"The Russian BioShock." Not a bad start, Mr PR Man. Ken Levine's undersea epic may have divided opinion, but it takes a hard heart not to warm to its narrative ambition and to the fantastic vision of the city of Rapture. We don't care whether it's the Russian BioShock, the Indian BioShock, or the Kyrgystani BioShock - anything that strives to reach similar goals is automatically interesting.
Setting eyes on Cryostasis for the first time, it's apparent where the BioShock comparisons stem from. Like 2K Games' hit, Cryostasis is a first-person game where you play a lone human exploring a strange environment populated largely by hostile foes - and like BioShock, much of the game focuses on the need to piece together details of the disaster which brought about this state of affairs.
Also like BioShock, the game is set in the 1950s - but there the comparisons between the settings end. In Cryostasis, you play a Soviet meteorologist working north of the Arctic Circle. At the start of the game, you receive a distress call from a nearby ship, but upon your arrival you black out - and when you wake up, you're on board, deep in the bowels of the stricken vessel.
Two key elements define Cryostasis' environment. The first is the ship itself, a Soviet-era nuclear-powered icebreaker - and therefore an astonishingly huge beast. These ships plied the frozen waters north of Russia and Siberia during the Cold War, and the game's fictitious icebreaker, North Wind, is the height of a nine-storey building and over 200 metres long. As you'd expect, there's none of Rapture's fine art deco style here. The ship is relentlessly industrial and utilitarian, with echoes of films like Das Boot in its often brutally claustrophobic interiors.
And the second key element in Cryostasis' environment? Cold. In this game, cold isn't just a description, an excuse to draw some nice snow and ice textures. The cold in Cryostasis lies right at the heart of how the game works. It gnaws constantly at your character as you progress through the (mostly) dead, frozen interior of the vast ship, a constant and unwelcome companion throughout your adventure. Cryostasis has no health bar - instead, there are a pair of thermometers in the bottom left of your screen. One shows the temperature in the room around you - the other shows your internal body temperature. Let your body cool down sufficiently, and you freeze to death. The cold wins.
Much of the game, therefore, is spent looking for sources of heat. The ship's reactors continue to pump it through various pipes and devices, which you can use to warm yourself up before plunging through frozen environments. Some areas of the ship even have heating elements which can be turned on, warming up entire rooms to habitable levels - a process accompanied by a rather nice graphical effect where the ice covering every surface rapidly melts and runs down the walls to form puddles on the floor.
In itself, this sets up an interesting set of puzzles and progression systems. To get through the game, you have to beat the cold - staying warm as you move forward, enabling the heating systems to make progress, and occasionally running across the deck of the ship to reach new areas. The deck is one of the most inhospitable areas we saw - stranded in the middle of a snowstorm, visibility is incredibly poor, and the air is so cold that the inside of your goggles ices up after only a few seconds outside, leaving only a small area in the middle of the screen through which you can see clearly.
However, it's not just the cold you'll battle in Cryostasis. The dead ship features plenty of undead nasties as well - former inhabitants of the vessel who, in the words of the game's developers, "gave in to the cold", and have now become manifestations of elemental cold in themselves. Around them the temperature drops appreciably - and although they're susceptible to heat (it's hinted that there's a heat-generating weapon you'll gradually assemble as the game progresses), most of your fighting will be done with authentic Soviet-era light weapons, such as rifles, shotguns and a Tommy-style machine gun.
Initially, at least, these enemies seemed a bit disappointing - but as the developers led us through the demonstration, subtle things about the different foes started to creep us out a bit. The enemies we saw were all basically human, frozen and mummified, but they retained certain traits that were designed to pick out their original roles in the ship. Repairmen in the ship's engine area sport a pair of welding torches, one grafted into each wrist in the place of their hands. Those left to rot in the brig as the cold infiltrated the ship sport cell bars where their faces should have been - turning their frozen, hollow heads into macabre parodies of prison cells. Their jailers, meanwhile, have keys instead of fingers, which they use to claw at the player.
For the most part, Cryostasis' hero is a fairly normal human being stuck in a horrifying situation - but true to the survival horror roots of the game, your character does have one supernatural ability up his sleeve.
Early in the game, you discover that there are some corpses spread around the ship - people who didn't "give in" to the cold, but who were killed either by accident, or by their crewmates, as the insidious frost took over. You can enter the frozen brains of these people and relive their last moments, and can even take action to save them from their fates. In one example, we travelled back to rescue a crew-member by disarming the marauding bad guy who had murdered him. A rather more tongue-in-cheek example saw us rescuing a cook from the frozen sides of beef which fell on him by, er, going into the cows' past and rescuing them from the slaughterhouse. Right.
Along with various sequences where you witness black-and-white echoes of the ship's past as you explore, the developers imply that these incidents will add up to a comprehensive picture of the vessel's fate - a single, momentous, game-spanning puzzle, in essence. In another nod to BioShock, saving crew-members will also contribute to the game's plot and resolution.
Whether those elements can add up to something with BioShock's narrative scope remains to be seen, however. At the moment, Cryostasis is a relatively good-looking first-person survival horror, with the potential to blossom into something with a tense, creepy atmosphere and a great plot. The demo we saw wasn't varied or complex enough to convince us that we're seeing the Russian BioShock - but we're certainly intrigued. If the developer can deliver on its bigger promises, we're certainly open to the potential of finding love in a cold climate.
Cryostasis is due out for the PC in October.