The fascination with nuclear apocalypse as a form of horror is understandable given how the threat of it lingers in the background of our own lives as silent and menacing as radiation itself. The harrowing impact of a radioactive disaster can be seen in gut-punching films such as When the Wind Blows, where the terror is born from the bleak reality of what it can do.
Games tend to treat it as a grim playground, with the odd example party grounded in reality (S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Metro 2033). Chernobylite is another to take the real horrors of nuclear disaster with a large side of the fantastical. Does it do enough to differentiate from its fellow nuclear horror brethren?
As the name implies, the reality aspect of the game is in its setting of Chernobyl. Chernobylite attempts to faithfully recreate the surrounding area of the infamous real-life disaster, right down to the power plant at the center of it. Thankfully there’s no awkward attempt to sell it straight in the story. While the tale is undeniably linked to those tragic events, it manages to craft its own story through tough moral choices and flexibility to its survival systems.
Chernobylite sees the protagonist, Igor, once a physicist working at the power plant itself, haunted by his wife’s disappearance during the disaster some 30 years previous. He re-enters Chernobyl searching for her whilst forging unsteady relationships and encountering those who raid the wastelands for its tainted loot. If only that were the only threat out there. It seems the disaster has brought out something far more unpleasant and otherworldly. So far, so S.T.A.L.K.E.R. then, right? The comparison is fair as it naturally takes a lot of inspiration from that. The story structure is what sets it apart. Along the way, you’ll have to make choices, both on a personal level and in how you move forward and develop your headquarters. Any of these decisions can tilt the balance of an already hostile environment in favor of you or against you.
Choices in games are often quite straightforward when examined from afar, and usually have a negligible impact on the game world and its story overall. By ensuring both the narrative and the world can be altered in ways that are both big and small, Chernobylite’s exclusion zone manages to make you feel like you’re a part of its ecosystem.
The game’s depiction of Chernobyl is impressive. Not only as a recreation of the place itself (helped along by developer the Farm 51 actually going to Chernobyl and using 3D scanning tech to translate the real-world exclusion zone into digital form) but in the visual style, that captures the abandoned hell of the place in the present. Not as a rubble-strewn land of post-apocalyptic disaster, but as a place truly abandoned and feasted on by scavengers and invaded by nature, I’d almost prefer to explore it as is, rather than have the supernatural element digging its claws into the place, because plenty is haunting about Chernobyl without the need for ghouls and portals.
The meat of the game is about survival, so most of it is spent venturing into the exclusion zone, fending off the many hostile presences out for your blood, whilst looking for supplies and materials. That includes the titular Chernobylite, a fictional mineral created by the disaster zone that can be used to power a portal gun that can jump back and forth in time. Handy considering you’re searching for your wife, who vanished 30 years ago. The Chernobylite’s effects mean there are trips back in time to see the disaster as it occurred. It’s not the first piece of media to attempt such a depiction. Still, it naturally carries a risk of being tasteless, given real people actually died and others were impacted horrifically because of negligence and stubbornness. Thankfully, Chernobylite plays it fairly safe and respectful, preferring to focus on its own fictional, fantastical story first and foremost (even if that’s not necessarily the best part of exploring the exclusion zone).
Stealth is essential for survival here. Whilst there are firearms and plenty of unfriendly folks out in the exclusion zone, it’s often far easier to avoid confrontation by creeping around, conserving ammo for when you’ll really need it. When you have to interact with certain stalkers, words become just as impactful as any hollow points. Five particular character encounters can provide Igor with a new friend teammate; others are less permanent however you approach them. Trust is fragile, and good intentions won’t necessarily stop a ‘new pal’ from setting you up for an unwanted deadly retirement party, but if you’re to make it in this irradiated hell and hope to find Igor’s wife, having a few friends to hand is worth the risk. The key recruits are an interesting, if stereotypical, bunch—lots of dour guys with dark humor and a penchant for murder.
What makes the risk that choices bring less of an issue is the power of the Chernobylite itself. The portal between the past and the present allows Igor to view his own history, and alter certain events if he so pleases. So if you got betrayed and left for dead by a stalker who seemed friendly, you can go back and change the outcome so long as you have the required Chernobylite shards. It’s an interestingly open approach to choice-based mechanics, and much of the fun in this 15-hour game comes from rewriting Igor’s past and, as a result, transform the very dynamic and structure of the world itself.
Another key component of the game is building up Igor’s headquarters to accommodate his new roommates and gadgets better. Essentially acting as a hub, Igor’s base of operations can be upgraded by heading out and finding the right equipment and materials. It’s also an essential part of getting Igor ready for Chernobylite’s endgame; a daring heist that can be taken on at any time but is best tackled by assembling a team and getting the right tools for the job.
From this hub, Igor can send any of his buddies out to complete missions of their own in one of the six regions of Chernobyl or go out himself, and while it is a fascinating place to explore, what life is, or should be, there feels so disconnected from how real the exclusion zone can seem. Enemies, especially, are a backward step at present, looking and acting more like triggers for encounters than actual foes naturally wandering and interacting with the world.
The weird, but somewhat apt, side-effect of that is this ghost town ends up being more like an old-fashioned haunted house ride, with naff mannequins popping out once you trip a switch. Mentioned before how stealth is the optimal approach, and a big part of that is because actually fighting enemies is not all that enticing or enjoyable. There are too many bullet sponges and not enough tactical flexibility to make things interesting. It’s not bad combat, just a bit dull.
Unfortunately, the horror element does little to spice things up in this department. A persistent enemy with similar abilities to Igor shows up a lot to pursue him, but what threat this masked man carries is severely malnourished. Instead of being a symbol of certain doom, this pursuer has all the menace of a guy on the street with a clipboard and a worthy cause to sell you on.
The general spooky parts are similarly undercooked, with an unenthusiastic lineup of the ‘spooky things in first-person games checklist.’Again, I have to say this was definitely an instance where a game could have been plenty unnerving without resorting to the supernatural. Still, if you’re going to do it anyway, there are more inventive and effective ways to go about it.
So the true horrors of Chernobylite are best found in the haunting beauty of its bleak setting and the accompanying history it houses; luckily, there’s plenty of that and a fairly solid reason to take a look at it.
Chernobylite review code for PC provided by the publisher.
Chernobylite is out now on PC, and hits PS4, and Xbox One on September 7.