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Delayed Reactions – Cryostasis

By BurningStickMan | 12 July 2010 | Delayed Reactions, Feature, Featured, Reviews | , , , , , | 0 Comments   

For those who like:
Metro 2033, The Suffering, Silent Hill series

Cryostasis cover

+ Great atmosphere
+ Interesting cold mechanics
+ Solid supernatural story
+ Excellent PhysX effects

- Best effects rely on nVidia’s PhysX
- Need a strong computer to run smoothly
- Roughly 8 hours long

There’s a growing legacy of atmospheric games coming out of Russia and the Ukraine; all uniquely Slavic and all taking gameplay chances that most Western studios wouldn’t dare. Joining the ranks of Metro 2033, and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and Penumbra games is Action Form’s Cryostasis, a psychological and survival horror game where cold is your greatest enemy.

Cryostasis begins with you on the floor of a ship’s hatchway surrounded by blowing snow and ice. As you progress forward, you quickly snap into sepia-toned flashbacks of the immediate events leading up to your awakening. You learn that you’re Alexander Nesterov, sent by the Soviet government in the year 1981 to investigate the nuclear ice breaker North Wind – mysteriously lost some 30 years ago. It’s clear that time and the harsh conditions haven’t been kind to the ship, and every surface is covered with ice crystals, twisted debris, and chilling temperatures.

Cryostasis screenshot

Baby, it's cold outside.

Fighting back the arctic wind is the game’s main mechanic. There is no traditional health system. Instead, a gauge in the lower left corner shows the ambient temperature as an outside ring, and your core temperature as an inner ring. Heat sources found around the ship, from burning torches to deck lights that come on when you restore local power, can “charge” your core temperature up to the level of their heat output. When you leave them, the external temperature drops, and your core temperature slowly follows to match. Damage taken saps your internal heat, so spending time in the cold without warming up means you can take far fewer hits. Likewise, some areas of intense cold (an empty external meter) can kill you if you stay in them too long.

As Alexander makes his way through the ship, he’ll encounter icy corpses with glowing hearts. You can extend your mysterious flashback abilities to these sailors, which is the game’s secondary mechanic. Triggering these corpses’ flashbacks lets you control them, Quantum Leap-style, and alter the final moments of their lives. Say you find a corpse at the bottom of a fallen catwalk. If you move him to avoid the unstable walkway in his flashback and safely through a door, you’ve now altered history. When you snap back to Alexander’s present, the corpse is gone and the catwalk is still intact (and now, no longer blocking your path). Saving these men from their deaths alters the past, which lets you proceed in the present.

Unfortunately, you’re not alone on the ship. Monsters made from frozen corpses soon appear and attack with guns, improvised weapons, and deformed appendages. You’ll upgrade your arsenal to face them as you proceed, taking axes, flare guns, rifles, machine guns, and a heated water cannon using icicles for ammo (handy, obviously). Any of the weapons can be aimed down the sight, and all feel like they have weight and kick to them. Additionally, most guns are from World War II and can only hold a few bullets at a time; so trying to make shots count with a bolt-action rifle adds tension to many encounters.

Cryostasis screenshot

You can change his fate.

The story takes place across 18 chapters, and is parceled out through ghostly flashbacks and found artwork telling a separate (allegorical?) fable about a tribe following a leader into the unknown to escape certain death. Story comes very slowly, which surprisingly works well for the atmosphere. You get suggestions that the captain may have been unstable, and that the ship’s crash may have been no accident at all, but virtually nothing about why the ship and the crew are in their respective states. It adds fear to face monsters without explicit rationale for their appearance, and the additional ability for the world to change before you in the blink of an eye creates a superb overall confusion as to if anything you’re seeing is actually real.

Having the game keep its story close to the vest for most of the experience will surely grate against you because you want more explanation, but trust that the game knows best in this regard. It’s certainly worth playing just for a few showcase moments (a sequence with a movie projector easily rivals anything Silent Hill has ever done), and it really is expert at setting up its chilling (pun!) situation. And the journey won’t leave you hanging in the end – there is a definite ending (after a fairly goofy boss fight), that wraps things up tidily.

