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Review: Chernobylite

28 Jul 2021

My review copy of Chernobylite arrived on my front doorstep as an ammo box wrapped in bubble wrap, taped haphazardly and bearing half-ripped labels. That last part probably has more to do with the fact that it was shipped from Poland, but it felt somehow appropriate to be tearing at the bubble wrap only to reveal a heavy case filled with strange things like a full-face gas mask, a ruined doll, and a folder full of odd documents. It’s just that sort of game.

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster remains one of the most horrific and and surreal events in human history, still marking our world thanks to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone that marks out a stretch of forest and abandoned buildings keeping people away from lethal radiation created by the horrifying calamity. It’s kind of like catnip for people who love abandoned places, and if you’re willing to mine for it, there’s a lot to be done here with regards to the potential horror of the site.

It’s possible that Chernobylite veers a little bit toward being insensitive with its use of this tragedy as a backdrop. At the same time, it’s also eerie, atmospheric, and the clear product of people who are more interested in the nature of creeping through the exclusion zone and what it means to live with the disaster in your backyard than exploitation.

Chernobylite releases on July 28th on PC, with later releases planned for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The PC version was played for this review.

Excluded Zone

First and foremost, it’s worth noting that chernobylite is a real thing, and it’s a highly radioactive substance created due to the Chernobyl disaster. So, yes, this is not a totally groundless name. What isn’t real is the idea that it seems to possess a certain supernatural power, which is a part of this game… or it’s not and the main character is losing his mind. Both are plausible.

See, at the most basic level the story of Chernobylite is about a former researcher who worked at the Chernobyl plant and lost his fiancée when the disaster occurred. Igor is convinced that rather than dying, she was zapped to another dimension of existence, and he employs a pair of mercenaries to help him sneak in and retrieve the eponymous chernobylite to power his portal gun and track her down. However, the mission goes bad almost immediately, one of the mercenaries is killed, the remaining one (Olivier) is injured, and it becomes clear that if Igor’s going to track down his fiancée he’ll need to scavenge and rebuild in the exclusion zone to make this happen.

Assuming, of course, that Igor hasn’t already lost his mind. It’s clear from his story interactions with other players that this is a man who is on the edge of functionality and prone to snapping at or dismissing his companions at even the slightest provocation, and he’s dealing with three decades of setbacks and failures at proving his theories. It’s an open question whether or not Igor is just a nutcase leading people into a death mission or a genuinely brilliant man stymied by others… and in many ways, it doesn’t matter.

Rather than a morality play, the game’s questions are supposed to entirely be about the economy of survival and administration. You are in a harsh environment surrounded by death, and it’s always possible that something will get worse or your own actions will make things worse. Rather than making this into a question of heroes or villains, it’s a question of what needs to be done in order to maximize your chances of achieving your goals, even if the actions you take in the process aren’t necessarily nice. Maybe because they aren’t nice, even.

It’s an interesting take on the story options, aided by the fact that this is a game much more concerned with its ludonarrative than focusing all its efforts on how the story goes. So it seems only proper to devote a lot of attention to precisely that.

Occluded Sight

In the broadest strokes, Chernobylite is a survival FPS. This is all well and good. You are scavenging supplies in the Exclusion Zone (which has apparently been painstakingly rendered by the team), collecting anything you can use for crafting purposes while trying to accomplish goals like finding food, allies, ammunition, and hurting the paramilitary organization in control of the zone. Early on, you’re quickly forced to face the reality that you are a force of two people in an empty warehouse with basically nothing but scrap metal, and survival is going to come down to the two of you working together and finding allies even as you struggle to avoid disrupting the balance too much and attracting too much military attention.

