Another game that snuck up on me. The FPS/Survival horror hybrid "Cryostasis" had little fanfare or hype preceding it. I'm never sure whether this biases me for or against a title. On the one hand, I hate how crappy shovelware games are overhyped to make them sound so much better than they are, but on the other hand, being completely off my radar until launch often also means there's nothing to recommend a game... so is Cryostasis another foreign-made sleeper hit, a-la Serious Sam, or just another low budget stinker from a small foreign dev house? Read on.
Clearly these guys were going for the brass ring here, and you'll need some heavy duty hardware to pull it off properly. The minimum specs for an Nvidia 7800, but it recommends an 8800. The game is very high poly count(though some of the textures are a teensy low res), and there's a whole lot of post production filters and aftereffects being applied to assist with the visuals. The game is also the first to use PhysX water effects (as seen in engine tech demo footage here). Overall they did a very good job of creating a gloomy, rotten, oppressive atmosphere full of quasi-human monstrosities. There is a minor irritation in that your character often chooses the oddest moments to randomly lift up his gun for inspection, obstructing the center of your viewing area. But this is quickly remedied with a right click.
The sound effects are good quality, and the ambient noise adds to the atmosphere and suspense. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the voice acting and how few awkward translations were in the dialogue. The hollow clunking and groaning of a gigantic derelict ship locked in a glacier makes for a very eerie setting. I can't help shake the feeling though that the noises made by the enemy creatures are snagged from another game... I want to say MDK or possibly Everquest. It's a small nit to pick though.
Cryostasis, as mentioned earlier, is an FPS with a strong bias for the Survival Horror genre. It is 1981, and your character has been sent to investigate a stranded nuclear icebreaker ship. It immediately becomes apparent that most of the crew has either died or fled the ship (to die in the arctic ice), and those that have not (and perhaps even some that did) have somehow been changed into what I came to call "Creatures of the Cold."
See, temperature is the central focus of this game. Your core body temperature is your health meter, and it gradually lowers or raises depending on the ambient temperature of your surroundings. When a Creature of the Cold attacks you, the damage comes in the form of your internal body temperature plummeting a few degrees. If you are in an extremely cold environment (such as outside during a full blown arctic snowstorm with winds around 60mph and visibility of about arm's length) you periodically take "damage," and if you do something egregiously dumb like go for a swim without thermal scuba gear, you can be frozen to death instantly.
So the game quickly becomes a quest to survive from one heat source to the next. You heal yourself by warming up at something hot, such as a fire, a running engine, even a desk lamp if you're really in a pinch (and you often will be). Every heat source will not be enough to raise you to full (particularly not desk lamps), but the game is pretty good about giving you good heat sources when it thinks you're going to need to take a lot of damage in the near future. Of course, once you figure this out, this has the side effect of making you feel the least nervous when your temperature is almost zero and there's no heat sources around, because you know the game won't drop a creature on you until you come to a part of the level that has a heat source in it, so ironically you feel safest when you are closest to dying.
The weaponry in the game consists of three melee weapons and a variety of firearms. The first weapon you improvise by wrapping a lock and chain around one fist and punching with it. The second is a waterpipe valve you happen to rip from its place and use like brass knuckles. At a fairly early point you will come upon a fire axe and start doing some respectable damage; three hits from the fire axe kills most creatures, though it does have a slightly disorienting effect on your point of view since you "put your back into it" so to speak and your viewpoint reflects the realistic movement of your head in the swing... IE, you see your arms, then you see the floor, then you stand up again. There's a bolt action rifle, the same rifle with a sniper scope, a semi auto rifle, a SMG and even a flare gun which is supposed to be able to distract enemies with its heat in addition to damaging them. Your life is complicated by the fact that there is no targeting reticle... if you aren't right clicking to aim down the barrel, you literally are having to "eyeball it" which means you'll probably miss a lot.
