Almost two years ago to this day I took my first look at Chernobylite, a post-apocalyptic survival FPS set in the infamous Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The game was early in development at the time and the demo I played was pretty rough around the edges, but it did show potential. In the years since, the developers over at The Farm 51 put a lot of time and effort into exrpanding upon their original idea and turning Chernobylite into a solid – and at times unsettling – gaming experience.
While most of the core concepts that make up Chernobylite can also be found in other games, they manage to blend together in a unique and interesting way. From S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and This War of Mine to Fallout 4 and even a little Stranger Things thrown into the mix, Chernobylite takes inspiration from a number of sources to create its version of The Zone. Developing a title that pays tribute to so many different proprieties could have easily resulted in an incoherent mishmash of genres and themes or a game without its own identity. Luckily, Chernobylite doesn’t suffer from either of those problems.
A World in Constant Flux
The Zone has been the topic of many legends and myths following the 1986 nuclear disaster and has appeared in more than a few video games, movies, TV shows, books, and documentaries. Over the years various forms of media have depicted The Zone and the events that transpired at Chernobyl in a wide variety of ways. Form an unspeakable tragedy and cautionary tale in need of being respectfully recreated like in the 2019 Chernobyl HBO mini-series, to a cheap plot device or background story like in Netflix’s recent Chernobyl: Abyss movie.
Chernobylite takes a quasi-realistic approach by using an accurate recreation of The Zone as its basis and then stacking paranormal and science-fiction elements on top. The developers visited the exclusion zone on many occasions while working on the game and used sophisticated 3D scanning techniques along with drone footage to recreate it digitally as best as they could. During the initial stages of the game, The Zone looks so true to life that you would be excused for thinking you were playing a simulator. Rundown houses and abandoned buildings can be found everywhere and there are no signs of life aside from the occasional stalker or NAR soldier. The world feels mostly desolated but things quickly take a turn for the strange.
As you progress through the game, The Zone gradually transforms from an eerie yet somewhat serene wasteland to a place crawling with bizarre monstrosities. And often even more bizarre people. The changes are very gradual at first but ramp up quickly towards the later stages of the game. Player choices have a direct impact on some of the changes but the biggest factor is Chernobylite itself, a mysterious element that appeared in the wake of the 1986 nuclear disaster.
The element has many potential applications, from powering the main character’s wormhole generator to creating super soldiers to being used in the manufacturing of exotic weapons and armor. Although usually encountered in crystalline form, Chernobylite is described as being somewhere between organic and non-organic matter, with some speculating it’s more like a virus than anything else. A virus with access to other dimensions.
Chernobylite has a tendency to corrupt everything it touches. The paranormal creatures you occasionally see roaming The Zone seem to be infused with the stuff and you run into more than a few people and buildings covered in it, especially in the later missions. While the shadowy organization known as the NAR uses Chernobylite in disturbing experiments aimed at pushing the limits of human physical and psychical abilities, protagonist Igor Khymynyuk mainly uses it to further his personal agenda.
A Story Filled With Intrigue and Mystery
Igor Khymynyuk is a brilliant scientist-turned-stalker who used to work at Chernobyl before the disaster alongside his fiancé, Tatyana. While Igor walked away relatively unharmed from the nuclear power plant explosion, Tatyana’s fate is unclear and we spend most of the game trying to figure out what happened to her.
As the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, we stumble across more questions than answers. I found myself wondering on multiple occasions whether Tatyana is still alive after all these decades or just a figment of Igor’s imagination. We routinely see, hear, and dream about her but, then again, so do a lot of other people in The Zone.
Chernobylite offers a surprisingly intriguing story, though it may not seem like it at first glance. After all, a guy having to surpass insurmountable odds to find his long-lost love is a premise we’ve seen plenty of times. However, The Farm 51 manages to put enough twists on the idea to keep things interesting. For starters, we learn at various points throughout the game that Tatyana has been hiding a few things from Igor and isn’t exactly the woman he thought she was. Then, there’s Igor himself, a morally gray character who often puts his own desires before the greater good.
