Cryostasis

My 11th grade English teacher once told me that the best an artist could hope for, in any medium, is to get a physical reaction out of their audience. I was never comfortable with that assertion. If that was all, couldn’t most pornography stand as the greatest artistic achievement of all time?

Instead, I grew an appreciation for the paintings of H.R. Giger and Francis Bacon, the films of Kubrick and Lynch, the writings of Kafka and Lovecraft. While I can appreciate a good attempt at catching me by surprise, I still prefer it when something manages to mess with my mind. If you really want to be effective in haunting me, a psychological reaction is the goal you should be aiming for.

Condemned, Scratches, Call of Cthulhu, System Shock 2, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., F.E.A.R., Silent Hill, Fatal Frame.

These are just a handful of games that managed to succeed in scaring me, either by filling me with a sense of dread or making me jump out of my chair and break into a sweat. But by turning on the light switch or quitting out the game, the power they held over me was removed in a split second. A physical reaction out of the audience was the most that developers seemed to aim for, but I longed for something more.

Cryostasis changed that for me.

It was difficult to know what I was getting into at first. As yet another one of those strange PC exclusives from a small team in the European Bloc, preliminary information on it was rather sparse. The little that was out there commonly used the phrase “Russia’s Bioshock” at every opportunity. Despite some similarities in early screenshots, this probably served more as a way to link an odd-looking indie game with a commercial success than anything else. If the game was influenced by any major Western studio, the thoughtful approaches to level design and scripted events from Monolith or Valve are more apt comparisons. It’s a strictly linear affair, albeit cleverly guided by natural signals and obstructions instead of condescendingly pushing you in the right direction. It also attempts to be an experience where even walking down an empty hall can lead to you losing your bearings.

It is here that the game ultimately succeeds. Most games go for the cheap scare, creating an artificial break that removes the player from environmental stimuli. The screen goes dark, or the music hits a crescendo before my actions justify the change in tone, or I enter a scripted event that even in first person view I’m not allowed to interact with. Developers love to purposely distance me from the experience, and then are baffled that I’m not immersed in it.

In contrast, Cryostasis doesn’t take the easy way out. I’m trapped inside a capsized ice-breaker for almost the entire narrative of the game. The game reminds me of that fact at every opportunity. The claustrophobic nature of each new room is heightened by the icicles hanging close to my head, which slowly forms into drops of water once I turn on another part of the dormant machinery. Nearly every room on the ship captures the feeling of isolation in visual form, when it isn’t obscured by the fog of my own breath.

The demonic beings of this environment don’t try to sneak up to me and take me by surprise. Instead, each creature has a unique, unsettling sound to willfully announce its presence. I'm forced to continually attempt to distinguish these noises amongst the wind pounding against the door, the rusty creaks from the distressed hull, and the soft crunch of snow beneath my boots. The mere hint of an impending encounter causes me to stop, tugging at primordial fight or flight reflexes. Conversely, I am often surrounded by silence, a further reminder that I am completely abandoned in this world. I become overly responsive to the strange noises of my unfamiliar surroundings, as there is no musical score at all to distract me. I never even stopped to think about how completely uncommon that is in a modern game, and how my comfort is worse for it.

Being prepared means using any weapon at my disposal. But between my poorly placed punches and shaky hands, none of them leaves me with a sense of safety. Guns of various types can be found quite easily, but they don't inspire confidence. Aiming through the iron sight can be an arduous task, and the disrepair and age of the weapons combined with my character’s general clumsiness means I don’t want to be caught by surprise by an enemy before I perform the agonizingly long process of reloading. I leave nearly every single fight with a sigh of relief, as it always feels like it was an encounter I barely made through alive.

But that isn’t the biggest of my worries. This is a ship capsized by an iceberg, after all, so my health meter is intrinsically linked to my own body warmth. I’m constantly in need of finding new and bigger heat sources to help avoid freezing to death. I must keep moving to survive.

In every moment of the game, I am in complete control, and because of that I’ve never felt so vulnerable.

