Version tested: PC
This strange Siberian action effort had the potential to be one of the most interesting first-person games of 2009. It's potential that it doesn't quite fulfil, but it is packed with ideas, and its wall of weirdness and mystery mean it's a breed apart from the corridors shooters we've all grown up with. Perhaps what's most immediately obvious about the game - which is set aboard a derelict ice-breaker ship in the far reaches of the Arctic - is that it puts its strange concept puzzles, such as they are, before combat. A moment where you use brains over brawn comes late to most shooters, but here it's one of the primary conceits. The fights that punctuate the rest feel like an afterthought, as if this was primarily an adventure game, and only secondarily a game about killing ice-zombies.
The subzero setting is certainly evocative. You're aboard the aforementioned vessel, The North Wind, presumably charged with the task of finding out what is going on. That's not explained. Instead you face a cryptic story about a mythical tribe, and are then dumped straight into the innards of a terrifying ship. As you head into the frozen spook-boat you discover two things: firstly, it's incredibly cold, and consequently you're on the verge of death. Secondly, you can travel into the past via corpses of people on the ship. The time-jumping sequences come thick and fast. Sometimes these are just flashback scenes from what happened on the ship, with you as disembodied observer. Other times, when you "enter" the past of a dead man, you are right there in the body of someone who died aboard the ice-breaker. You dive into their memories, become them, and change what happened to them. More on that in a bit. First let's talk cold.
Cryostasis does cold better than any game I can think of. Even Lost Planet seems like a fun snowy frolic by comparison. In the belly of the ship, and briefly out on the ice, you are at the mercy of horrendously low temperatures. Visually this is all splendidly realised: every surface is covered in a frosty, frondy sheen, and when things heat up the moisture trickles away in a slightly-too-fast defrost sequence. It's genuinely impressive stuff, and it leaves the game dripping with atmosphere. Plunging into parts of the ship where it's too cold even to breath is pretty intimidating, especially when you know you could be attacked at any time by the ship's terrifying inhabitants.
Fortunately, it's so cold that even the smallest heat source can offer you some solace. Your health and your temperature are one and the same, so if you're hurt then crouching over a fire or a hot piece of machinery will quickly restore you. It's an interesting idea, although it does seem a little foolish at times, particularly when you're warming your hands in the sullen glow of an electric desk lamp.
While the blood-stopping temperatures are a constant danger, they're never quite as worrying as the things which you encounter at regular intervals: creatures which were probably once the crew of the ship. They are basically zombies, but icy. They provide excellent scare fodder, leaping at you with a scream and a white-eyed face and teeth. They seem to have no trouble at all with the deep-freeze conditions, and even dive into the chilly waters that have part-flooded the ship. What are these things doing here? It's all part of the mystery, although it's clear that they were here when the vessel ran into trouble, because you encounter them in your weird embodied flashback sequences. Occasionally the flashback will collapse straight into the present, and someone you saw in the past will be just feet away, zombified and looking to kill you.
The flashbacks, when part of a "mental echo" of a highlighted corpse, allow you to change how the world is in the present. You apparently save the person from death, but also open the path for yourself. If they are not dead, then the door is opened, or a lever is pulled, or you are otherwise able to proceed. Of course things are not at all okay in the past either: something terrible has happened to the ship, and things are attacking you. Apparently, the captain of the ship is crackers too, and that doesn't bode well.
It's all rather frightening, but the frights are reduced and rendered somewhat irritating by the fact that your reaction to them is always so necessarily clumsy. Your control within the world feels gloopy and imprecise, as if you're a bit dizzy and trying to fight some treacle. Yes, you've heard this complaint a hundred times before: nice ideas, shame about the execution. This theme of "not-quite-there" runs throughout Cryostasis. It begins with a couple of instant-death situations, and escalates into puzzles and then fights that have to be repeated over and over, returning back to the checkpoint again and again, because they're just difficult and unfair.
Far worse still is the way the time-travelling system directs you. After a couple of jaunts into the past you realise there's no real game to it at all, despite that fact that you might beat on a zombie, or avoid plunging to your death. It's not problem-solving, or decision-making; it's just following the motions. You aren't deliberately changing the past to affect the future - you never think "oh and can solve this via that flashback" - you're just doing it, because that's the next sequence in the way of progress. Some of those sequences are extremely atmospheric - especially where they involve deep, cold water and hideous swimming zombies - but it might as well be a linear corridor shooter with buttons to press to open the next door. The net result is that much of the game is extremely laborious, which detracts enormously from its atmosphere of threat and mystery.
Which brings the game back to the actions-versus-brains thing: it's a game that wants to tell a story, and to commit completely to its grim, frozen, time-skipping nightmare world. That's admirable, but it does also make the entire experience feel reminiscent of point-and-click adventures of the past. In the worst of these games puzzles are not really puzzles, and the linear environments are little more than a stage on which a story - often rather awkwardly told - slowly unfolds. Except Cryostasis isn't an adventure made 3D and interactive; it also wants to be a first-person action game, and that doesn't quite work either.
Cryostasis is a brave, fascinating, often very beautiful game, but I find it impossible to recommend it - and not least because it runs like an exploded dog on most PCs. It's not quite creative enough - its environments fall into a monotony of samey rooms and bulkheads - and its combat is too clunky to be delicious. I'm certain that this is a game that some gamers will tuck into heartily, and happily. The ugly truth of the meal, however, is that's it's still frozen in the middle.
6 / 10