But the biggest twist comes halfway through the game when Chernobylite introduces a new mechanic that plays around with the idea of time travel. I was genuinely taken aback by how the mechanic was introduced and it ended up being the most memorable moment of the entire game for me. Which is why I don’t want to spoil it too much. But I do have to mention that this mechanic gives the player the power to change past events and can be used pretty much at will once you unlock it, provided you have enough resources.
A Band of Unlikely Allies
Chernobylite is a game where player choices affect how certain events unfold. Don’t expect something as complex as a Bioware RPG, though there are some similarities. Your choices have long-lasting consequences but you can generally only choose between one of two outcomes in any given situation. In many of these situations, it feels like having an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other, as your companions tend to comment on what you should do and they’re almost always on opposite sides of the argument. This system is pretty reminiscent of the one found in the original Mass Effect, only here every important choice you make past the first few missions will result in pissing off one of your companions.
Your companions’ have their own agendas and their attitudes towards you will increase or decrease depending on the choices you make. Maintaining a good reputation with them doesn’t provide any significant benefits but you don’t want to upset them too much because that may cause them to leave your crew. And since pissing someone off during an important mission is unavoidable, you’ll often have to juggle between making the choices you want and making the choices that will prevent people from leaving the team. This is a bit of a flaw in my opinion because having to manage happiness levels tends to force you into making choices you might dislike. Having a third option designed to appease all parties involved (at least on occasion) would have made this less of an issue.
There are five squadmates you can recruit throughout the game. Each of them brings different skills to the table, which you can learn provided you have enough experience. The way you learn new skills in Chernobylite is well thought out. In most games, you magically unlock new skills simply by fulfilling certain level requirements and spending skill points in a menu. On rare occasions, you may need to talk to an NPC who will explain how to use your new skill. Here, not only do you have to speak to one of your companions if you want to learn something, you’ll need to go out in the field with them and put it into practice.
One of the first skills you can learn early on in the game allows you to inflict more damage when using a revolver. Instead of simply spending some points to learn the skill, you go with your crew’s handgun expert to an improvised shooting range for target practice. A different companion will send you on a timed run to collect a bunch of herbs and mushrooms so you can improve your gathering skills. In another instance, I had to successfully sneak up to my crewmate in order to improve my stealth skill. In a few cases you can learn new skills by simply having a conversation with the NPC, however, it unusually involves some sort of practical element.
Companions have a lot more dialogue than you might expect from a game like this and the voice acting is pretty solid. I do have to mention that I went with the Russian version of the audio for added immersion even though I don’t know the language. I can’t really speak on how good the English version is but the Russian actors definitely do a good job at playing characters that spent a little too much time soaking up Chernobylite and radiation in The Zone. A couple of your companions sound completely demented most of the time while another one is a few cards short of a full deck.
Most other characters you encounter while exploring The Zone are less noteworthy, though there are one or two exceptions. My personal favorite was Evgeniy, a squatting Gopnik who wanders the exclusion zone selling loot boxes and listening to hard bass.
I also liked how The Farm 51 handled Igor’s long-lost fiancé, his main antagonist, The Black Stalker, and some of the other more serious characters. However, I found myself drawn time and time again to the freaks and crazies of The Zone. People like the unhinged landlord Mikhail, the shaman Tarakan, and the aforementioned Evgeniy. These characters inject a welcome dose of humor in what is an otherwise bleak game and often come off as the complete opposite of Igor, a pragmatic and level-headed man of science.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to interact a whole lot with characters during missions. Side characters only have a handful of lines of dialogue while companions speak to you only via radio.
A Handful of Everything
The basic gameplay loop is pretty straightforward. Each day you have one maybe two story missions you can pursue along with a handful of non-essential missions you can assign to your companions. These side missions consist of supply runs where companions travel to assigned areas and collect whatever resources they can. They don’t usually bring much back to base, though. Companions can get hurt or captured during missions but that can easily be avoided by making sure your base is comfortable, giving them proper equipment, and sending them on missions where they have a high chance of success.
