Chernobylite Preview: To The Zone We Go

Does Chernobylite’s gameplay, storytelling and characterisation match its striking audio-visuals? The game will be put to the test as you are brought this in-depth and honest hands-on preview. Discover what's lurking in the Zone of this survival title.

Chernobylite Preview: To The Zone We Go cover

Chernobylite is a story-driven, single-player, first-person sci-fi survival horror set in an alternate reality version of the infamous Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It is being created by developers The Farm 51 and is due to be published by All in! Games for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC in July 2021. But will it be any good? Based on what is on offer right now, it sure looks like it.

Chernobylite is currently available via Steam Early Access and GoG Games in Development for £23.99.

Chernobylite Release Date - announcement trailer! [PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One]

Story – Mind-bending Mystery

Chernobylite’s story is opaque by design. It truly is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. To my mind, this is a very good thing indeed. I enjoy a good mystery, and unravelling the secrets of what happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (CNPP) and the conspiracy surrounding it, is a major plot point. The game gives up its secrets grudgingly, so you will have to work hard to uncover them. As an old-school gamer who despises the wussy “hand-holding” so common in many modern games, this has been a breath of fresh air – even if that air is a little irradiated.

Thus far, I have discovered the player character – Igor – is looking for his fiancée Tatyana. Tatyana is the woman in the red dress seen in much of the promo media. She disappeared around the time of the accident in 1986. Her disappearance, the accident and the eponymous reality-warping Chernobylite crystals (hereafter simply ‘crystals’ for brevity) appear to be linked. How exactly remains to be discovered, and I am looking forward to doing so. To unravel this mystery, Igor must hunt for clues, then penetrate the CNPP to find the answers. Doing so requires rounding up a crew – Ocean’s Eleven style – which presumably you recruit during the story. I have only recruited one so far, but I am looking forward to meeting the others, especially so considering how odd most of the thus far encountered characters have been – more on that later.

Thrown into this mix is the mysterious – and seemingly unkillable – ‘The Black Stalker’. He appears to know who the protagonist is and is hunting him down. Who is he? How does he know Igor? How is he connected to the crystals? Why is he trying to kill Igor, and why can’t you – the player – kill him? All are conundrums at the moment, and I eagerly await uncovering them. (That and getting some payback on the murderous S.O.B.)

Now add to the mix weird flashbacks, ghostly apparitions and space-time distortions. The stage is now set for a truly mind-bending experience, which is sure to delight those seeking something as off the wall as I was. 

Your first trip to the CNPP doesn't end well

Your first trip to the CNPP doesn’t end well

Gameplay – Expect the Unexpected

Let me state from the start that, gameplay-wise, Chernobylite is nothing like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Whilst both are depicted in the first person, and their aesthetic and thematic similarities are obvious, this is where their similarities end. This is a good thing, as the two can coexist happily since they are not in direct competition with each other.

The first major difference is that this game is not an open-world in the conventional sense. Instead, it uses a ‘base and missions’ mechanic. At the start of each day, you choose which missions you and your teammates will undertake. You then teleport into a map via your crystal-powered portal gun. Once in-mission, you collect as much stuff as possible, fight or avoid enemies, complete the objectives, then teleport out.

Food rations and resources are then divided up. Equipment, weapons and armour upgrades can then be crafted, ready for the next mission. Rinse and repeat. This will be familiar territory to anyone who has played Void Bastards. If you liked that style of play and mission design as much as I did, you would likely enjoy Chernobylite.

Many of Pripyat's iconic landmarks can be visited in-game

Many of Pripyat’s iconic landmarks can be visited in-game

The maps are relatively small. However, they are ‘feature dense’, and the need to move slowly and stealthily makes them feel bigger. This makes a nice change from the large – but largely empty – maps found in some truly open-world games. The weather conditions can dramatically affect how a map looks and feels, so revisiting the same relatively small selection of maps does not become as repetitive as it might have otherwise.

Secondly, Chernobylite is a slower-paced game than S.T.A.L.K.E.R., with a greater emphasis on stealth. Whether you consider this to be a good thing or not will likely depend on the types of games you like to play or your mood at the time. To aid in this much-needed stealth, the leaves of bushes become translucent when you are hiding in them. Therefore, you can see out, but enemies can’t see in. You will likely spend much of your time crouch walking through bushes to stay hidden. And stay hidden you must, as Igor is realistically fragile, and the human enemies are realistically smart, especially so on the harder difficulty settings. Trying to ‘run and gun’ will likely result in your ‘death’. Speaking of which…

Death is Not the End

Chernobylite features a very interesting death mechanic, thanks to the crystals’ reality-warping properties. Upon ‘dying’, you wake up in prison. The PMC goons – your main human enemies – were smart enough to strip you of all your equipment but dumb enough to leave your cell door unlocked. To escape, you must find your missing backpack, which contains your portal gun. Once found, you can teleport out in the usual fashion. Since you have no weapons, you must rely on staying hidden and using stealth takedowns, which brings us to one of the game’s inconsistencies.

