The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has always been a setting ripe for games to embrace. The STALKER series took players to The Zone, impressing many with its unforgettable atmosphere and immersion. However, ever since 2010's STALKER: Call of Pripyat, there hasn't been another gaming experience that brings players up close and personal with the location.
However, thanks to the Early Access PC title Chernobylite, that's no longer the case. And while it has technical issues that need to be sorted, Chernobylite's chilling atmosphere, expansive nonlinear structure, and unique blend of survival and strategy ensure that its portrayal of The Zone is one you'll love to get lost in.
Chasing ghosts in The Zone
In Chernobylite, you play as Igor, a sciencey-type whose girlfriend, Tatyana, mysteriously vanished in the Chernobyl disaster long ago. Using a strange, otherworldly resource called Chernobylite that has been found in The Zone, your goal is to save Tatyana by traveling through time. However, you'll need to search for clues that will show you where to find her. Unfortunately, this won't be easy — the discovery of Chernobylite also led to the introduction of terrifying supernatural phenomena to The Zone, and you'll have to deal with the military's interference as well as the survival needs of you and your crew, too.
So far, Chernobylite's story isn't anything stellar, but it's good enough to keep me interested in seeing what happens next.
Stay sneaky, cheeki breeki
At its core, Chernobylite is a stealth game. Igor isn't capable of taking more than a few bullets, and the resources necessary for creating healing items are scarce. Additionally, both the soldiers and the monsters within The Zone's borders are deadly, so open fights seldom end in your favor. To succeed in this cruel and twisted world, you'll need to blend into the shadows.
The process of trying to make your way through The Zone's thick forests and long-abandoned towns while threats lurk all around reminds me of STALKER in all the right ways. The game's levels are filled with useful resources and locations to discover, but exploring tends to put you in riskier positions. Using your wit to avoid or neutralize these dangers is an experience that's both incredibly rewarding and heart-stoppingly intense. When dealing with The Zone's supernatural creatures, this moment-to-moment tension makes Chernobylite feel like a horror game.
There's a strategy element to Chernobylite as well. Each level counts as a "day," and you have a limited amount of days (15 by default) to play through the story. Therefore, choosing what you and each of your team members do every day is essential. Do you send your friend on a supply run while you do a story mission, or should you spend a day collecting ammo? Can you afford to skip a raid on a food stash to complete a mission that will be unavailable tomorrow? These are a few of the types of decisions you'll have to make.
You'll have to maintain a base and the health of your crew, too, which is where your collected resources come in handy. Nobody likes discomfort, so using the game's base-building system to make your hidey-hole cozier with decorations is essential for keeping morale up. If morale falls, teammates will be less likely to succeed on missions. Your food stockpile also influences morale; if you're forced to ration, people will become irritable. However, if you can afford to give double portions, they'll be ecstatic. Ultimately, these strategy mechanics provide a much-needed contrast to the constant tension of exploring The Zone.
In a word: Authentic
Chernobylite's developers have 3D scanned the actual Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to make the environments look as close to the real thing as possible, and you can tell when you're in-game. Everything from the rusty vehicles and abandoned buildings to the dense foliage swaying in the ghastly breeze feels like something taken straight out of the real exclusion zone, and that's because it was. The eerie beauty of Chernobylite is further enhanced by its lighting and texture detail, both of which are incredible.
As with all Early Access titles, there are some technical issues. Audio can desync, some textures might not load, and framerate can dip, but these are all problems that will hopefully be ironed out in time. Some of the animations are a little janky, too, but it's a minor gripe.
Final thoughts on Chernobylite
While Chernobylite could definitely use some gameplay refinements and technical polish, it's off to a tremendous start. I've fallen in love with the game, and I can't wait to see how the developers improve it. If you're a fan of survival horror, you shouldn't miss out on what could be the next big hit.
Chernobylite is available for $30 on PC through Steam.