Update: Xbox Series X/S Version At the end of this review!
I love the smell of an irradiated apocalyptic wasteland in the morning. Listening to the crooning sound of the Geiger counter as it frantically ticks away to warn you of toxic, face-melting radiation as I’m prowling through the urban jungle. Seeing the cold light filtering in through the broken concrete as you’re sifting through the wreckage of people’s past lives, hoping for even the smallest bit of food or even a few rounds of ammunition: anything to eke out a living so you can survive just a little bit longer. When all the cards are laid on the table, I have to admit that Russiapocalypse (Is that a real thing? It is now!) is my favorite subgenre of all the post-apocalyptic scenarios that videogames and other media have envisioned. It is hard to deny that PC classic S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat set the table but as other franchises like Metro has proved, there is plenty of appetite for more. Enter Chernobylite. More similar to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. but with quite a few twists, does it make a worthy addition to the pantheon? I could just tell you now, but that isn’t how reviews work so get ready for some good old-fashioned reading.
The Ultimate Heist
Oddly enough, the goal of the game is to pull off an epic heist of sorts in a power plant based in Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone. The main protagonist, Igor, worked in the power plant 30 years prior with his wife Tatyana. Though Igor survived the explosion, Tatyana vanished and was assumed dead. Now compelled to return to Chernobyl and seek her out, he enlists the help of a few mercenaries to aid him in his venture to acquire a mysterious and powerful crystallized source of energy called Chernobylite to fuel his Rick Sanchez-style portal gun. After a deadly encounter with the unnatural power-wielding Black Stalker, Igor and his wounded mercenary friend Olivier open a portal and escape to their base to lick their wounds. As the opening tutorial comes to an end, Olivier explains that you will need to gather supplies and allies from the denizens of the Exclusion Zone before you can even think of returning to the power plant. Now without spoiling anything else, the story manages to stay interesting for a bit but then tapers off until the final act. The “non-linear” format needs more fine-tuning because one of the worst examples I can think of involves sparing the life of one character like two or three times. In one of those cases, he tells you the fate of another character. A few missions later, that info is revealed again and Igor acts shocked like he didn’t just hear it a day or two earlier. I hate when this happens; when you craft a game like this you need to be careful with the scene handling or else it makes the narrative look messy.
If Looks Could Kill
The graphics are great but the environments are hands down the coolest thing since the developers spent time in the Exclusion Zone so they could 3D scan some of its most iconic locations into the game. If you have ever been there (or more likely, seen some pictures on the internet or other media) then you may just recognize some of the more famous landmarks, such as the imposing Duga radar array and the rusting Ferris wheel, not to mention the infamous Reactor #4 and it’s iron sarcophagus. You can even find the brightly painted cartoon characters on the cabins of the Emerald Summer Camp, which was sadly razed to the ground in a huge fire last year. My personal favorite is the beautiful stained glass of Cafe Pripyat. At this point, it’s almost like virtual tourism and I think it is fantastic. It’s a surreal experience.
Boris the Builder
Igor is quite the crafty character...literally. When you’re out and about exploring the Excursion Zone, you’ll be spending a large chunk of your time keeping one eye out for enemies and the other searching for loot. Finding food is necessary to keep you and your friends fed, and of course, you will need to procure ammo for your limited arsenal. For the most part, Igor will have to scavenge bits and bobs for crafting just about everything else. Building a campfire allows you to create useful salves for restoring your health, clearing up radiation poisoning, and replenishing your mental health. If you’re in a hurtin’ mood, there is a whole category of traps you can make to go all Russian Rambo on them (there are plenty of wooded areas if you truly feel like indulging in that fantasy heheh). Igor also has the smarts to craft special environmental aids. These special machines have special effects of the environment, but it doesn’t show until the next day. They reduce overall radiation in the area, limit the number of otherworld portals that can open, which in turn limits the number of monsters that Igor will encounter, and delays the appearance of the Chernobylite storm. You have to place them in secluded areas, however, since enemies will try to destroy them if they see them. Igor has a handy scanner that can be used to highlight materials close by, so you won’t need to strain your eyes too much but I find the highlighting to be a bit overbearing when in close-quarters environments.
