About as cool as two frozen feet.
Cryostasis isn't your typical first-person shooter. Sure, there's some shooting involved, but this game is more about the methodically-paced corridor creeping than about tightly scripted firefights. It's more about telling you a story in an involving way than about eliminating suppressive baddies for the umpteenth time. So, yes, I get it.
At least I thought I did. I went in expecting a slow burn that's high on exploration and atmosphere, and low on enemy encounters and exposition. What I got instead is the biggest mess I've ever had the unfortunate displeasure of laying my hands on. This is caused by three major problems; bad controls, bad design and bad optimisation. But before I rip this game's proverbial head off, I'll start with its sole bright spot: the story.
You take control of the Russian meteorologist Alexander Nesterov who regains consciousness inside the North Wind, a nuclear icebreaker that crashed into an iceberg anno 1968. You'll find that your presence on board is rather unwanted when you meet the remainder of the ship's crew: hostile hypothermiacs intent on destroying you. As you follow the trail through the derelict ship, the story expands via flashback sequences and collectible pancartes that recount the captain's experience, and a parallel telltale about a tribe that was forced out of their homes and into a dark forest by a warring tribe. Both stories seem disconnected at first, but you'll start to notice the similarities as you go on. It all leads to a note-worthy boss fight and climax.
The flashback sequences offer some variety as well. Sometimes, they're projected into the environment real-time as you enter a room, allowing you to weave between the grainy spectres as you see and hear the decisions made by the ship's crew. But the most interesting flashbacks happen when you see a corpse with a heat source as a heart. Via an ability called Mental Echo, you can dive into the past of these people and guide them away from certain death. Your actions in the past alter the present; paths become unblocked or new paths open up, and the poor saps that were frozen dead, live to fight another day. Presumably.
That said, the mental echoes aren't without flaw. At a certain point, you're in a diving suit underwater but you move so slow that it feels like you're single-handedly pushing a tank forward, and it goes on for far too long. A little further I was supposed to save someone from a shattering window, and my gut reaction was to just run out of the room and shut the door behind me. "No," tapped the game on my fingers, "that's not the way to complete this scenario!" Turns out I was supposed to run towards the window and duck in front of it so that the glass would blow over my head. You tell me which of these solutions makes more sense.
None of that detracts from the story, though. From the very end of chapter nine on (there's a total of seventeen chapters) things get pretty messed up, in a good way. The mystery finally starts to unravel in an entire chapter dedicated to projected flashbacks and exposition, and wandering through the ship's sick bay got my mind jumping between "Ok, that was pretty cool!" and "What the hell is going on?!" Chapter ten was the chapter where I finally wanted to continue playing instead of having to drag myself through.
Unfortunately, that still means that you have to plough through about four hours of bad game to get there, and midway through chapter eleven the painfully uncontrollable corridor-shooter in Cryostasis rears its ugly head again. With a vengeance.
Don't let anyone tell you that this game isn't a shooter, Cryostasis lays its combat on nice 'n thick. Problem is that the combat isn't good. Part of this is caused by lag: it takes half a second between pressing a button (or looking around) and performing the action. At first I thought that it was an attempt at realistic weight distribution, but pulling a trigger generally doesn't rely on much g-force. It's a conscious design inclusion, and it hurts the gameplay tremendously.
Further hampering the gameplay is movement speed. Sprinting in Cryostasis is about the same speed as walking in any other game, and this dreadful sloth applies to combat as well. The game loves itself some melee fighting, evidenced by the three close range weapons you find in quick succession and its very own fight system: when you press any of the four movement keys while pressing the attack button, you'll throw a punch (or an axe) from that direction. It sounds novel, but it's useless for two reasons; enemies don't block when they are within your range and you'll be hammering the movement keys to strafe anyway.
The last of the melee weapons you find, the axe, is also completely useless. The head-bobbing on it is beyond ridiculous, as if Alexander throws his full weight behind every swing, even if that means losing sight of the enemy. It's very disorienting, especially when an enemy pushes you into a corner by bumping into you while attacking you. Whereas he was in front of you when you started the swing, he's behind you when you look up again, chopping chunks of health away. Fun, right?
Eventually you'll get some firepower, though I ought to put power between quotation marks here because any long range weapon lacks punch. If I had to guesstimate the era of these weapons, I'd say mid-40's at best, meaning that rifles are slow and not very accurate. And that's a big problem. The lag makes it frustratingly hard to line up a shot as is but the inaccuracy of the weapons and the slow reloads, coupled with the fact that even the weakest of thugs take three bullets to kill, feels more like a griefing taunt than a carefully crafted shooter. That's without even taking into consideration that some environmental objects (like fences or chairs) have bounding boxes that block your bullets outright.