Before learning how to perform non-lethal takedowns, Igor shanks enemies from behind. He must have hidden this knife somewhere about his person, and since it doesn’t appear in your inventory, I can only guess where he has been hiding it. However, when engaging in face-to-face melee combat, your prison shank is nowhere to be found, reducing you to using ineffective fisticuffs. Why this is so hasn’t been explained yet.

Chernobylite-preview-PC-The_fractal_world.jpg

Dying usually involves a trip through the fractal world

Initially, I was irritated and confused why I couldn’t pick up and use the weapons dropped by the guards. On closer inspection, I discovered that the weapons are biosignature locked to their owners, so no one else can use them. Therefore, obtaining weapons means either finding them in stashes or crafting them yourself.

Each time you ‘die’, you lose equipment and resources, including expensive and difficult to replace weapons. This makes mission failure meaningful enough to ratchet up the tension but avoids game-ending permadeath. I found this to be the ideal middle ground as it suits the game perfectly.

Moral Conflict

Chernobylite features a novel morale mechanic, somewhat like the sanity mechanic from the Amnesia series. Many things can lower your morale – including killing human enemies. If you kill too many enemies, your morale can get so low it causes you physical harm. This is another reason why ‘going Rambo’ is ill-advised. Avoiding combat or using non-lethal stealth takedowns – which do not affect your morale – are better options. I admire innovative gameplay mechanics, so this is a most welcome addition.

Farm 51 has stated that other in-game actions can have consequences later on. If you later regret your decisions, you can alter them by going back in time and changing them, thanks to the crystal’s reality-warping attributes. You must have scrounged enough crystals first, of course. This, too, is a welcome addition. The catch, however, is that you might go back and change a decision, only to find out later on that you chose correctly the first time. Oops.

Actions have consequences, so choose wisely

Actions have consequences, so choose wisely

Get Crafty

Chernobylite features crafting both in your home base and during missions. This crafting ability is as silly as it is in many games. Igor can ‘Macgyver up’ high-tech equipment out of old scrap and mushrooms. How he can do this has yet to be explained. Some of this equipment will be needed during missions, such as traps and healing salves, whilst others are for use in your home base.

A novel addition are the ‘environmental modifiers’ that you can craft in-mission. These reduce the Zone’s radioactivity and the frequency of the deadly ‘Chernobylite storms’. I found this ability to actively influence events occurring around you to be both liberating and satisfying. 

Resources are gathered in mission and can be highlighted by your combined Geiger counter–scanner gizmo. This makes resource gathering much quicker and easier, a boon if you are on a time limit. Which you are – sort of. More on that in a bit 

Base crafting in Chernobylite

Base crafting in Chernobylite

No Place Like Home

Your home base can be upgraded with various machines, workbenches, storage cupboards, etc. It is also where you and your team sleep, where you receive messages and missions via radio, and where you collate the various clues you discover on your travels. This creates a relaxing interlude between missions. You will probably need this to calm your frazzled nerves after a stressful excursion.

The relative comfort of your team affects their morale, so you will need to expend resources making your base a little more homely. You also need to feed them, so resource management is crucial. Allegedly, hogging the food or playing favourites adversely affects team morale, although I’m not sure what this does in-game. I suspect it may affect their performance on the missions you send them off to do. NB – thus far, your team does not accompany you on your missions. This team management mechanic is an excellent addition that adds an extra layer of depth and complexity to the game.

A good leader must take care of their team

A good leader must take care of their team

Claustrophobia

The most resource-rich areas tend to be the upper floors of buildings. Unfortunately, this is where the Shadows – mutated teleporting humanoid mutants – tend to lurk. From the ground floor, you can hear them stomping around upstairs. Do you go up to gather resources and risk getting cornered by the Shadows, or do you forsake the resources and beat a hasty retreat?

I have always liked games that force you to make these quick cost-benefit ratio decisions, so seeing it in here makes me very happy. To ratchet up the tension further, the game features many F.E.A.R.-esque jump scares in these confined spaces.