Ace of Base
Igor’s base is a sanctuary overlooking the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. This is your main hub and you will need to manage both it and your crew of misfits. Once you start filling up your roster with the likes of stalkers like the colorful Mikhail and the unhinged hermit Tarakan, it will be necessary to outfit them while keeping them happy and healthy. By neglecting them and the base (and by making poor story choices) it’s possible for them to either get angry enough to leave you or in extreme cases, die. It is in your best interest to keep them around since they are important to the outcome of the story and the skill points you earn during gameplay can be used to learn a unique set of skills from each one of them. While in your base, you have much more options when it comes to crafting but you can’t just create all willy-nilly. The base has a few stats that need to be balanced for things to run smoothly: comfort, power, radiation, air quality, and sleeping space. If you build too many machines, then you’ll need power, so you make more generators. Well now that you have so many machines, the base is more uncomfortable and the air quality is suffering so off you go to make some air purifiers and creature comfort items like radios and furniture. Gotta keep the troops happy and healthy!
Another Day, Another Irradiated Dollar
Chernobylite’s flow follows a simple day-by-day routine. At the start of the day, Igor will consult with his crew and they’ll give you info on an important story mission to take on. Heading on up to the vantage point allows you to take a scenic look at the Exclusion Zone. There you can get some idea of what you’ll be facing since there will tells in the view, like more helicopters to denote a higher soldier presence or certain weather effects. Grabbing the binoculars opens up the mission list for the day. From here you will be offered a selection of areas with supply gathering objectives, such as ammo, medicine, or food drops. You could also choose to rest at the base for the day, drop into an area for free exploration/scavenging, or take on an important mission. Here you can assign which crew member takes on which task for the day. They have a certain percentage success rate that determines whether or not they complete the objective. Failing will get them injured but they still return with a few goods. Their efficiency can be increased by equipping them with whatever weapons and armor you have either crafted or found in the wild. While you can assign any teammate to a story mission, they cannot auto-complete it: instead, they will scout the area to reduce the enemy presence for Igor. While the rest of the folks complete their missions, you take control of Igor and do whatever task you chose. You can leave the area at any time by using your portal gun, that way you can keep exploring after the mission is done, or get out quick if things get hairy. At the end of each day, you must decide how to dole out the rations. The amount you give (or lack thereof) impacts their psyche. Once that is finished, you can hang around the base crafting, chatting with the fellows for some backstory, and maybe learn some new skills. Once you’re finished, head off to bed to end the day.
Death is the End of All...But Not Really
Chances are, you’ll catch a bullet or get mauled by an otherworldly creature at some point. One or the other. There isn’t much to the enemy variety; you’ll be facing the same basic drones for most of the game. When you do kick the bucket, there is a chance that the NAR (the mercenary goons) will instead take your equipment and imprison you. Igor will then be tasked with escaping by finding his stuff and portal-gunning it out of there. If you had a chance encounter with any wounded NAR forces prior and chose to help them out with some healing, they might even pay you back here by slipping Igor his equipment so you can just bypass the whole ordeal by teleporting out right away! However, dying in other ways is much more interesting. Throughout the game you will make meaningful choices that can change how a character feels about you or even change the outcome of the game in ways you can’t imagine. Luckily, there’s a remedy for that! Upon dying, you are thrown into an ethereal chernobylite-infused wormhole between worlds, with a long path stretching ahead of you populated by the choices you have already made. At the cost of some chernobylite crystals (which are quite rare), you can relive those choices and change them, or wipe them from your history like they never happened. If you don’t want to mess around with the timeline, you can simply pass through the door at the path’s end and return to life. I think it is a great concept but I didn’t get to play around with it too much, as chernobylite is hard to come by and I didn’t die naturally that often. It should be noted that Igor can craft a suicide booth in the base, in case you need same-day shipping to the afterlife.
The Final Countdown
Before I wrap things up, I should at least mention something about the combat. I would have earlier but there isn’t much to say. The shooting is very rudimentary and your close-quarters melee attack is more or less useless. Even wearing armor on the medium difficulty setting you can get torn up pretty fast, making stealth your best option. Sneaking up on the NAR soldiers allows you to stealth kill them as long as they aren’t heavily armored. For the other creatures, you have no choice but to light ‘em up with your firearms. At least there is plenty of cover to hide behind so stealth is a viable option most of the game. The fact that killing humans harms Igor’s psyche encourages the use of stealth even more. An included feature that I adore is the multiple difficulty settings that cover the main aspects of the game: combat, survival, and management. While some people may enjoy intense combat, they may not like spending too much time taking care of your base and companions, so being able to tweak each setting individually is pretty cool. Reminds me of the Silent Hill games that allow you to set the difficulties for combat and puzzles separately. I wish more games would do this, but I assume it would be a lot of extra work for something people aren’t really demanding. Overall, Chernobylite has some cool ideas held back in part by its average combat. Despite its issues I think it is an enjoyable enough title; definitely worth a shot if Russiapocalypse is your niche!
