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Games You Should Play if You Haven't: Cryostasis


Cryostasis isn't exactly the best game I've ever played. It is; however, an intensely original game that's definitely worth playing, by a developer you've probably never heard of. The game was developed by Action Forms Ltd. for PC and released in 2009. Now, you know that you're in for something interesting with a developer that has titles such as Vivisector: Beast Within under it's belt. While Cryostasis: The Sleep of Reason might not reach for such lofty heights with it's title, it's a fun little horror game all the same.

Let's run down the elevator pitch for this game. Imagine a Bioshock clone with combat that operates more along the lines of the Condemned games. Rather than a magical city under the ocean, Cryostasis takes place in a derelict Russian icebreaker ship, that, like in Bioshock and Condemned, is filled with crazy people who immediately attack you, this time wearing parkas since it's cold. You start out fighting them with improvised melee weapons and as the game progresses, it expands to other melee weapons and eventually evolves to gun-play. The gun-play is so slow that, not unlike in Condemned, the guns are just as useful as melee weapons as they are as fire arms. The levels, again, just like Condemned, are all in-door and extremely claustrophobic.

Cryostasis does a decent job of recreating the uniquely physical melee combat popularized in Condemned. It's not quite as good though. Condemned and Condemned 2 had some really gnarly weapons to beat homeless people with, and it did a great job of making fighting with those weapons feel real. The melee combat in Cryostasis, by comparison, feels more like Skyrim. There's a lot more flailing and camera shake when you get hit, so the whole thing just feels much less tactile and visceral as a result. That sinking feeling you get after hitting someone in Condemned just isn't there in Cryostasis and that's too bad, but it does achieve at least some approximation of that raw, hand-to-hand style of combat.

Now, I said that this game was intensely original, but so far you wouldn't know it from reading. Let's look into that. While the combat takes up the bulk of the experience, maybe the most attractive feature of the game is the health system. Instead of health kits or special, space marine suits, the health system is attached to heat sources. This really gives the game it's unique sense of pacing and is probably the most original feature about it. There's a really interesting, Pavlovian quality to the heat sources in the game. The ambiance of the level design imparts a real sense of coldness, and that sort of naturally compels you to warm yourself at every heat source you find, even when you don't need it. The red hues of the various heat sources create a welcoming visual contrast with the uniformly blue environments, which even further encourages you to go to them when you find them.

While most games train you to root around for whatever health items they have scattered and hidden around the levels, there is such an abstraction between the items you are collecting and what you're actually supposed to be doing with them. The only abstraction with Cryostasis is that you have to push the button on the heat source before your character takes his gloves off and warms himself up next to it. The art direction in the levels creates an eminently believable drama of struggling not to freeze to death in the gigantic ship, a drama that is constantly interrupted by the combat. It's a brilliant piece of design work which deserved something better than your typical combat to break up the exploration. The saddest thing about Cryostasis is in how heavily it leans on the combat to carry the game and how it's greatest, most innovative ideas are marginalized as a result.

speaking of innovative ideas, Cryostasis also has some puzzle elements in it. At certain points in the game, you will find a dead sailor in front of you who's body you must metaphysically step into in order to relive their final moments. Once there, your job is to either successfully prevent them from being killed or to prevent some thing that is currently blocking your path from falling there in the past so that it will no longer be there in the present. It doesn't really make a lot of sense and isn't really that well explained in the story, but it's a fairly interesting and original gameplay conceit. You would certainly be hard-pressed to find another game that does it.

Also, speaking of explanations, the story is fairly light and takes forever to get going. You will need some serious patience if you are going into this game for the story. What story that is there is fairly interesting though. There is a retelling of an old fairy tale called The Flaming Heart of Danko, told through narration and illustrations, which is beautiful to watch and ultimately mirrors the game's story, which tells of how the ship came to be stranded in the ice. The whole psychic powers conceit ends up taking center stage for the ending and feels a little corny, but ultimately works as an excuse to let you have some agency in the story you've only been passively observing up until this point. So while it might not be the best story you've ever seen in a game, it's reasonably entertaining and certainly goes it's own way about things, which is probably the biggest running theme with the game outside of everything being covered in ice.

Before I close this out, I should mention that the game runs like ass. It's poorly optimized and, while it tries some pretty advanced lighting effects and this trick with ice melting into water near heat sources that I think is dynamic but don't quote me on that, it still doesn't run as well as it should. The texture work in the game is pretty dire, and as I've said already, the levels are claustrophobic and small. As it stands, the game should run better than it does, but it's reasonable to assume that you can run the game at at least some fidelity on any recent machine if you fiddle with the settings a little.

To close this out, there's never been a game to convey such a profound sense of cold and fear of freezing than Cryostasis. That may sound like faint praise given that not many games have attempted those themes, but I venture that Cryostasis would still stand out even if if were up against more competition. The sense of coldness and the sense of fear they cultivate around that are palpable and make for one of the better horror experiences you can find on the PC. While the combat tries to make it into something lower than games it apes, it's still well worthy of playing if that style of combat doesn't completely turn you away.

-Kristopher Osborn
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About stubblemanone of us since 8:53 PM on 05.04.2012

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