The creatures themselves also follow a similar progression, and range from your standard frozen zombie looking guy to nightmare fuel not of this earth. There's the regular unarmed zombie guy (fat and thin versions), the zombie guy with an axe, the zombie guy with welder's gear, the zombie guy with a rifle, the zombie guy with the semi auto rifle, the zombie guy with a machine gun whose HEAD has been scooped out from the front with a fist sized melon-baller and had a blue light put in the cavity with a metal grate over it, the guy who's mutated into some kind of flying insect... all immune to cold and bearing limitless hostility toward anything exothermic. One particular "boss" type mob I find particularly perplexing... because he basically looks like a guy in a raincoat and a metal hat who has secured SMGs to each elbow with leather belts because his hands are too busy holding flashlights and being bolted through the wrists, secured to his helmet. The result is almost comical with a dash of "wtf" and an aftertaste of "yecch." The brig section also introduces "guy with goggles wrapped up like a mummy holding jail keys between his fingers clawing you up like he thinks he's wolverine." Uh. Ok.
But that's not all... apparently your character is some manner of psychic, though it may just be a side effect of whatever the hell is going on in this creaky old boat at the north pole. Often you will come across the frozen corpse of a crewman, usually in such an arrangement that it is part of some obstacle to your progress. For instance, you may find a corpsicle half sticking out of a block of ice and snow protruding from a door that was forced open by a deluge and the accumulation of frozen water is now blocking your path onward. Your character has some kind of psych ability that is part vulcan mind meld, part quantum leap. By touching the corpse, you will then experience the past through the eyes of the dead man, but you can have him behave differently so that history is changed and he does not die. To continue the above example, you could touch the corpse half-sticking out of the ice and snow buildup, and relive his final moments in the boat's accident, but instead of dying when the door bursts open and the frigid water overwhelms him, you might find a wrench on the ground and quickly use it to open a nearby valve, draining the adjacent room of the water threatening to overwhelm the bulkhead, thus saving the crewman's life. When you return to your own body, you'll find the corpse no longer there, the ice and snow absent, and the door undamaged, allowing you to continue on your way.
Pity I can't seem to find the captain's corpse, or I could have just quantum leaped into him and had him turn the boat straight south and sail away from the arctic. But then, I guess we wouldn't have a game, then, would we?
Now, it does have a bug here and there. There's been a few times that I loaded a saved game only to crash in the middle of the load, or when the load completed found that some bug has rendered progress impossible. For example, there's a part where you first get a rifle and ammo, and you need it to shoot a ladder so it falls to where you can climb it... the game autosaved when I picked up the rifle, then I picked up the ammo and shot the ladder. I climbed up and died shortly after to a Creature... the autosave put me back down after having gotten the rifle but the ammo was not there, thus I could not shoot the ladder. I had to go to an earlier save to get past that. Save early, save often, and don't always overwrite your save. There was also a part in the ship's brig (I swear there was something like 40 people in this brig, this is one hell of a ship) where I shot what I thought was a Creature of the Cold, but for some reason shooting THIS creature killed me instantly as if I had shot myself in the head. Oh, that was a nice surprise, I guess I'm not allowed to shoot certain monsters. Fortunately that only happens in that one part of the game, it seems. Sometimes the pathing on the Creatures hiccups somewhat, and they can get stuck on a corner or in a door. One boss gunner I actually got to walk back and forth in and out of the same door while I shot him with impunity.
Also, the game's puzzles of progression can sometimes get infuriatingly obscure. "What the hell do you want me to DO here, game?!" is a thought that often starts to find voice in the second half of the game. The game taciturnly refuses to offer any answers, or even any hints, and you are forced to operate by trial and error, enduring a loading sequence every time an error kills you. By the 15th level or so, you'll also get tired of "jack in the box" style attacks by creatures of the cold popping up in every room in just perfect places to kill you before you can react, and you start making 2 runs at each room, the first intentionally suicidal to trigger all the enemy spawns so you'll know where they are when you do it the second time for real.
Despite a few irritations, the game is engrossing. The atmosphere does make for palpable tension, and the exposition of the narrative compels you to continue through the game to find out what the hell happened, why, and who is behind it. Despite stretching the suspension of disbelief to its limit, the psychic do-overs do add an interesting wrinkle to the game as well. To get the true benefit of the game's experience though, you'll need at least an Nvidia 8800.