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review
Final Score: 7/10
A new challenger has appeared! Player 2 Edwin Velez has entered the game!
Like Rich before me, I am no stranger to a bit of apocalyptic gameplay. From staple series like Fallout and Metro, I have had my run-in with radiation poisoning, bizarre creatures, and bleak but beautiful environments. Having seen Chernobylite come across our radar once again piqued my interest, and I decided to rip open an interdimensional portal and see what the developers at The Farm 51 had in store for me. With the free Xbox Series X|S version having recently launched, I got to start off with the base Xbox One version ahead of the upgrade’s launch, and it felt quite dated.
Before even getting a chance to truly dive in, players are greeted with stiff controls, generations-old movement animations, and muddled graphics. The latter two do not always make or break a game, as there is quite literally more than meets the eye when it comes to video games, so I pressed on, disheartened as I was. I knew that in the coming weeks I’d be treated to smoother frame rates and 4K visuals, so it had that going for it. Even while playing the Xbox One version on a Series X, the frame rate was almost nauseating. The rain effects, pre and post update, are to date some of the worst looking on-screen weather visuals I have seen. They were incredibly distracting and did the opposite of immersion.
I won’t rehash too much of what Rich already covered, but I will talk about some key topics I feel worth knowing if you are taking a gander at the console version. Firstly, this really does feel like a PC game. There is something about the movements and gameplay that make it feel like a decade-old game that you are firing up on Steam. The menus are probably one of the biggest indicators of this PC feeling. You use the D-pad for quick access items, but it does not feel intuitive in the slightest. LB/RB are reserved for a leaning tactic that is used in stealth, but I found myself wanting the bumpers to instead be a quick inventory feature, ala Fortnite for the easiest reference I can think of. It just doesn’t always feel like an FPS RPG built for console, and some aspects of that are more noticeable than others. Outside of the menu and interface, the general traversal also is a letdown. No climbing, mounting, or other smart traversal features are to be found. Instead, it feels like most of the environments are built to be roadblocks, and at one point post-next-gen update, I got physically stuck in a log while trying to squeeze through some bushes.
Not all was bad though. I found myself appreciative of the score, making your adventure a bit more audible with sullen, yet hopeful tracks that come off as almost endearing in a way. The building mechanics Rich mentions are, in my opinion, the star of the show. Where the shooting should have maybe held more of the weight in being a showcase feature, it is regrettably forgettable. This management and team-building system, however, stands out in a way that I would like to see more of. The team and resource management, with various difficulty sliders, allows you to enjoy this challenge with a certain level of control. Even the upgrade system is quite cool, as you physically take part in an activity related to what you are improving. Like performing a stealth takedown on your comrade in a training field to reduce the sounds of your movement permanently. I thought this was a neat take on the survival aspects.
Post Next-Gen Update, things do look much better. The lighting has the most noticeable improvement, reducing that muddling I mentioned earlier. The environments overall have been tidied up, and the frame rates no longer make me feel sick, with performance mode being silky smooth in comparison to the last-gen version. Unfortunately, my patch came with some hindrances that made the back half of my review process unenjoyable. For one, there were sections where I’d be met with a game crashing bug as soon as an enemy shot at me. My stealth was solid in this game, but not THAT solid. I also got stuck in that log I previously mentioned, which I had not had an issue with prior. Lastly, it could be an issue that was around prior that had just not come up, but I had a problem with an auto-save feature concerning combat. My problem was that it didn’t truly recognize when a fight was already had. I reloaded an autosave in several instances in the same area where I had already killed the enemies, and the save would load me quite literally in front of them so that stealth was no longer an option. These saves were coming AFTER combat, but loading with enemies still present. Lastly, and I want to make it clear that all these issues happened on my first full in-game day post update, I had an issue where I was told by a goal character to leave and he would come to find me. The waypoint stayed on his location that I had just left, so I figured it was safe to teleport back to my base and press on. When arriving back at the base, lo and behold, MISSION FAILED popped up on my status for Igor. It took me probably 10 different attempts loading various saves, replaying portions of a map due to crashing, and a building frustration with the “improved” version of the game, just to fail the mission for that day. After that, it was hard to find myself wanting to get invested again.
Chernobylite really does feel like a lite version of what it aims to be. Lots of the aspects and attempts make sense, and could pay off if polished, but as a whole, I think the console market will remain limited due to its shortcomings. Even with patches to fix some of the new bugs that come with the territory, some players still may find that there is something the game is just missing to make it feel cohesive and memorable, and they may need more than a Geiger counter to find out where that missing piece is.
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