A 'Shadow'. One of Chernobylite's mutated enemies

A ‘Shadow’. One of Chernobylite’s mutated enemies

Characterisation

Chernobylite’s cast of NPCs is relatively small, but each is presented with a good deal of character and individuality. Personally, I prefer this to large numbers of mostly anonymous NPCs. I have noticed the traders appear to be a little ‘odd’. I’m not sure if this is an attempt at humour or if there is a reason for their questionable sanity which I have yet to discover. I look forward to finding out.

Just one of Chernobylite's slightly unhinged characters

Just one of Chernobylite’s slightly unhinged characters

Stormy Weather

Another interesting mechanic is the ‘Chernobylite storms’, which periodically happen during missions. As well as looking and sounding unnerving, these storms can spawn in monsters, and more troublingly, the Black Stalker, who will follow you relentlessly. Once this happens, teleporting out is the wisest option. This creates a ‘soft’ time limit on your excursions, forcing you to be selective about how much of a map to explore at any one time. I enjoy ‘soft’ time limits such as these as they create a sense of urgency whilst being less artificial than an arbitrary countdown. In theory, you could hang around for as long as you like; you will just have a hard time surviving if you choose to do so. I appreciate the devs granting the player this degree of freedom and autonomy.

The frequency of the storms is affected by your in-game actions, and they become more frequent as the days go on. In effect, the game gets harder the longer you play it. This forces a choice upon you as the player; do you keep the story missions as easy as possible by rushing through them – but doing so with an underpowered character, or do you level up by completing side quests first but face more difficult story missions afterward? The choice is yours.

Chernobylite storms have many effects – none of them is good for your health

Chernobylite storms have many effects – none of them is good for your health

One cut scene suggests that a calamity will happen on day 30 if you do not stop it in time. This may mean you have only 30 in-game days to complete the main story. If so, you may have to be selective about which missions to undertake. NB – I haven’t got that far yet, but I am intrigued to see what happens. 

Options, Options, and More Options

The game has separate difficulty settings for survival, combat, and management. Most in-game features, such as threat indicators, enemy health bars, etc., can be turned on or off to match the player’s preferences, as can most elements of the UI. As an advocate for player choice, agency, and customisation, I appreciate this a great deal.

Chernobylite offers a highly customisable experience

Chernobylite offers a highly customisable experience

Graphics and Audio – Scanned to Perfection

Chernobylite looks fantastic. This is due to using a combination of Unreal Engine 4 and The Farm 51’s scanning technology. Farm 51 travelled to the real-world Exclusion Zone to scan its many buildings and monuments. This contrasts well with the game’s weirder environments which wouldn’t look out of place in Remedy’s Control and if you enjoyed its perspective warping visuals, you would probably like these too.

The graphics are highly customisable. On high settings, it is near photo-realistic, but this can be scaled back for more modest hardware. Handily, the game comes with a benchmarking tool, allowing you to test in-game performance before starting the game. Unfortunately, Chernobylite currently has some very noticeable texture pop-in and LoD (Level of Detail) issues, as well as several graphical glitches. Hopefully, these will be fixed in time for its full release.

The weather effects are particularly well done. For example, storm winds will sway trees violently, and lightning will light up the scene. The soundscape is similarly impressive, environmental sounds especially so. Those winds howl unsettlingly, and the lightning cracks had me jumping out of my skin.

The music is an interesting mix of soothing acoustic tracks and Stranger Things-esque synth-wave. This makes some parts of the game surprisingly relaxing, and it fits the game’s relatively sedate pace. If you were hoping for something akin to The Only Thing They Fear is You, then you might be disappointed, however.

The main characters are competently voice-acted – except that everyone has British accents, which seems a little out of place considering most of them are supposed to be Eastern Europeans. If you have seen Enemy at the Gates, you will know what to expect. This is a little immersion wrecking, but it is also quite funny, even if this is probably unintentional.

Chernobylite was previewed on PC.

Summary
If you go in expecting a game like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (as I did at first) you might be as confused and disappointed as I was at the start. However, if you approach Chernobylite as a unique experience, and judge it solely on its own merits, you may grow to love it as I have. The game really comes into its own once you get past the introductory sections, and thus gain greater autonomy over your actions. I have enjoyed my time with Chernobylite, and I am looking forward to playing the finished product when it launches in July.
Good
  • Superb visuals
  • Very atmospheric
  • Intriguing story
  • Great characterisation
  • Novel death mechanics
Bad
  • Menu controls are not very intuitive
  • Small number of maps
  • Many graphical glitches
  • Very buggy

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grimisus

Great article! This game sounds really interesting and fun.

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