Shortly after getting your first boomstick, you'll start facing enemies bearing guns and unfair advantages: chambering your next bullet is somehow slower than their hit reaction, meaning that you'll have to keep strafing to avoid getting shot before you can shoot again. Making matters worse is that when you do get shot, your head bobs so fiercely that by the time you can actually aim again, the enemy can shoot you again, and despite being frozen these buggers have an eagle-eye precision. They can shoot you in a fraction of a second, even when they are walking away, almost as if they have no animation between turning around and pulling the trigger.
The inadequate weaponry is remedied about halfway through the game when you get a semi-automatic rifle and a Tommygun (and the neat Water Cannon that uses icicles as ammo) but even these weapons cannot save the game's poor combat. And even when you think you're done with rifles, there's one infamous Mental Echo where you have to shoot six approaching enemies. You can't move, you can't duck, and one hit from them kills you. You also only have five bullets per clip so you'll have to time your reload exactly right to survive, not so easy when you're also struggling with lag on the controls and technical glitches. It's one of the most frustrating parts in any game I've ever had to endure, and almost got me to quit the game entirely (not that I needed much persuasion.)
Health is handled in an interesting way though. Rather than having med packs or regenerating health, Cryostasis combines the two in its very own way. Scattered across the ship are heat-emitting sources, each one having its own temperature. Some burn lowly, while others peak high. You can warm yourself near these sources to regenerate your health up to their maximum temperature. It takes the best of both worlds; you still get the fright of not just being able to avoid enemies until your health is regenerated, but you also don't have to worry about wisely spending med kits. It's a system that works well.
However, since health is represented by your body temperature, it also means that you lose health when you're simply walking through a cold room. With the game's eagerness to open monster closets around you, you shouldn't be surprised that despite leaving the last heat source with a replenished life meter, you face your next opponent with just a sliver of health left. But these incidents don't happen often, as the game is pretty smart with its placement of heat sources.
Exploration-wise, there's not much to say. You follow a strictly linear path, with the only collectibles being the pancartes that explain the story, and the game practically forbids you from continuing until you pick them up most of the time. Any exploration you want to do - like, say, jumping down a floor - is punishable by death. Unless the game wants you to jump down a floor. Then there's no problem. I guess I find it jarring that someone who can take multiple bullets to the chest can't drop down a couple of feet without dying, but this is being nitpicky.
It's also just not a very interesting place to explore. It's only atmospheric until it becomes boring, and it takes ten chapters before the endlessly similar hallways and machinery give way to a new texture pack. That's not to say there aren't some amazing rooms though. Seeing someone suspended from strings of ice over a deep elevator shaft or navigating around the nuclear reactor brought some welcome change to an otherwise monotonous, sometimes excessively strobed environment. Later chapters get some nice variation with the luxurious living quarters and outside areas to stroll through.
The enemy design is pretty impressive as well, and new enemy types are introduced now and again to change things up. Some of the later enemies are downright bizarre and creatively designed but, safe for creature that you face twice during the entire game, every enemy can be put down by blasting it with whatever gun you have. Some more tactical elements could've been welcome. Then again, considering the already problematic combat, it's probably better the way it is.
One of the biggest strikes against Cryostasis is the optimisation. For a PC that was cutting edge one-and-a-half years ago, it's ridiculous that running this game on the lowest settings still somehow manages to produce so many hitches for me. There are times where the game turns into a straight-up slideshow, usually when there's more than one enemy on screen.
However, if you can get this game running with maxed graphical settings, you'll be presented with decent-looking effects. The ice and its melting-effect are fairly impressive, and the ochre-coloured lantern adds some interesting mood-light wherever you shine it. Character models, facial animations and the bulk of the textures are average though. Some of the later flashbacks aren't even animated anymore, giving me the impression that it was laziness on the developers' part.
The audio is a peculiar thing as well. The lack of music lets the game fall back on the sounds of the cutting wind and creaking ship to set the tone, and it works wonders. Voice acting on the other hand is hit or miss. There are some standout performances (by the folktale narrator and captain, for instance) but most other crewmembers sound pretty similar. Not having the option of playing this game with Russian voice-overs is a bit disappointing.
The biggest issue I have with Cryostasis is that I literally can't play this game for over half an hour because its stuttering framerate within small confines, coupled with the lag on controls and the excessive head-bobbing when you get shot or swing an axe, simply nauseate me. In that regard, Cryostasis can pride itself in knowing that it's the first game to effectively make me feel sick.
I saved around every corner, and behind every door just so I could sigh in relief that I never have to play the previous couple of seconds again. The only way I could get some enjoyment out of most of the game was by relying on the infamous Mr. Freeze one-liners from Batman and Robin, using real zingers like "chill out" as I clobbered yet another suddenly-I'm-behind-you-foe to death. And you know that there's a serious problem when Batman and Robin actually enriches the experience.
A great game and a great narration aren't mutually exclusive. No matter how interesting the story is, the game surrounding it just isn't good at all, making Cryostasis impossible to recommend. If you are interested, simply watch a Let's Play on Youtube and save yourself the hair-tearing hassle. Don't make the same mistake as the North Wind's captain. Steer well clear of this iceberg.