- Release Date (NA): September 28, 2021
- Release Date (EU): September 28, 2021
- Release Date (JP): October 28, 2021
- Publisher: All in! Games/Perp
- Developer: The Farm 51
- Genres: Sci-fi Survival Horror RPG
- Also For: Computer, Xbox One
Step Into the Multiverse
Igor Khymynuk came to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone with a very specific goal. Clutching a photo of his missing wife, he approached the plant, accompanied by mercenaries he hired to help him infiltrate the installation. Anton and Olivier were experienced soldiers, that much was clear just by looking at them, but even they couldn't expect what was going to happen during their heist. Igor wasn't completely honest with them, and with good reason - if somebody told me that they had a time machine, I wouldn't accept their ridiculous contract... and yet, that's precisely what he invented. Igor's plan was very simple - tear a hole in space-time, travel back to 1986 and find answers to the questions that riddled his mind. What happened to his wife? Where was she? Did she survive the catastrophe? Could he save her? Completely understandable motivation for a man madly in love. People always say that they'd move heaven and earth for their loved ones - in Igor's case that wasn't a metaphor. He was going to do just that and more, all with the use of Chernobylite, a mysterious crystaline substance only present in the vicinity of the Chernobyl power plant, said to be a near-infinite source of energy. There was only one small issue - the NAR, a corporation currently in charge of the Exclusion Zone, had their own plans regarding Chernobylite, and they intended on keeping the lid on their operation. While Igor managed to procure his sample, his plan went sideways as soon as The Black Stalker appeared in the room. The mysterious figure effortlessly dealt with the mercenaries, killing Anton instantly and seriously injuring Olivier. With shaking hands, Igor readied his portal gun, swiped it in the air and... a tear opened. It was now or never, step through or die. He took the leap of faith - little did he know that it was only the beginning of his adventure.
The introduction of Chernobylite plays it fast and loose - everything that's meant to attract you to the game is presented in one quick, exciting and well-executed segment. At no point during my playthrough did I ever have to wonder what I should be aiming to achieve, which is a problem a lot of survival-style games suffer from. There's nothing I find more annoying in a video game than lack of direction, and thankfully, I never had to deal with it in this one. As soon I emerged on the other side of the tear I knew exactly what to do - the first attempt at a break-in was a colossal failure and now it was up to me to use this experience to my advantage and prepare for the heist properly. Thanks to the portal gun I had a chance at a do-over, and I wasn't planning to set foot in that power plant before I had enough allies and gear to level it to the ground, should the need arise.
With your objectives clear, the game proper begins, and the loop is pretty self-explanatory. Igor had the foresight to rent a warehouse in Pripyat to serve as the staging area for his rag-tag group of mercs, and since the short heist unexpectedly turned into an a long stay, keeping your base of operations up to snuff will be critical to your success. Every day you spend in Chernobyl begins with selecting missions for each of your companions and yourself. Upon completing those missions you return back to the warehouse to do a little base building, chat with your companions and finally head to bed. In true Fallout 4 fashion, one of your chief responsibilities is collecting resources during your excursions and building various amenities to ensure that the base has power, tooling, food, clean air and ample sleeping arrangements, both to keep your group of companions happy and to manufacture better weapons and gear. Needless to say, keeping the morale high is a must as your teammates will leave if you fail to keep them fed and well-rested, or if the decisions you make are not to their liking. You don't want that to happen given how poorly the last heist went, not to mention that each companion can teach you new perks which function as the game's RPG element. Balancing everything isn't rocket science and I was never hurting for resources too badly, but producing enough food was especially a growing concern as my team increased in numbers and raiding various supply drops became insufficient.
The missions themselves will take you to various areas in the Exclusion Zone, including the Pripyat Amusement Park, the Palace of Culture Energetik, the Moscow Eye (also known as the Duga Radar) and other well-known landmarks. The team behind Chernobylite went to great lengths to represent them accurately by developing their own 3D scanning technology, visiting the zone in person and using photogrammetry equipment to capture models for their game, and it shows. The game's various locales feel life-like, exactly as you'd expect them to given the degree of effort it took to create them.
Naturally, this does wonders to the atmosphere of the game, so if you've ever wondered how Chernobyl looks like after all these years, Chernobylite certainly gives you a nice taste. As for what you do during the missions, they're divided into two categories - story missions which propel the game's narrative forward by introducing you to new companions or doing errands for them, and free-roam missions which allow you to explore Chernobyl in search of resources and clues you may have missed. Collecting clues is especially important, as in addition to the portal gun, Igor also has a device he calls "The Ariadna", a throwback to their previous big release, Get Even.
While the portal gun allows you to travel in space and time, "The Ariadna" allows you to travel in... memories, in a manner of speaking. Igor firmly believes that every single event in history reverberates like a wave in the radioactive particles around us. Much like carbon dating can accurately ascertain the age of an object, "The Ariadna" can use this energy to recreate past events within the wearer's mind, if fed a sufficient amount of data. By using this device, Igor can discover facts relevant to his investigation not just in the present, but also the past, and from different perspectives. Untangling the various conspiracies surrounding the Chernobyl disaster is the key to discover the fate of Igor's wife, so this gives players additional impetus to turn every rock in Pripyat in search of even the smallest scrap of evidence. Just... don't take too long doing so - remember, The Black Stalker is still tracking you, and encountering him unprepared is not a pleasant experience - in fact, in the early game it's often fatal.
