Game review: Chernobylite (PC)
Born from The Farm 51’s Chernobyl VR documentary, Chernobylite is a sci-fi survival game set in the haunting ruins of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine. After a few years in early access the game is now finished and released on PC with console version coming soon.
I remember meeting the developers back in 2014 when they were promoting their Get Even game at E3. The team was very excited about the photogrammetry technique employed to create Get Even’s realistic abandoned asylum interiors. I remember being impressed by the use of the 3D scanning technology, even if that actual game, when finally released in 2017, was a little underwhelming. The Farm 51’s Chernobyl VR Project and Chernobylite use the same scanning technology to create the photoreal ruins of Pripyat and its surroundings.
When Chernobylite landed on my desk for review, I’d not put the link above together. I knew it had been in Steam early access for a while, and it had that Eastern European weirdness about it, but I didn’t realise the game’s pedigree.
I was immediately blown away by the game’s visual prowess. My journey through the abandoned Pripyat was enabled by crisp graphics full of detail, beautifully lit to nigh on photoreal standards, and running at a very brisk pace.
Yes, Chernobylite looks very nice. The lush exteriors, with irradiated foliage blowing in the wind as the sun flickers through the trees overhead, are a stark contrast to the oppressive Soviet-era structures lying deserted. The interiors ravaged by time, with paint peeling off the wall, betray the place’s sinister history. The buildings are unnerving as they are, but the addition of scary-looking dolls with green-glowing eyes and the shadowy figures that disappear as you approach them is hardly reassuring.
Players take on the role of Igor, a former scientist at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. He returns to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to look for his wife who he has visions of, despite dying in the nuclear disaster 30 years ago.
On top of the radiation, hostile military and the supernatural threats arising from the creation of the titular green chernobylite make the area around Chernobyl a very dangerous place to be. The oppressive Russian architectural make and morbid history of the area make for a very sinister atmosphere.
The gameplay centres around Igor’s refuge, which acts as a hub. Here players can craft equipment which in turn can be used to craft consumables for use in the field. Players can also craft items for the refuge, improving living conditions, which in turn keep Igor’s companions happy.
Companions need to be fed and have their needs met for them to be effective. Sharing armour and weapons increase the likelihood of their success in the field. Companions can also train Igor by spending points received when levelling up.
Despite appearances, the game isn’t open world. Missions are set across a handful of areas in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. They are revisited many times during the game, but at different times of the day. As the game progresses enemy patrols increase and monster encounters become more likely. Additional parts also unlock. Ideally, it would be nice for more zones, but giving the small development team, it’s a good effort. I’d say we will see some areas and missions as DLC sometime.
Each day, players can choose a resupply mission for each of the available companions and the same for Igor, or Igor can head out on a story mission, instead. Once the mission is complete players can either scout for more resources or return to your base via opening a portal.
A scanner helps to locate resources, which are essential to succeed. There are several traders in each level that can provide goods in exchange for bullets, food, or gear. I found it difficult to just teleport back to the refuge, once I’d completed my mission, as the levels are so meticulously designed, they invite exploration.
It’s not just resources littering the mission areas, they also have secrets to discover. Some are story elements, filling in details, but others are clues to the mysteries that Igor is trying to solve- as shown on the board on the wall of his room. Some locations also unlock additional missions available at the refuge.
Dying in the game costs some random items and fails the mission. Death also allows Igor to review certain memories and make different choices, changing the course of events. Later in the game, it becomes possible to kill Igor without forfeiting items just to try alternative options. There’s also a device that can be used once you’ve found the clues, to reveals details of what happened to Igor’s wife, Tatyana.
At first, I found the combat to be a little unrefined. The game does, however, encourage stealth. To be fair, the shooting is less the arcade combat of Call of Duty and more like the realistic ARMA. Enemies are not silly, will surround players, and can be challenging to hit.
There is a cover system, but it uses the bumper buttons to peek. It’s a bit all over the place when you are trying to aim down the sights, peek out, move and fire at the same time. It’s best to avoid enemies but if you have to get the soldiers out of the way, stealth kills are the best option.
As you kill more enemy soldiers, patrols increase. Radiation levels also increase making some areas difficult to get to without suitable protection. Radiation levels can, however, be kept at bay by construction devices that do just that. Similar devices hold back Chernobylite storms and restrict the portals from which the monsters appear.
The daily cycle of events can feel like unnecessary repetition that breaks the flow, somewhat. This modular design was likely born out of necessity, having been pulled together and expanded on over the last few years, as each new area was built and incorporated into the game.
There’s so much going and to do in the game, plus your base to furnish and companions to interact with. Returning to the refuge is more than just a chance to catch your breath after your unnerving expeditions into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
The game most definitely has a Metro 2033 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R vibe to it, mainly due to the authentic Russian Cold War aesthetic and similarly macabre story-telling. But it’s really its own game.
I’m not usually a fan of survival games, as they tend to have little to no narrative structure. For me, Chernobylite hits a nice balance. It’s an interesting mash-up of a survival game and narrative RPG. Crafting and building the refuge offer a real sense of achievement. Exploring the intriguing and beautifully realised area around Chernobyl is very immersive. The missions and story are also very compelling making it difficult to put the game down.