Surprisingly, the game also manages to have an effective narrative through a macabre type of puzzle solving. Upon finding the bodies of the crew, I am forced to relive their last moments alive until I change the past to progress through an obstacle in the present. Combined with surprisingly excellent voice acting in these flashbacks and the narration of two seemingly disparate journals throughout my journey, I slowly unravel the uneasy and mysterious past that led to a catastrophic event.

But that’s not the reason why this game struck me harder than any other one I’ve ever played.

I just went through a particularly harrowing sequence where I needed to run outside to another portion of the ship. The harsh winter storm blocked my view, my loud chest cough signifying my inability to breath due to the severity of the wind, which made moving forward a tough enough task. I managed to find and open the door just before my body was going to refuse to take another step. I didn’t even have a chance to sigh in relief as the door closed behind me, as I immediately heard the loud clanking steps of what I found to be the most disturbing creature in the game. I could not bear any more pressure during that same evening. I hit the ESC key and called it a night.

Still shaken, I crawled into bed…and started to hear a distinct rattling sound. I turned the lights back on, and looked around. Was it an old pipe in the walls, an insect on the loose, or something else yet unknown?

It took me a moment before it dawned on me what the noise was.

I checked the heater and the thermostat. After confirming that they were both working just fine, I covered the bed with a second blanket and went back under the sheets.

I felt cold. Freezing cold, in fact, in a house above room temperature.

Hiding under the covers, I fell asleep that night listening to the sound of my teeth chattering, involuntarily. In my twenty years of gaming, I’ve never had a response as real as that night. Consider me haunted.

Comments

That tears it. This game has been on my list forever, I'm going to pick it up this weekend.

Quick warning to those thinking of picking this up: Try the demo first. It has insanely high system specs - my rig can play Crysis and Far Cry 2 at fairly high settings, but Cryostatis is unplayable at my default resolution with settings turned down. I have an 8800GTS 320 MB.

Really, really nice. I'd love to play this game...but need to wait for a new video card. Even with that, I don't deal well with horror games - though I'm trying to address that issue by playing through System Shock 2 - which is still giving me the creeps, despite laughable models by todays standards, through the amazingness of its audio alone.

Also, if you're looking for new experiences in the survival-horror genre, you really, really, really need to play Pathologic. You probably won't like it - but it's the only game I've played that's really disturbed me in the way you write above.

Nice writeup.
This is now on the summer list.

Crap!!! I took a look at the game some months ago in some preview video and thought about getting it.

Now after reading kuddles' review, I NEED to get.

But after Dysplastic's HW caution, I'll be PISSED if my rig can't run this game.

-----DL-----

Demo can be downloaded here:

http://www.evga.com/articles/00471/

Dysplastic wrote:

Quick warning to those thinking of picking this up: Try the demo first. It has insanely high system specs - my rig can play Crysis and Far Cry 2 at fairly high settings, but Cryostatis is unplayable at my default resolution with settings turned down. I have an 8800GTS 320 MB.

It is indeed a hog, but if you are getting really dismal performance on a relatively capable rig, you can sometimes fix the problem by disabling the Nvidia PhysX drivers. Demo first is definitely good advice, though.

Your article perfectly describes my feelings with the game. I finished it in about three sessions, so as not to lose that excruciating sense of dismay, and after the last "scene," I sat back in my chair, feeling like I could - for the first time since I started playing - actually exhale.

Now, in the end, I liked that about it, but it was still a tremendously heart wrenching experience.

I will admit right now that in an attempt to focus on how the game effected me personally, I didn't bring up that it has the typical glaring issue of a poorly optimized, somewhat buggy East European game, although it did manage to succeed in completely removing the barrier of poor localization that they also usually suffer from. To be honest the game never once crashed on me or caused a major issue, but it still never had the most stable ride. If you fell in love with my description but also can't stand the idea of playing an FPS outside of a completely stable framerate or with weird A.I. quirks, then I'll tell you to move right along.