Speaking of fatalities, that's where this game's "Roguelite" mechanics come in. If you die during an excursion into the zone, you're immediately arrested by NAR forces. In order to continue, you must recover your belongings and break out of prison. Should you fail, you don't fade away. Instead, you are transported to the world on the other side of the tear where you get the opportunity to examine your choices so far, make adjustments where needed and return to "start over" in a reality you've just altered. You've made an error somewhere along the way or made a decision that you now regret? No worries - you can use chernobylite to "undo" it and woo that companion who left your team back into the fold. Of course you *will* lose all of your equipment, but that's a small price to pay for getting back on track with your stalker friends, all of whom are so colourful and interesting that I don't want to describe them too much and spoil the experience for future players.
Of course, now comes the part where I describe what's wrong with the game, and I do have a couple of major gripes I'd be remiss not to mention. Chernobylite was a Kickstarter project that originally entered Early Access in late 2019, and as you might expect, its console release still has some of those "Early Access" quirks. I'll say it how it is - the performance on last generation consoles is bad. The PS4 and the Xbox One simply don't have the horsepower necessary to run the game at a level anywhere near its PC release, and the solution the developers chose to address lower visual fidelity and occasional screen tearing was a gratuitous amount of motion blur that you cannot disable. I personally played the game on a PS5 and I presume that was to my own detriment as the console loaded environments much faster than the game was expecting it to. This in turn lead to some textures being completely absent, replaced by blank, white polygons during fast camera movement. This pop-in problem only lasts a fraction of a second, but it's rather distracting and it's clear to me that the game desperately needs a current gen patch which is supposed to come out later this year. Even when it behaved correctly, dealing with this much blur felt like wading through a sea of vaseline. It was somewhat reminiscent of my early experiences in VR, and equally headache-inducing. I eventually got used to it, but I wouldn't blame anyone for shelving it after the first few hours just based on that.
Worst bug of all, at some point I must've angered the gaming gods, or perhaps the pre-release version of the game didn't gel well with the Day 1 patch, but... I had to play the game twice on account of my save becoming irreversibly corrupt. A key item just would not spawn during a story mission and no amount of reloading old saves fixed the problem - I needed to start over. To be fair, I haven't experienced any such issues at all after the game was patched, but the foul taste remained, so it would be unfair to not mention it.
Last, but not least... there's the "survival horror" moniker. I can only hazard a guess that this was the marketing team's idea, but... there's not a lot of "horror" in this "horror game". Yes, there's a jump scare here or there, it's pretty spooky at times and the mutants you encounter are creepy, but you rarely run into them. If you're walking into this thinking that it'll play like S.T.A.L.K.E.R, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. Chernobylite is its own thing, and while the setting is similar, the game itself is not. The developers themselves specify that they aimed at creating the atmosphere of horror, not "a horror game", so why is it marketed as a "Sci-fi Survival Horror RPG" then? I don't know - perhaps no other moniker was more suitable. I mean, it's already a bunch of different genres blended together, and they may as well go with that.
Reaching Critical Mass
As you've probably gathered from my earlier enthusiasm, I liked this game. I kept playing despite losing all my progress - from start to finish, before sitting down to this review. Nay, Chernobylite is one of the few games I bothered to Platinum, all while preparing to write about it, and I had fun doing it. I might be a bit biased here because I find "janky" games endearing, but hey - I can't help what I enjoy. I liked Chernobylite because it achieves what it sets out to do without wasting your time with padding. All the pieces The Farm 51 picked from different genres come together into a cohesive whole that successfully conveys the game's story, with all of its time-and-space-bending twists and turns, ending the experience with a flourish. Everthing in Chernobylite, all of the resource gathering, the base building and the investigating builds up to the grand finale, the power plant heist, and it all feels worth it by the time credits roll. As you play, you feel driven to discover the mysteries of Chernobyl every step of the way - what's more to ask for? Well... patches, which appear to be on their way as the studio already published a roadmap of both free and paid DLC.
So, can I recommend it? Yes, it's an example of a Kickstarter game done right, but! There's a proviso. I cannot stress this enough - the performance of the console version is, at present, not great. If you find spotty framerate, pop-in or incessant motion blur irritating, you may want to wait for the next gen patch, or simply pick up the PC version of the game which doesn't seem to suffer from those issues. If you can look past those, give it a go - you'll have a nuclear blast of a good time. I'll see you in Pripyat, stalker!
- Excellent, atmospheric and life-like setting
- Interesting characters you want to learn more about
- Intriguing storyline with numerous twists and turns
- Seamless blend of elements from multiple genres
- Huge performance issues in the console release
- Overuse of motion blur
- Scares are few and far between for a "Survival Horror"
- Glitches-a-plenty, particularly when crafting