety. Combined with the design notion , that the door should only open after a nth wave of respawning attackers, it starts to get on one's nerves rather quickly.
It's AI is far from...
Alright, that's enough. Sure, the game has some problems, but all of them evaporate immediately after the adventure comes full circle for the last leg of its journey, because of constant leaps back and forth between past and present, backed up with strong narration and flashbacks. It's grand finale and unexpectedly touching ending will leave you with moist handkerchiefs in your hands and too many unanswered questions in your mind to bother with such trifling nonsense as poor AI or bad optimization that will make a wreck of your PC even if it cracks Crysis
with a chuckle.
Oh, and your English, French, Chinese and Italian voice overs are crap. Not that I heard them, but they will have a hard time matching the quality of work Russian voice actors did for the game's release back at home. Except for Spanish, I heard that an old lady narrating the story has a rather sexy voice and Spanish are just too awesome in general to be discarded as crap.
The Bottom LineTalent: 4/5A clear vision and masterful handling of the resources prompted the best in the developers to come out and make this piece of awesomeness. The game proudly stands on its own with a raised head, as if speaking «Take it or leave it, but this is what I am and I'm proud of it!»Ambition: 5/5A game company, from which I expected a yet another «good but not great» shooter for a quick weekend session, delivered something that made me come back in my thoughts to it for nearly a week. That's definitely an immense leap in quality for Action Forms, one impossible to achieve without genuinely aspiring to it. Originality: 4/5Not only it surpasses all games and movies in its treatment of «disaster» motif, it also prides itself on its unique presentation, setting and context. One point off for being too conservative with the game mechanics and linear level design.Effort: 4/5With the exclusion of that infamous one quarter, the game is packed with dozens of characters and each and every one of them has a personal story to tell. One of valor, one of cowardice, one of thirst for freedom, another of depressing loneliness and so on. Meticulously recreated ice-breaker from the real life blueprints further reinforces the idea that the developers weren't looking for easy paths and shortcuts.
Adequacy: 4/5A great handling of Soviet theme, without overreliance on recognizable gimmicks like vodka, ushanka and hammer with sickle. In the center of the game are always people at a time of crisis and it's impossible not to relate to their troubles. One point off for your adversaries, who are a bit too much overinspired by Japanese horrors. Still, each freak has a perfect reason for looking the way he does. Part of the fun is discovering this reason yourself.Total: 4.2/5
A perfect score for this amazing game, suggesting greatness only eight tenths short of immortality. Still, one of the definite surprises of the year 2008 and a perfect image of the games I prefer to play. Bold in their ideas, never settling for a compromise and carrying with them a bit of heart of its creators. I applaud Action Forms for this success and eagerly await the announcement of their next project, which I presume is long way off. According to a rumor, Action Forms is hard at work on the console version of Cryostasis.
Let's wish them the best of luck while I leave you with this poem by Helen Hunt Jackson perfectly reflecting the spirit of the game. An Arctic Quest O proudly name their names who bravely sail
To seek brave lost in Arctic snows and seas!
Bring money and bring ships, and on strong knees
Pray prayers so strong that not one word can fail
To pierce God's listening heart!
Rigid and pale,
The lost men's bodies, waiting, drift and freeze;
Yet shall their solemn dead lips tell to these
Who find them secrets mighty to prevail
On farther, darker, icier seas.
Alone, unhelped, unprayed-for. Perishing
For years in realms of more than Arctic snow,
My heart has lingered.
Will the poor dead thing
Be sign to guide past bitter flood and floe,
To open sea, some strong heart triumphing?