Podunk is correct in that disabling the PhysX hardware stuff helps improve the performance, as does running the game with Shader Model 3.0 instead of 4.0. However, I will also say that some of the effects it creates helps sell the atmosphere far more in this game than in any of the others Phys-X was tacked onto so far. You may also want to wait a couple weeks before playing it, as both a patch for the game itself coming soon, and the most recent Nvidia PhysX patch are designed to help improve performance in the game.

For anyone still willing to take a chance, though, Direct2Drive has it at the price of $14.95 for this weekend only as part of it's sale of the Aspyr catalog.

Argh. I had been looking at this but waiting for some sort of review before I picked it up. I have this inexplicable attraction for eastern European imports like this. Now it looks like I'm going to have to pick it up tomorrow. Thanks for the review.

(Yeah it's on D2D (and cheaper) but I still have this strange need to actually own the media (despite having dozens of games in my Steam list; go figure). I think I've seen it at 19.95 around here somewhere.)

kuddles wrote:

I will admit right now that in an attempt to focus on how the game effected me personally, I didn't bring up that it has the typical glaring issue of a poorly optimized, somewhat buggy East European game

Which I actually appreciate. One of the things I like about the GWJ approach to game reviews is the lack of nitpicking for this sort of thing. I checked the Steam page for the game as I prefer to buy through them, and noticed the metacritic score was 69. Even for a snobby don't-care-about-numbers kind of person like me, that puts it far away from the range where I might even consider the demo. But like Demigod, Mount and Blade, and numerous other games, if it weren't for the perspective of people who see the game as an experience, rather than a product, I might never have been exposed to something great.

stupidhaiku wrote:

Which I actually appreciate. One of the things I like about the GWJ approach to game reviews is the lack of nitpicking for this sort of thing.

I agree completely - but that doesn't stop me from giving the disclaimer right away in the thread

Dysplastic wrote:

I agree completely - but that doesn't stop me from giving the disclaimer right away in the thread :)

Of course, it certainly needs to be mentioned in some way. It's just not my primary focus in evaluating whether a game deserves to be tried.

Thanks for the warning. I'll never ever pick up this game.

I hate games that makes you feel oppressive. I know, I'm a wuss..

Crashes on my system immediately after warning me that Shaders 4.0 are disabled.

ack, I like it when they make torrents out of demos. Is it bad that torrents often download faster and are a more stable distribution method? With the exception of things like steam and impulse, they work pretty well too.

Great "Perspective" Kuddles, I would try this game but my system won't handle it. Your review certainly made me give it a second look on steam, first time I said "Bioshock clone", But it certainly looks more interesting than that now.

This sounds very cool, especially the sound design. When that is well done in a game, it can make up for a multitude of sins. I was just thinking that the other night when I revisited the first level in Painkiller (which still holds up very nicely, I must say). Between waves of baddies (during which one hears heavy metal-esque battle music) everything would go quiet except for odd whisperings and growls, which given the sepulchral surroundings, really freaked me the hell out. Also, thinking back to System Shock 2, I remember those freaking lab monkeys with their screeching amidst the oppressive background drone of the spaceship's systems *shudder*. Not to mention the weird cries of the pipe and shotgun hybrids.

I would love to play this game; it's been on my radar for awhile. Unfortunately, I don't have a computer even close to running it.

And sound design does more to create a feeling of terror in a game than just about anything else. The best recent example of this I can think of is from The Path. Whenever your character begins to run, the screen darkens and the camera angle shows you less of what you're running toward, but more effective than either of those effects is the character's heartbeat thudding over the audio and the soundtrack being replaced by creaking noises and insistent, madding piano stabs. Even after you realise that your character is incapable of stumbling into danger that cannot easily be escaped from, running can be an unnerving experience.

