An ambitious, unusual horror title with enough atmosphere for ten games.
In 1968, the Soviet nuclear icebreaker North Wind becomes locked in the ice near the North Pole. Thirteen years later, meteorologist Alexander Nesterov (the player) arrives at the ship, which is now filled with zombies and demonic beings. The story starts out pretty normally, but soon the player also experiences flashbacks to the events that lead to the disaster, as the ship's captain and crew became involved in a power struggle. Nesterov also possesses an (initially inexplicable) ability known as Mental Echo, which can allow him to relive and actually alter the last moments of any corpse he encounters (human or animal). For example, if he encounters a dead body in a flooded room next to a heavy door with a missing handle, he can save the unfortunate sailor by allowing him find the handle and get out before the room filled with water. When Nesterov returns to "reality," he will then find the corpse gone and the handle resting on the door, allowing him to continue his journey into the bowels of the vessel. The story is absolutely filled with metaphors and weirdness (more on that later), and it wraps up in a very satisfying, thought-provoking manner.
From a gameplay perspective, Cryostasis is a first-person adventure with small bouts of shooting. At first, the player will have to take on every ice-zombie with his fists, with the game's decent collection of old Russian guns not appearing until well into the game. Projectile weapons are powerful, but clunky and slow to reload, and ammo is scarce enough to keep you from ever feeling on top of the situation (which is a good thing, given that this is a horror game). Oddly, the game's most powerful weapon is an industrial squirt gun (!), which can convert a near-infinite supply of icicles to ammo and inflict massive damage on enemies. In last few levels (when the action really ramps up) I was relying almost exclusively on the thing for combat situations. There are also a fair amount of mostly straightforward puzzles, and some rather tense dashes through windy snow storms. The latter can be quite difficult because your health bar is based off temperature; in a cool environment, your health will slowly drain (but only to a point - only the freezing areas will outright kill you), but you can recharge yourself on any operating heat source (such as a lamp, a broken pipe or a radiator). This is an interesting system that works quite well, although it also means you're as good as invincible when facing off against enemies near a heat source. Make no mistake, though - this is one frightening game. The atmosphere is perpetually creepy (think The Thing meets the last half of The Shining), and when enemies finally do show up, they completely put the zombies of games like Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead to shame. For various reasons (all my own fault), I actually ended up having to play the first half of the game over again, and it was just as effective the second time through.
One thing's for sure - Cryostasis is one of the most ambitious, artistic video games in existence. Flashbacks take place in black and white, and Mental Echoes have a grainy look to them that reminds me of Fallout 3. The story and dialogue are absolutely drenched in references to Russian literature, the Bible and Greek mythology, with the entire tale being paralleled by an old woman narrating a Maxim Gorky short story. To put it mildly, the narrative is not what you'd expect at all - if any of you are familiar with the site tvtropes.org, you'll find this is one of the first computer games listed under "mind screw." Take this as an example: you approach a seemingly harmless zombie who has no upper skull, completely exposing his brain. Mind Echoing him, you are taken back to the Big Bang, and then watch the formation of the Earth. The Mind Echo ends, and you are now standing in a completely different room, with a giant ice model of the Earth suspended in mid-air directly in front of you. Later on, you'll find the former crew's twisted spirits manifesting themselves as giant butterflies. And did I mention that the climatic boss fight sets you against Chronos, the Greek Keeper of Time?
***END OF SPOILERS***
The unconventional story (and the unconventional manner in which it is told) gels nicely with the absolutely convincing atmosphere, which takes full advantage of the game's graphics. While some textures are a bit low-resolution, the game's lighting and PhysX-driven effects are absolutely spectacular, lending an eerie touch to every environment. Melting ice on the walls of recently warmed rooms is an especially nice detail, and my jaw just about hit the floor the first time a room flooded with PhysX-enabled water (no wonder Nvidia offered this game as a promotion). I encountered a few glitches here and there, but nothing big (the game was apparently very choppy and unstable at launch, so either the patch fixed a lot of that, or my computer is just that good). In the sound department, the game is similarly atmospheric, with a host of great sound effects and almost no music. Voice acting is also strong (though some might prefer the original Russian version), with the captain and the old lady being particular stand-outs.
As one might expect for such a story-driven and slow-paced adventure, there are no action-packed multiplayer features. Still, the single player is fairly meaty (lasting about fifteen hours) and there are multiple endings. The game is quite linear, but the story is multi-layered, so there's still stuff to catch when you go back.
A triumph of storytelling and atmosphere, Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason is a surprisingly good "thinking man's" horror adventure. Undoubtedly, the game's pace and narrative complexity are not for everyone, and those looking to blast some zombies' heads off with shotguns should look elsewhere. For those who are seeking a more ambitious and intelligent experience (and are willing to put up with some minor flaws), though, Cryostasis is unlike anything you've ever played.
+ Unrelentingly creepy atmosphere
+ Symbolic, metaphorical story that pays off big in the end
+ Beautiful lighting and effects
- The slow pace of the combat is not for everyone
- A few technical issues
Reviewed on 10/11/2010