Solid presentation and great horror elements complement the different style and setting let down by performance issues
Cons- Inconsistent performance, ambiguous, some poor combat
Cryostasis deserves some attention from the PC gaming community, yet it still retains a very low profile. It is a horror action title set in the North Pole on a Russian icebreaker that your character visits after it has been stranded for many years, but you aren't alone on the ship as you discover just what happened aboard this cursed vessel. Perhaps it could be compared to a mix of Bioshock and Condemned although it has plenty of differences to both titles. The first reason it should get some attention is because it's a very good horror action title. Additionally because it does a few things a differently with gameplay and storytelling that brings it out from the generic titles you often see today. In particular the mental echoes, flashbacks and the implementation of cold as a health mechanic. Presentation of the game is quite high, with amazing sound and atmosphere creating a unique feel aboard the Russian ship.
As a standalone horror title Cryostasis brings together all the necessary elements to shock you. The game isn't really based around psychological horror as your mind will stay relatively focused. It's more a jump out of your seat where creatures and events unfold unexpectedly in front of you. Initially you may be thinking monster closets, but there are very few moving walls on a Russian Icebreaker. Rather it uses clever placement, good scripting and more "natural" hiding spots. Say behind a generator that's frozen solid or above you on a ledge, even behind a glass window. The creatures that attack you won't always just jump out and slash immediately; they may be seen to taunt you by banging their shiny axe against a wall or running away from a distance. They may swim up to your diving suit and grab hold of it then swim away. Even some places if you've been playing games for long enough you come to expect scares; Cryostasis still manages to avoid some obvious ones and throws in a twist. A creature comes out toward you ready for a showdown to the death as you grit your teeth in fear reloading your rifle. Of course the solid horror would not be quite the same without the sound and atmosphere you feel around you. It also helps retain some horror elements by making the enemies kill you quite easily, so when you are accurate and time your moves well it's not hard, if you fail or run out of bullets you won't last long as the foes close in.
Atmosphere in Cryostasis lends itself to the horror elements as it does to the immersion through sound and graphics. The sound quality surrounding you is first class, the icebreaker will continue to creak and moan, the snow piercing through the open hull will chill you to the bone. The footsteps across frozen ice will crunch beneath you and your foes. Not only are the sound scapes well designed, the action sounds bring the icy ship to life. Of course the graphics aren't too shabby either, most of this is because of the interesting icy effects. Also the nice shader effects when you are experiencing a flashback or a mental echo. Your cold breath will be visible in front of you and small particles of floating ice will drift through your vision as you descend a long pipe. The walls will change when heat is applied, water will run down them as a room is brought to a higher temperature from an intense light or fire and stalactites will fall shattering on the metal deck. This heat pierces through the ice in many places and sets the stage for a different take on a conventional health system.
The change in the health system is fairly basic involving heat and cold but it works effectively. It revolves around your body temperature, the environment has one temperature and your body temperature will slowly equalize to it. Any heat sources provide you with a fast way of recharging this body heat. When creatures land a blow your body temperature drops. So if you are damaged too much or are in the intense cold for too long you perish. You are often free to move back and recharge your heat from sources you just used as they are unlimited. It's often a good idea to do so, but not necessary as the heat (health) sources are well positioned. The character does move slowly, and the pace of the game is significantly reduced from modern shooters, of course this isn't really a straight shooter at all, for example many interactions and game segments are told in the past, you are shown brief segments of time before the ship was derelict. These lead up to mental echoes, where you take control of unfortunate victims to save them from a death years ago on the troubled ship.
Mental echoes are brief sections where you are transported back in time through the memories of a dead sailor whose body you find in the icebreaker. These mental echoes can range from being in a diving suit and welding items, chasing a crazy man with a weapon while dodging his bullet or escaping a flooded section before you freeze to death. The placed bodies may give an indication of what task this sailor failed at, but not always. These sections can require a bit more thought and may not involve combat so they break up the gameplay well. The variety is very high and each echo feels like something new with the added bonus that if you fail in your task you can simply retry the mental echo as many times as needed. In the later stages I looked forward to the echoes because of the great variety and snippets of the interesting story. It's good to note that mental echoes with longer intros have been trimmed on replay so you don't have to essentially sit through minutes of cut scenes you witnessed seconds ago. They tie together with the flashback sections which feature the most in the way of voice acting, excluding the monster grunts. The voice work is generally crisp and high quality; actors have a Russian accent but are very legible. Once a mental echo is complete the person's body you saved disappears from the real world and you can progress.
Not all is well in Cryostasis however preventing it from living up to some high potential. The major factor is performance, its inconsistent overall but generally deteriorates as the game progresses. Some rooms produce very good framerates even in battles, while other rooms with sparks, steam and water drop the frames greatly. The game's pace is quite slow so framerates can be a little lower than shooters, but it still doesn't maintain a consistent enough framerate for it not to be a distraction during several parts. Later in the game you will face multiple enemies with many weapons firing at once which brings the game to a crawl detracting heavily from the gameplay. Another issue is with the ambiguous nature of some of the puzzles or situations, mental echoes may have a little trick that won't be obvious straight away, same with some of the real world encounters. I don't consider this to be a big issue, because re-attempting some mental echoes is actually part of the fun design. As the game progresses the foes you face are upgraded, this mainly means going from melee orientated combat to weapon based combat. The latter is not great, certainly not as fun as a good melee bashing early on. Part of this maybe related to dying quickly if you don't see the enemies shooting at you and long reload times. If the game had restricted ammo greatly making projectile weapons powerful option rather than a necessity it could have worked better. Even with that some tweaking of the weapon combat would have been needed. The AI also gets a little stuck on objects, although their placement generally prevents too much of this. The pitfalls don't prevent Cryostasis from being a good horror-action game that many people will enjoy thanks to its unique qualities.
The combination of great sound design, heavy atmosphere and the mental echoes make Cryostasis a solid action horror title. It also helps to be a little bit different from the competition by including a different game mechanic and setting. Although each on their own is not new the combination makes it feel quite unique, especially when contrasted with western developed games. There is surprisingly a good amount of variety, especially when the game is set in a single location. It's not a high paced game with nonstop action rather it's a methodical and slow paced experience with some frightening jumps along the way. It does work a story in the background and it keeps the details light but still feels interesting enough to want to view the flashback sections. It will slowly peel away the layers of events on the doomed vessel in a non-linear fashion. The important part is the game retains this feel that many may crave after playing wave after wave of western titles that seem the same. It's also a good chance to support a developer that may in fact come up with another atmosphere rich experience that feels like you've stepped back in time. Cryostasis is a damn fine game, let down by poor performance.