I'm really interested in this game but I'm not sure I can bare through another buggy PC title. After playing vanilla S.T.A.L.K.E.R and Call of Cthulhu on PC I've pretty much lost all of my patience with titles like this. If the word is the patch makes this game playable I'll give it a shot, and I'm not very concerned with performance. Somehow I always manage to get EVERY single game ending bug or severe technical issue possible in every game I play, even terribly constructed console titles like Fallout 3. Playing a sh*tty buggy game and turning it off is easy, but there's nothing worse than playing an excellent game like Call of Cthulhu and having it break on you every 5 steps. Still this game looks amazing and I am really intrigued by it. The giant bomb guys talked about it pretty highly on their last podcast and that was the first I'd heard of it. With kuddles review I want to buy this game pretty badly, but this is why I'm slowly but surely losing interest in any PC title Valve doesn't make, I'm pretty much burned by the rest.

Wow, I don't play most of these 'scare' games because, well, I scare easy. Besides I already have high blood pressure and I don't need to test my medication. So I guess I won't be playing this one. But nice write up all the same, pretty amazing that it got to you at that level.

Gorilla.800.lbs wrote:

Crashes on my system immediately after warning me that Shaders 4.0 are disabled.

exact same problem, any suggestions of how to disable Shader 4.0 or turn off PhysX before running the game on the demo?

Damn you for such a compelling writeup. This game is now on my short list.

casual_alcoholic wrote:

I'm really interested in this game but I'm not sure I can bare through another buggy PC title. After playing vanilla S.T.A.L.K.E.R and Call of Cthulhu on PC I've pretty much lost all of my patience with titles like this. If the word is the patch makes this game playable I'll give it a shot, and I'm not very concerned with performance. Somehow I always manage to get EVERY single game ending bug or severe technical issue possible in every game I play, even terribly constructed console titles like Fallout 3. Playing a sh*tty buggy game and turning it off is easy, but there's nothing worse than playing an excellent game like Call of Cthulhu and having it break on you every 5 steps. Still this game looks amazing and I am really intrigued by it. The giant bomb guys talked about it pretty highly on their last podcast and that was the first I'd heard of it. With kuddles review I want to buy this game pretty badly, but this is why I'm slowly but surely losing interest in any PC title Valve doesn't make, I'm pretty much burned by the rest.

You just need to wait before playing them. Fallout 3 and Demigod are the only seriously buggy PC games I've played in a long time - mostly because I'm either happy waiting for patches to play the others or wait for the "all clear"from the community before buying.

I just saw a couple boxed copies of this sitting on the shelf next to a whole mess of various incarnations of Crysis. It looked lonely, lost and a little coldly dismissed. Unfortunately, the box itself did little to sell me any further on the game and there's a pretty good chance I would have completely forgotten it within a week's time had I not stopped by and seen this write up.

Needless to say, you've twisted my tune into another melody entirely. Sounds like quite the experience! Definitely going to have to give it a go.

Just finished it. Definately struck me as a "grownup" game, in terms of its narration. There's few things that are really clear and thouroughly explained, but instead you gain gleams of insight as you go along. Not even at the end did I puzzle everything together, but at least I think I understood the gist of it. I think there's something beautiful and solemn about the way it's told, and it left me feeling content and with the feeling that I just played through something very different (besides from the often dreary and overly clumsy combat sequences) and fresh, not unlike the feeling I got after finished something like Portal or Bioshock. I'm not saying that it holds up to those two in all aspects, but at I really liked the game and look forward to anything else the team behind it decides to do. It sure was worth 28 euros on steam for me.

It's an incredible system hog, as mentioned earlier. Although I heard it runs better on nvidia graphics cards. I have a quad 2.4ghz, 4 gigs ram and a ati 3870X2 and had to run at low settings to get consistent framerates.

Sofus wrote:

It's an incredible system hog, as mentioned earlier. Although I heard it runs better on nvidia graphics cards. I have a quad 2.4ghz, 4 gigs ram and a ati 3870X2 and had to run at low settings to get consistent framerates.

That's it, I waiting till my next PC update. Nothing is more frustrating and takes you out of the immersion that frame rate. Well there's the Blue Screen of Death, but that's the only one!

This 'Cryostasis' is on offer at Game in the UK.