It’s unfortunate that companions don’t play a larger role in the gameplay because the way the mission board is implemented is really interesting. You start off with an overview of the five areas that comprise The Zone and a short description of each available mission. You can then decide where to send each companion and where to assign Igor. The Zone changes gradually throughout the game and you can use the overview to get an idea of what to expect. Once everybody has been assigned to an area, you go on your own mission and your companions go on theirs.
Due to the small number of maps available in the game you’re going to be visiting the same areas on several occasions. This isn’t a big drawback during the early game when you’re still figuring things out but it does get a bit tedious eventually. For what it’s worth, the developers did their best with what they had and tried to keep things fresh by adding new NPCs, events, and enemies every time you return to an area. You also come across places you can’t enter unless you have certain items with you, such as lockpicks. Finally being able to unlock these places upon your third or fourth visit can be rewarding.
There are a couple of other mechanics designed to ensure that you don’t get too bored exploring the same areas. Violent storms will eventually start to form and blast you with bolts of green lightning if you stay too long in an area. “No problem, I’ll just stay inside a building,” I hear you say. Well, if you still refuse to leave, The Black Stalker will show up and start hunting you. The Black Stalker is a powerful and menacing Chernobylite-infused foe that can make short work of you in the early game. Honestly, I didn’t stick around long enough to find out what happens if he catches you.
Later on in the game, you don’t feel the same sense of urgency to leave an area because you’ll be well-equipped to handle everything the game throws at you. Not just that but you can mitigate or even reverse the changes happening in The Zone by building structures that slow down radiation growth, delay Chernobylite storms, and limit the number of monsters that spawn in the area.
Speaking of monsters, you’ll only encounter a handful of different types throughout the game. The monsters in Chernobylite are well-designed and quite terrifying but the game could have used a lot more enemy variety. The only other enemies are NAR soldiers, who come off as generic bad guys. In addition to the standard NAR grunts, you come across a couple of other types of soldiers with better armor and equipment later on in the game but they don’t pose much of a challenge either.
A Place to Call Home
Crafting in Chernobylite works similar to what you can find in recent Fallout games. This applies to both base building and equipment crafting. Fortunately, the base building occurs on a small scale and never gets annoying. Outside of a small selection of structures you can construct out in the field, you can only build inside your main base of operations where you’ll be spending a good chunk of your time speaking with companions and conducting investigations. There’s a good selection of things you can build inside your base, including workbenches, generators, crafting tools, furniture, and more.
Among other things, you can build a variety of upgradable weapons. You only have conventional weapons at first like the AK-47 or the revolver, but later on you can also build a couple of Chernobylite-powered weapons. Including one that’s basically the BFG 9000 from Doom Eternal. If you were focused on stealth before, you’ll probably want to start shooting stuff once you unlock those bad boys.
In terms of armor, the situation is similar. There are three tiers of armors you can unlock and you can enforce them to make them stronger. Other craftable items include the usual things you would expect to see in a post-apocalyptic survival game, such as first aid kits, gas masks, anti-radiation pills, food rations, and of course Alcohol. This is Eastern Europe after all.
A Universe Full of Posibilities
Chernobylite is a very ambitious game that tries to blend together a lot of different genres and mechanics. And, for the most part, the game does a good job at it. Chernobylite certainly has its shortcomings but I feel like a lot of them could be remedied in future updates and DLC. Things like additional weapons, enemy types and even maps can be introduced further down the road and some of the jankier mechanics can hopefully be fixed post-launch as well.
But even in its current state, Chernobylite is a unique game priced reasonably at just $30. You can easily get 20-25 hours of gameplay out of it during a single playthrough, possibly more if you take your time exploring every nook and cranny. We’ve seen plenty of so-called AAA games recently asking twice as much money while offering half as much content. Chernobylite is the sort of twisted sci-fi we need more of and I hope The Farm 51 continues to expand the universe they created because it’s weird in all the right ways.
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Chernobylite is an unexpected treat for fans of weird sci-fi and storytelling driven by player choices. While not without its shortcomings, the game’s core mechanics, exotic characters and intriguing plot are solid enough to keep you engaged throughout its 20-25 hour runtime. The game also offers the most immersive version of the Chernobyl exclusion zone to date and is worth picking up just for the exploration aspect alone.