Chernobylite Review: Stalking Simulator
I recently joked that I'm incapable of scoring a game lower than a 7/10 if it involves sneaking around in tall grass. It's a mechanic that I always enjoy and honestly, it's one that has tended to set a proverbial floor for me when reviewing games.
Chernobylite disproves this theory. It's not a bad game, but it's an incredibly uneven one. Its high points are inventive and exciting. Its low points are tedious and repetitive.
It dishes out these situations in roughly equal measure, leading to a game that lands in the squishy middle of its genre, but like The Farm 51's past work, Get Even, its weirdness is occasionally wonderful.
Chernobylite Review: Stalking Simulator
The story in the first-person survival-shooter RPG Chernobylite starts fast and quickly branches into several directions before you can even get your bearings. Playing a scientist named Igor exploring the ruins of the Chernobyl disaster in the years that follow the nuclear plant meltdown, you'll be concerned with a number of plot threads.
Chief among them is to find your love, Tatyana, who went missing following the disaster, but who has been coming to you in your dreams, leading you to believe she's still alive. You'll also need to contend with the NAR, a ruthless mercenary outfit that has set up shop in the same ruins for reasons not yet understood.
While the big picture is a wild one of unraveling a spacetime mystery involving the titular emerging energy resource, your day-to-day plays out much more like a survival game.
Managing health, radiation exposure, and your psyche can mean using competing remedies, whereby your radiation medicine may damage your psyche, for example. Meanwhile, scavenging one of several maps at a pace of one level per in-game day means you'll need to have a gameplan every time Igor lifts his head off the pillow or risk coming home unprepared for another night ahead.
You can only perform one mission per day, and most days you'll want to focus on the main plot, but you can delay it for a while if you just want to explore side quests or scavenge. As you recruit others into your party, you can dole out more tasks to them, multiplying the number of crucial survival and crafting resources you keep back at your home base.
This is the best part of Chernobylite. Given a rather blank slate of a factory overlooking ground zero, you can customize what goes where and how it looks in a way that's a bit reminiscent of recent Fallout games. You can't craft new structures other than some dividing walls, but with tons of crafting stations and creature comforts, you can decorate your own post-apocalyptic abode like a weird Sims DLC.
The game makes finding supplies fairly simple, with a handheld device that highlights resources in each irradiated forest or mess of collapsed concrete. In turn, this means building your base in your image is fun and within reach if you put in the time and effort.
It can be dicey at times, like when your team grows in size and suddenly you have to ration food unequally, but it makes the emphasis on scavenging and team management very interesting, even giving allies a loyalty system whereby they can succeed, fail, disappear, or even die in seemingly any mission.
Chernobylite is at its best between campaign levels, when you're training to learn new skills from your allies, building them each their own bedrooms, crafting lockpicks and ammo for the next day, and healing up from one challenge before facing another.
Unfortunately, it's often let down by missions that can feel too samey across the game's 30 or so hours. A full campaign run will see you return to the game's several hubs many times each, so even though you'll have different objectives, you'll retread the same lands.
Those lands all generally feel the same as each other, and enemy encounters are too few and far between. Sneaking in the foliage with just enough ammo to take out a few enemies if stealth fails you should be more exciting than it is, but in practice, it becomes too easy to crouch up behind enemies and choke them out one at a time until you can freely explore and scavenge.
With more or smarter enemies this could've been a highlight, but even the game's supernatural monsters can be pretty easily dodged, making their growls the mere clock chimes of forthcoming small annoyances rather than the harbingers of a tense encounter.
When combat does erupt in gunplay, the game is good at best, but I found it's fitting of the world. Your guns are recycled from, essentially, garbage. You're a scientist first and foremost, and you're meant to have very little to work with. Weapon sway, targeting, and recoil never feel great, but they feel, perhaps strangely, rewarding as a result, though I admit I'm not sure if this was intentional or not.
Each level seems to offer the same sort of obstacles. Provided you bring three or so lockpicks, stock up on ammo as best you can, and complete your training regimens when they're available to you, missions aren't diverse enough to take you off your game. It makes loading out incredibly rote, which is too bad considering how much fun it is building up your base in the first place.
The few times I did enter into an area without what I needed, I caught glimpses of the game's best bits: finding myself irradiated, bleeding, traumatized all at once, with no easy way out - screwed, in other words.
The interpersonal dynamics can also be frustrating in that if you upset any party member too much, they will ditch you, seemingly without any other way to retain them. This can force your hand when making major decisions in the story's branching plot. If you're on thin ice with one character, but their mission request goes against what you feel is right, you'll be forced to do their bidding or say goodbye.
To be fair, it's a thin line to tread between realistically balancing your allies and this system which becomes unwieldy in the late-game, and the game does employ an innovative system that allows you to alter any decision made in your past whenever you die, essentially loading a saved game you didn't actually earn.
Still, that's more of a fun experiment in narrative disentanglement. It doesn't feel earned or satisfying when you rewrite history in this way, just interesting on a mechanical level.
Spliced into this device, already with so many moving parts, are dreamlike sequences that play out almost like theater, as you walk through memories you weren't present for. It's akin to the cinematic quality of The Farm 51's previous game, Get Even, but in this case, feels like story dumps that tell much more than show.
Chernobylite Review — The Bottom Line
- Base-building and crafting feel challenging but fun
- Training across many disciplines with your allies allows for unique character builds
- Scraping by day-to-day enjoyably keeps you on your toes
- Levels and objectives feel too similar
- Too few enemies most of the time
- Managing group happiness often puts players at odds with their own preferences
Despite the flaws, something about Chernobylite feels like it's primed to enjoy cult classic status. Troubled but daring games are often the subject of smaller but passionate fanbases, and Chernobylite is nothing if not daring.
Several of those gambles don't payout in the end, but the journey is always a weird one, even if not always an exciting one.
[Note: The Farm 51 provided the copy of Chernobylite used for this review.]