Sound is handled excellently, with full directional support for 5.1 speakers through OpenAL. It helps to have the clank of hatches or disturbed objects come from around you, and leads to some suspenseful spin-your-gun-around moments. A slight echo effect helps distant sounds seem to rattle off the ship’s steel corridors, and the blast of the arctic wind also comes through in full force, making cold scenes even colder. Dialogue for the North American version is offered in Russian-accented English only, with no option for subtitled original speech. The performances here are solid though, and nothing campy. The lip-synch hasn’t been reworked for English, but this is hardly distracting.

Cryostasis‘ engine is an impressive piece of work that handles cold effects better than any engine before. Walls and ceilings have ice crystal textures that actually melt when heat/power is returned to the area, and turn to dripping water. Flooding and running water are easily on par with those in Bioshock, blowing snow obscures your vision without seeming fake, and subtle tricks like an icy haze at the edge of your vision helps make it clear when you’re character is feeling awfully cold. Lighting effects are similarly top-notch, with excellent generated shadows as light shines through pipes and grates, spooky blue glows through windows and hatches, and unsettling areas with floating motes of dust and snow that give an almost zero-gravity look to parts of the ship. A switchable flashlight cuts through serious darkness, and gamma levels are set well at the default to give an excellent dynamic range without looking washed out, or too dark to see your way.

Cryostasis screenshot

Impressive PhysX-based water effects.

Owners of current-gen nVidia cards get an extra bonus with integrated PhysX support. This includes the standard tricks of flapping cloth, rolling barrels, and electrical sparks which cascade off of surrounding surfaces – but of particular note here is the use of water and ice. Water flows realistically and pools appropriately on the ground, rippling against floor debris as it moves and drains. New “fluid emitters” allow for pipes or flooding compartments to gush water, which splashes and flows realistically according to the surfaces it hits. Icicles over a door shatter into large pieces as you open it, then into smaller chunks as they crash against the ground. Monsters “bleed” ice in a similar manner, and you can see trails of little jewel-like ice shards on the ground after a battle. It doesn’t add much to the gameplay, but goes a surprisingly long way toward selling the atmosphere and desperation. ATI card owners, unfortunately, are out of luck.

All of these graphical tricks mean you’ll need a fairly beastly computer to run the game appropriately. A dual core processor with 2 GB of RAM and a 256MB 3D card are the recommended specs, but I doubt that’s going to get you far. The engine itself is also not terribly optimized, leading to sluggish framerates and occasional drops. Bear in mind though, that while this would be unacceptable for a shooter like Modern Warfare, it actually works with the horror game pace and dreamlike sense. I was able to play comfortably with a range of 30-15FPS with all effects active on my system (detailed below), with only occasional issues with trying to snap-aim some weapons reliably in a pinch.

Cryostasis is also rigidly linear, but that’s to be expected. With no branching pathways or hidden collectibles to find, this is undeniably old-school design. However, it’s hardly a problem, and the polished environments and scares make this more of an excellent crawl through a digital haunted house. Subtle use of red lights to point out your next path or objective also work smartly to keep you on track and relatively frustration-free (some of the flashbacks can be confusing, but you can replay them without penalty until you get it right).

With its ghostly visions, abandoned setting, and real sense of dread, Cryostasis almost comes off like a nuclear-themed version of The Shining. If that strikes you as high praise, then you’re well on your way to enjoying what’s offered here. The high system requirements are a potential barrier to entry, and giving ATI owners a significantly weakened version sans-PhysX is disappointing, but if you’ve got the rig and the desire for a scary tale, Cryostasis won’t do you wrong.

Gameplay and Screenshot System Specs:
2.40 GHz Intel Quad-Core, 4 GB RAM
Nvidia GTX 275 OC w/ 896MB video memory, drivers 257.21
Windows 7, DirectX 11, Shader Model 4.0
1920×1080, all effects Max, PhysX active

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