Sunday, 30 May 2010
Alasdair steps on Arthur's turf with Cryostasis: The Sleep of Reason.
Over the past few years, I've developed a taste for Russian video games. While partly due to semiconscious ethnic snobbery, a large part of the attraction lies in the fact that Russian games (and games from Eastern Europe, for that matter) have this marvelous ability to mix the familiar tropes of Western games with local interests and design philosophies that can allow stale old settings to shine anew under a foreign sun. Of course, there's also lots of crap out there too, but Sturgeon's Law and caveat emptor and all that.
Cryostasis: The Sleep of Reason is not the first Russian horror-FPS I've played. That honor goes to the cryptically-titled You Are Empty, an odd little failure that did a good job of exploiting the claustrophobia-inducing abilities of Stalinist Gothic architecture. However, Cryostasis is one of the best horror games I have ever played, and it manages to even give games like Condemned a run for their money.
The game pops you in the shoes of Alexander Nesterov, a meteorologist working at a Soviet polar research station sometime around 1981. After his resupply ship, the nuclear icebreaker North Wind, fails to pick him, Alex sets out over the icecap to find out what happened. After a rather surreal opening sequence, Alex clambers inside the ship, only to find it frozen hard in the ice and the crew slightly more frostbitten and bitey than usual. With Alex being a classic heroic mime protagonist (hell, he even has a beard and glasses), the game quickly becomes your personal quest to make your way through the ship and figure out just what the hell happened to everyone.
One of the first things that comes to your attention as your begin your trudge is, well, how beautiful the whole thing is. I know that all serious armchair game critics say that graphics aren't important and that it's the story that matters, but Cryostasis is a sight to behold. As someone who's found winter levels in video games to be generally lackluster, this is the first time I've seen any title make an honest stab at capturing the essence of the season. The attention to detail is remarkable; the walls are etched with delicate frost ferns, prismatic icicles hang down from every pipe, and open areas are suffused with a snowy haze. As rooms warm up, ice cracks and falls on the floor, while the walls go slick with precipitation. Add to that a top-notch sound design, and you have some genuinely tense moments when you're stuck in a ventilation shaft, listening to the moan of the ship's superstructure, the cracking of distant ice, the pitiless shriek of the blizzard outside, and the squeak of your boots on the rimed steel as you try to figure out if something is lying in wait for you on the other side. It's a burden on the graphics card, true, but the effect is well worth the sacrifice.
That overwhelming presence of cold soon leads to the next major concern of the game: heat. You need heat to stay alive, and the only way to get heat is to hunt for hot water pipes, radiators and even desk lamps that can keep you going, or to find the special control panel that'll power up that equipment. With no two heat sources running at the same temperature, the game keeps you hopping from source to source, trying to keep you little heat gauge topped up. Ventures onto the outside of the ship become sprints of faith as you try to find a door before the wind freezes you. In keeping with the traditions of Russian video games, life is something you must earn.
As for the core gameplay, I would best describe as a combination of Penumbra and Condemned. A few reviewers out there have described Cryostasis as "an adventure game masquerading as an FPS," a criticism that's not far off the mark. Much of the game consists of trying to save the lives of deceased crewmen through use of the "mental echo," a weird ability Alex possesses that allows him to pop back in time in the dead guy's body and avert his death. Aside from giving you warm fuzzy feelings, it also helps you out by clearing out whatever obstacle killed the guy originally. As for the times when you're not keeping warm or being a time-travelling good samaritan, you'll be fighting off the...people that are infesting the ship. While the first three levels focus on a rather flaily melée system, the rest of the game gives you enough guns and ammo to see you through to the end. Happily, Cryostasis' gunplay is specifically designed to fit a horror setting; your arsenal consists of bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles from WW2 and earlier, all of which are hard to aim, slow to reload, and burn through ammunition surprisingly fast. (They're also historically accurate; the Soviet Union had a habit of stockpiling obsolete weapons "just in case," so it's fairly likely that a low-ranking member of the great Gosplan hierarchy like an icebreaker would get the cast-off guns the army/KGB/militia didn't want any more.)
The story of Cryostasis is a compelling one, if obliquely told. Since Alex isn't really a character in this story, the focus shifts to the crew of the North Wind. As you step into the bodies of the deceased, a little court drama is played out, revolving around the fall from grace of the captain and the role he and his subordinates played in the fate of the ship. It's a story that starts out slow, but slowly grows more compelling as the game progresses, helped out in part by a secondary story, an adaptation of a old Maxim Gorky short story that you find scraps of throughout the ship, that comments on the primary one and gives the game a surprising emotional heft.
However, all of this is just beating around the bush. It doesn't explain what exactly Cryostasis does that makes it so effectively scary. All of the above explains the meat-and-potatoes of the game's freakiness, but they don't explain what it does that makes it so compelling and unnerving.
In a sentence, Cryostasis is one of the mindfuckiest games out there.
Let's start with something simple; the mental echoes. At the beginning of the game, you're told that you use them by going up to a dead guy and touching him to go into the past. However, that's not how it actually works. You will sometimes just pop into a mental echo unannounced at random intervals throughout the game, and they can take the form of anything from a crawl through a tableaux of unmoving NPCs, a spontaneous teleportation back in time that no one notices, or a nightmarish expressionist scene in which you are pursued by a faceless man in a parka made of black. And every once and a while you'll bring something back, leading to odd little questions like "wait, where did I get this fire axe again?"
The real mind trip, however, is the environment of the North Wind itself. In the first few levels it's fairly predictable, with the iced-over interiors, the homicidal half-frozen sailors, and the occasional hallucination. But then you open a door and see a dead man suspended over an elevator shaft by four strands of barbed ice, and you start to realize that something has gone seriously wrong. It's a point that's driven home a level later, when you pop back in time to putter around the ship's reactor, only to return to the present to discover that the reactor is gone, having been seemingly ripped out of the bowels of the ship and pulled sky-high, all without causing a meltdown or even any interruption in the ship's power supply. As you continue on your way, with the vaguely human enemies being replaced by creatures that seem to be half-person and half-bits-of-ship (and who have a disconcerting habit of phasing in and out of existence before your eyes), and even stranger artifacts start appear, it begins to dawn on you that there is a certain unity to all these elements, a certain underlying order that informs everything you've experienced. The game's mechanics of heat and cold become great, overarching themes, one that suggests that the North Wind is the site of another, more metaphysical struggle. By the time the endgame comes with possibly the biggest mindfuck of them all (without getting into details, I will just say that the penultimate level is named "Chronos" for a damned good reason), it seems less like a random bit of Fahrenheit-esque nonsense and more like a terrifying intimation from the beyond.
At the end of the day, Cryostasis is a gem. Despite a few flaws regarding the resolution of all its plot points (of course, the first Silent Hill barely resolved anything and we still love it) and some annoying stability issues, Cryostasis keeps the tension high, the environment inhospitable, and reality debatable. If your computer can handle the requirements, it's everything you'll want out of a horror game.