You have a base to build up through a rather rudimentary crafting interface, which requires you to balance things like quality of life and living amenities for yourself and your allies against power consumption, available resources, and more functional additions like crafting workstations. You also have to worry about food, not for health purposes but just for the simple matter of morale. The worse morale is, the worse your companions perform, and as you assign missions that morale can be the difference between success or failure. Every opportunity has a limited amount of time during which it’s available, and especially right out of the gate you face the difficult prospect of needing to gather three different things while having two people to take care of that matter.

Gunplay is also deliberately awkward; you can’t shoot from the hip, requiring you to aim before firing and introducing concerns like recoil, sound, and effective distance while forcing you to aim carefully and place your shots with a mind toward maximum efficiency in minimum time. Lost health can be difficult to recover, and you want to be sure not to get hurt more than is necessary. You’re scavenging bits and pieces you can assemble into healing items, but you can also use those items for other things, and you might want those other things more than just restoring health you stupidly lost by blundering into an avoidable firefight.

Again, this is about the arithmetic of survival. Sure, a new gun upgrade might give you more ammo, but how often are you gunning your way through things? Wouldn’t a silencer be a more reasonable option? You found a new gun, but would that new gun be more useful in the hands of a companion, who otherwise might fail a mission or outright die if things go badly enough? If there’s no food to be gathered, do you risk dropping morale and making the next day harder all around in the hopes of making your supplies last longer… or do you hope that food shows up sooner and give everyone a reasonable serving?

To some people, this probably doesn’t sound very fun. To another sort of player, this probably sounds like an absolute blast and the sort of thing that could easily eat up hours of time trying to play a game with a constantly shifting survival metric. And it’s all stable and balanced well enough that it feels like these are real questions, rather than just being hypothetical concerns. Who you help and when is important. I remember early on I found an innocent person being hassled by two soldiers, and I had to decide before they shot him if it was worth taking them out – or if I should let them shoot him and take what he had on his body for myself. And I’m still not sure if I did the right thing there. For him? Probably. For my survival? Maybe not.

Occlusion Stone

Visually, the game looks absolutely gorgeous. It’s an eerie, uncomfortable sort of beauty, a beauty of rusted surfaces and rotting wood overtaken by greenery, of human edifice collapsing under lack of care and decay and pawing through the wreckage to see what you can get. But that’s what it’s supposed to look like, punctuated on occasion by the screaming and unearthly flashes of bright green radiation, so it all works together well enough.

There’s a distinct paucity of music, but what’s there works well enough at setting the tone; far more important is the sound design, which captures the harsh sounds of collapse and detonations in stark relief, the sound of footsteps being genuinely worrisome, and each gunshot feeling dangerous and unsettling. I can’t really judge the voice acting as good or bad (not speaking the language myself), but it certainly felt appropriate, with everyone’s voice sounding at once distinct and appropriate for the characters they were portraying.

Unfortunately, the HUD is just a little bit jumbled and unclear in places, and I found that to be the biggest weakness the game had; some parts of the interface and crafting weren’t totally clear in how they worked, likely as a concession for the later-planned console versions that are in planning. It’s not always totally clear what opens up a submenu and what doesn’t, and a few times I found tutorials disappearing when I still hadn’t been aware that I completed the objectives. They’re minor things, but with a dense game like this it becomes important to be clear.

Exclusion Home

As I mentioned during the gameplay section, for some people, the game is going to be bracingly unfun. If you don’t find a certain amount of joy in deciding whether or not your team gets to eat if it means you have enough food for another day, you’re probably not going to like the game. If you really want to go in guns blazing from day one and you aren’t prepared to watch yourself get gunned down or be left with some pretty severe injuries, you’re not going to be having a fun time.

This is a slower, more painful, and in many ways more failure-prone sort of game. But for players who enjoy the option of a slower ludonarrative and want to experience a build through this difficult situation, stalking the wreckage of the exclusion zone is going to be a lot of fun. If you’re willing to be patient and survival-minded, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here in Chernobylite.

Now I need to figure out what I’m going to do with an ammo box. I don’t have any ammo in my house.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Game provided by Farm 51 for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Farm 51.