I admit it; I’m a wimp. I’ve never been able to handle horror… anything, very well. I blame it on having an overactive imagination. Yet for some reason, I continually subject myself to scary movies &, to a lesser extent, scary games. But horror games have always been harder for me than movies. I guess it’s because the movie will continue no matter my trepidation, but I have to manually continue horror games. But, when I heard about Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason, I decided to give it a try. Although it has received scores on the positive side of average, the game was touted as being, “tense, frequently innovative & attractive.” (Resolution Magazine). So is this a new franchise to revitalize a genre that’s becoming more action than horror?
In Cryostasis, you play as Alexander Nesterov, a Russian meteorologist stationed at the North Pole. You’re set to board a nuclear icebreaker called the North Wind, but when you arrive you find the ship frozen over & seemingly abandoned. However, when you begin to restart the ship, bringing in some much-needed light & heat, you find that it isn’t quite as abandoned as you thought. For some reason the crew members have turned into mutated zombie-monsters, & try to kill you at every turn. To solve the mystery of what happened to the ship, you use Mental Echoes, memories of the dead to change their actions in the past. Successfully completing the task they were doing before they died will restore parts of the ship & allow you to continue. Meanwhile, there’s sort of a second plot going on in the form of an old Russian folktale that you find pieces of along the way.
Cryostasis has several unique gameplay elements. The first, which I just mentioned, is the Mental Echo. There are many obstacles in your path, & often the only way to get past them is to correct the mistakes of the crew. These sequences vary from opening a door, donning a scuba suit & soldering underwater, to sneaking around a crazed crewmate & stealing his gun. Sometimes these have a trial-&-error feel, but you get an unlimited number of tries to get it right. Another unique aspect is your health, which is based on your heat. Because this is set in the artic, spending too much time in the cold will kill you. Taking damage from enemies also causes you to lose heat. The only way to restore your health is by finding heat sources. As you restart the ship, you’ll come across various sources of heat, from fires to lightbulbs to generators. And let’s not forget the monsters & combat system. As you restore light to the ship, more mutated crewmates will attack you. Combat involves both melee & guns. All of the guns (minus the one that shoots water) are accurate to the period the game is set in. As such, there are no BFG’s, & ammo is in short supply, so you’ll be using the fire axe quite a bit.
Narrative: At times the story can seem both sluggish & disjointed. It may seem like it’s trying to tell two different stories, between the main plot & the folklore, but they’re actually the same story. The plot develops very slowly through the course of the game, although it is well-told through the Echoes & flashbacks. Some things aren’t completely explained, like why exactly the crew mutated (was it supernatural, the radiation, or both?). But what really threw me off was the final boss fight with Chronos, the god of time (& no, I’m not making that up). Although the plot already had a supernatural element going, that just seemed a bit too far for me. But if you can stick with the slow progress & just take the story at face value, you’ll find that everything ties up neatly in the end. Score: 3
Mechanics: Certain aspects of the gameplay work well, while others don’t. The Mental Echo ability is nearly flawless, in my opinion. Although you might not always succeed the first time, you can try as many times as it takes. Plus, the Echoes are always something different. Here’s an example: early in the game you play as a diver trying to cut chains loose to prevent the ship from sinking, while being guided by a guy above water & attacked by mutants. Later in the game you play as the guide. Watching the scene play out from two different viewpoints is very interesting. Combat, however, isn’t done quite as well. For melee, the type of swing you do is based on how you move the mouse. This results in some choppy combat. Likewise, guns can be difficult to use. You have to aim the gun to have a good chance of hitting something, & even then it’s tough. Of course, you could argue that this adds to the tension & realism of the game. Encounters are meant to be scary & dreaded. And I would agree with this argument if this was a game where you could avoid enemy encounters. However, in Cryostasis there is no running away from the enemy, so the difficult combat is unavoidable. But in spite of that, the Mental Echoes & unique health system outweight the shoddy combat controls. Score: 4
Aesthetics: If there’s one thing this game does well, it’s atmosphere. The game really makes you feel like you’re completely alone & in constant danger. Some people complain that the graphics are rather bland, since you go from a frozen ship to a thawed ship to the snowing outside. But I think this adds to the atmosphere. I wouldn’t expect a nuclear ship to have paintings everywhere, after all. Everything about it feels cold & oppressive. It’s a sign of a good game when you start to dread turning on the lights since you know it’ll just mean more monsters. And ignoring the lack of color, the graphics are stunning, especially when you light up a room & you can see the water melting down the side of the wall. There isn’t much in the way of music, but the sound effects keep you on edge. The voice-acting isn’t bad, either. Naturally everyone has a Russian accent, but it’s nothing over the top. Score: 5
Replay Value: Not very high. It’s fun the first time around, but only hardcore horror fans will play this more than once. I recommend renting it. Score: 2
Overall Score: 3
Final Word: I believe there are two types of horror fans in the world. The first is the more action-oriented crowd. These people prefer action games where monsters sometimes jump out at them. They’re likely to prefer American horror films & games like Doom & the later Resident Evil games. The second group is the true survival-horror fans. They prefer games that build up tension & rely less on combat, like Silent Hill. Cryostasis is more likely to appeal to the second group. If you want a unique experience, prefer games heavy on atmosphere, can overlook a slow plot & average combat, check Cryostasis out. In closing, I’ll describe my reaction to the game’s first enemy encounter, & you can decide if it’s for you or not.
After entering the ship, I found myself in a dark, frozen room with a dead guy frozen on a ladder & a generator. “Awesome,” I thought. Some light & heat. With the flip of a switch, the generator came to life, filling the room with light & melting the ice off the walls. “Ooh, that’s pretty,” I thought. But since I couldn’t get around the ladder with the dead guy, I figured I had to go back the way I came. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought, right up to the point the door opened by itself. Okay, a little creepy. And where did those red-shining logs come from? As I approached, I had a flashback to two men sitting in front of a fire trying to stay warm. When it ended, I warmed myself with the fire as the tutorial prompted. But as soon as I finished, the screen turned gray, stuff flew all over the room, & something ripped the door open. Monster! But the screen changed back, & it was gone. Now scary grunting noises were coming from the generator room. I really didn’t want to go back, but since a pipe blocked the now open door, I had no choice. After picking my mouse up from where I’d thrown it, I cautiously opened the door & peeked in. Everything seemed fine, except the ladder was gone so I could go around the generator. As I went up the ladder, there was a creepy sound effect. I turned around… & there’s a psycho with an axe behind me! And I don’t have a weapon! Slowly, I back up, trying to stay away from the psycho. But right when he was about to reach me, he disappeared, & the room went black for a second. “Jesus Christ,” I said.
Game Title: Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason Console: PC Rating: T Developer: Action Forms Publishers: 1C Company, 505 Games & Aspyr Media Release Date: April 20, 2009