Chernobylite has been a Steam Early Access title since 2019, but version 1.0 is set to release tomorrow. This survival game blends sci-fi themes along with elements of action and horror. It’s also set in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone similar to the STALKER franchise. Indeed, you’ll notice a few similarities and references which I’ll get to in a while.
What sets Chernobylite apart from its older and more noteworthy cousin is that its uses a mixture of concepts and mechanics that attempt to make it unique. Unfortunately, there were also a few nagging issues that marred the experience.
Seconds from disaster and 30 years hence
In Chernobylite, you play as Igor Khymynyuk, a physicist who worked in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on the day of the infamous disaster in 1986. If HBO’s Chernobyl piqued your interest, then you’ll know of the untold devastation it had caused on many people, hapless creatures, and the surrounding environment. Chernobylite uses its own unique twist, implying Igor’s involvement in the aforementioned events, whereupon his fiancée, Tatyana, also disappeared.
The search for Tatyana drives Igor, hearing and seeing visions of her in the Exclusion Zone even after 30 years had passed. Conspiracies abound given Tatyana’s background, the machinations of the KGB in the past, and the presence of mercenary forces in the region during the present time. Worse, the game’s namesake, itself a mysterious substance, has led to a race to obtain technologies and armaments, all while strange creatures begin to ravage the countryside.
Meeting new friends, making choices, and suffering the consequences
Chernobylite tries to weave together intricate plots, combining them with non-linear storytelling. At the start of the game’s campaign, only Igor’s pal, Olivier, is present. Later, you’ll meet new companions ranging from a strong-willed leader (Olga) to a deranged survivalist (Tarakan). However, you don’t necessarily get to do these missions in the same order. In some cases, a certain mission might appear early in your playthrough. Conversely, it may pop up later in another run. It means certain characters or events won’t be encountered in a strict manner.
Likewise, you can make decisions that have adverse consequences. For instance, during an early mission, I came across an NPC who Olivier wanted me to kill. Had I done that, and had I informed Olga about it later, she wouldn’t join my group at all. I could choose to let him go, something Olivier will dislike. But, that NPC will eventually be reunited with Olga down the line which allows me to recruit her without problems. Characters who join your squad give you new perks as part of training, too.
Important choices can also affect how progression plays out, such as quests, dialogue, and events that may or may not happen because of something you did earlier. You do have a particular recourse, and that’s using the chernobylite material to change the outcome of the decisions that you’ve made. All in all, you can bet that the campaign will have you thinking twice before you commit to an action due to the inherent risks involved.
General progression, crafting, and survival mechanics in Chernobylite
Non-linear narrative aside, Chernobylite does follow a string of objectives that take place in various locales in the Exclusion Zone. These include the Moscow Eye (the Duga radar installation near Chernobyl), the village of Kopachi, and Pripyat. Naturally, since entire sections of these environments are littered with radioactive waste, so you have to watch out whenever your Geiger counter is crackling.
The Farm 51 definitely put in a lot of work as each location has been 3D-scanned and recreated in the game to provide authenticity. The visuals are also fairly stunning, especially when you look at ruined buildings, overgrown forests, and clear horizons.
In a way, you can think of Chernobylite as akin to survival games like This War of Mine. As Igor, you’re likely to choose important missions that advance the plot. As for the supporting characters, you can assign them to the other locations to scavenge for food, ammo, and other supplies. Once the day ends, you’ll need to take stock, handing food to your comrades and giving them gear lest they become resentful about joining you.
You can also make use of the crafting system, spending resources that you’ve gathered to create new items, grow herbs, and place furniture to help boost everyone’s morale. Advancing the campaign ramps up the difficulty, as the zone shows if wormholes have appeared or if military presence has increased. Basically, this process of completing bite-sized missions, collecting resources, and constructing improvements in your base, in total, is the core gameplay loop that you can expect for around 20 or so hours.
Chernobylite‘s investigations meta-game
Then, there’s the meta-game involving investigations. Remember, Igor is a physicist. He’s not just a braindead, gun-toting adventurer. He’s also got a VR device known as the Ariadna and a board filled with clues. As you progress further in the game, or while you’re free-roaming, you’ll stumble upon various hints related to Tatyana’s disappearance and other conspiracies.
Once you have enough clues, you can begin a specific investigation. No, Igor won’t go sleuthing around like Sherlock Holmes. Instead, this feature is just a VR recreation of past events that shed light on the narrative. You’ll simply follow hallways to watch conversations while Igor comments on the developments. These areas have striking art design and effects, as they meld places in the material world with those from an otherworldly realm. Additionally, there’s the heist finale that requires several characters and tools in order to achieve success.
But what about the action and suspense?
Chernobylite does feel heavily inspired by the STALKER series. It’s not just the setting, but also the utter strangeness of the areas and the effects of radiation. Even the survivors themselves, as well as a particular type of enemy, are considered “Stalkers.” However, Chernobylite leans more on sci-fi horror themes. There are moments that can be shocking, such as sudden flashbacks. Meanwhile, the visions and words of Tatyana are eerily haunting. Furthermore, you’ll encounter monsters such as zombified denizens and mutated flies. As for tech, well, Igor uses the Chernobylite element to power up his “portal gun” as if it’s a toy from the department store.
Unfortunately, Chernobylite starts to falter once we talk about action and combat. Although it’s not a pure first-person game with shooting, you’ll still feel disappointed by combat mechanics. Weapons feel very clunky and animations look rough. Enemy variety is also fairly lacking, with only two types of human enemies and three regular creature mobs.
Worse, even human enemies seem to follow the same pattern: you can shoot them, and they’d just run straight to your location (allowing you to fire while they’re moving toward you). If they have open-face helmets, you can snipe them directly in the eye or in the middle of their skull, and, miraculously, only the helmet will fly off. You could then shoot them square in their unprotected heads, and that might take a few bullets before they’re brought low. It’s very weird to see a game that emphasizes survival and the harsh reality of the radioactive Exclusion Zone, only to see hostiles that are Tom Clancy’s The Division-level bullet sponges.
I also have to make note of how you can’t hip-fire your weapons (simply left-clicking would have Igor do a knife slash). Likewise, the save system can be detrimental at times. It’s possible for manual saves to use the same autosave checkpoint. In other cases, you could load the game only to discover that you’re in the middle of the enemies that you just killed.
Chernobylite: Rough around the edges, but a worthy effort
During the course of this Chernobylite review, I didn’t encounter major technical issues such as egregious slowdowns, freezes, or crashes. Because of this, one would think that the campaign is an enjoyable romp. Sadly, another disappointing facet of the game is a consequence of its own core gameplay loop and mission presentation.
Dozens of bite-sized quests took me to the same locations that I’ve visited each and every “day.” I found myself retreading the same paths, entering the same buildings, picking up the same resources, and fighting the same enemies. Admittedly, I was wowed by these places, as well as random events, the first few times that I experienced them. But, the longer the campaign wore on, the more it felt like a drag. Sure, I was advancing the plot, but I was running around in circles while I was at it.
Chernobylite tries too many things at once. The blending of various concepts from other genres works until the narrative arc and gameplay get bogged down. Still, The Farm 51 did a great job at depicting Pripyat and the surrounding areas. The overall effort remains commendable, even if it’s a little rough around the edges.