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.