Put on ice no longer.
Cryostasis is a breath of cold, fresh air in a stagnant year for games. Most recent entries in the horror genre have been marred by efforts to be both action games and horror games; for example, Resident Evil 5, an excellent action game by most measures, but most assuredly not a horror game. The most recent entries in the Silent Hill series, likewise, have too much fast-paced combat and not enough creeping atmosphere. Cryostasis, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in the horror genre and has used the tenets of the first-person shooter to excellent effect.
[image1]Before we proceed, allow me to clarify something: Cryostasis is most decidedly not a shooter nor an action game. It has a slow, deliberate pace which does not sync up with typical first-person shooter expectations. So put those expectations away; they have no place in this game. Cryostasis makes use of atmosphere, dialogue, sound effects, music, and some fantastic lighting to keep you on your toes; the game is very tense and creepy, but is not filled with adrenaline.
Cryostasis is focused on a Soviet nuclear-powered ice breaker, a large vessel designed to chart and explore Arctic and Antarctic regions. The vessel has long since succumbed to the perpetual winter, beached on a glacial drift somewhere. As the game unfolds, you explore the vessel and unravel what happened to the crew. The wintry prison of the crippled ship is a fantastic place to explore, and the constant battle with the environment makes for a gripping experience.
The game gears most every play experience against the environment. Health is represented as a living meter of your body temperature, slowly dwindling in colder places and warming back up by fires or the working machinery of the ship. Motion is slow and deliberate, with a stamina meter that reacts to the ambient temperature and your own body temperature. Understandably, running about is easier when you’re warmer and when the environment is warmer – while trying to move quickly in harsher, frigid rooms more quickly drains your stamina and slows you down. Likewise, many motions will feel a little hampered – reasonable, given the cold weather gear you’re tromping around in.
[image2]Combat has a slow and ponderous quality that fits well with the tone of the game’s storytelling and the suffocating environment. This does not mean it lacks tension – combat is deadly, especially since it is occurring in such a hostile environment, and the craft gone into the animations for reloading remind you of how hard it is to use a weapon – even an axe – in the frigid cold. The progression in weaponry – from a chain you wrap around your gloved fist, to a fire axe, to a Mosin-Nagant, and on – emphasizes the setting well, and a lot of care has gone in to making them look and feel right.
Working the bolt for a rifle while an axe-swinging maniac, roaring in rage, comes at you, knowing full well that any hit opens your body to the cold air and lets the warmth seep out is gripping and frightening.
Cryostasis, however, isn’t a perfect gem of a game. Voice acting ranges from poor to terrible, frequently falling into the realm of poor syllabic emphasis and curious pauses. The visual elements of the game are fitting, but begin to grow a bit stale after a while. And some of the moments of gameplay falter, like when you fall four feet to an instant death. This don't happen frequently, but they mar the game considerably.
[image3]Cryostasis is unburdened with multiplayer modes or other extra game types. This is fine, actually – multiplayer would be bizarre for a title like Cryostasis, so it’s no loss. Technically, I had few issues – Cryostasis was a solid run, and I was happy for that, though I did run into some momentary problems with the sound. The game loves headphones (my usual choice for gaming, anyway) but loathes speakers.
Ultimately, Cryostasis is about the ambiance. Parallel narratives – clearly related but not in an obvious way – meshed with such visceral gameplay makes for an exciting experience. The 10 or so hours of Cryostasis are excellent, and have you jumping from interesting moment to interesting moment at a very steady pace – not exactly fast, but well-orchestrated to maintain interest. The creep factor is well-handled, getting under the skin in some exciting ways even while paying homage to many of the great traditions in horror films and games.
Cryostasis manages to be more of a psychological trip than most games in the past five years, and it’s fantastic to play through. If you’ve found yourself disappointed with the style of horror games in the past few years, give it a try – you will not be disappointed.