Electron Dance
24May/11Off

925 on Cryostasis

Cryostasis is the bastard child of genius and train wreck, a game developer's version of Schrödinger's live-dead cat paradox. A quick glance might judge it to be a broken horror first-person shooter... but this would be an unfair assessment.

Cryostasis is a story. A story that isn't even yours.

Time and Temperature

The game's silent protagonist is investigating what happened aboard the stranded icebreaker North Wind. It doesn't take long for bizarre ice zombies to make an appearance - zombies that may have been the ship's crew.

Cryostasis offers two twists on the usual FPS structure. One is that heat replaces health. This means you spend most of your time hovering around heaters and light bulbs trying to "charge up" your body temperature. This sets the game up as a battle between heat and the cold – a battle that, as Cryostasis progresses, becomes more explicit than you might expect.

The developers pulled out all the technical stops to make to heighten the impact of temperature in the game. Switching on a heater will rid a cabin of ice and it doesn't just feel warmer but safer. In contrast, wandering around in a blinding blizzard is frightening and dislocating.

The other twist is your character's psychic ability. He can project himself into the memories of the dead and participate in them to change the present. Like another game with a similar conceit, Second Sight, you don't have any choice to do anything other than what the developers have laid out for you. If you see a dead guy with a flickery red light in his head, you know it's time to go trawling the past to make progress.

What I came to realise was this ability was implemented as a storytelling device rather than a placebo for player empowerment. This device is crucial to the success of Cryostasis.

Nuance

Whilst some information is communicated to the player through the occasional handwritten note, most of the back story is witnessed first-hand. Flashbacks show how the crew worked together and like me, you may at first think these historical interludes are badly written. They seem to reveal nothing of import. Over time you realise that, at its core, Cryostasis is a story about people not events. Knowing this is not just important to appreciate the story of the North Wind but also the game's bold ending.

The ending is bold because there's no hamfisted exposition tying the whole thing up which could leave some players in the dark. Cryostasis maintains a disciplined, nuanced storytelling approach all the way to the credits. I didn't realise until the endgame that the cold did not represent "evil" as I had assumed, changing the meaning of everything I had seen.

The more I chew over Cryostasis, the more impressed with the experience I become. And so it kills me to say this.

I can't recommend it.

Hunchback Design

For an FPS, it's woefully implemented. Cryostasis offers a selection of firearms and melee weapons to take down the icebreaker's horrors but they are imprecise and unwieldy, leading to fights that are frustrating and rarely fun.

The position and size of the protagonist's hands on the screen sometimes lends your character a hunchback feel. To compound this, the performance of the game is terrible and I had to reduce the resolution to 800x600 - which could only reduce and not eliminate graphical stutter.

There were game-breaking issues with the saves. Frequently, even though the game had confirmed it had saved my progress, I couldn't locate my saves afterwards.

There were bad design calls too. There's a surprise attack which kills you instantly and the only way to survive is know in advance that it's going happen, so the attack is a guaranteed game stopper first time around. There's another difficult encounter near the end where I died within seconds again and again, almost powerless in the face of a speedy and apparently unstoppable opponent. Reloading a save point takes a long, long time, which made this almost unbearable. It took me at least half an hour of solid insta-death repetition to "solve" this puzzle at which point it became a genuine adrenaline-fest. It would have been marvellous if the developers had managed to exclude the frustration from the sequence.

The game can also be a bit cheap with its horror. Cryostasis relies too much on Doom 3-like scares. In its worst excesses, enemies spawn out of small corners that you had already explored and cleared moments earlier.

I might have been lucky as I played over many months which prevented the frustration hardening into permanent disaffection. I imagine a weekend of dedicated play might have compelled me to quit well before the credits.

Valve-esque

But despite this baked-in frustration, Cryostasis is a rich and memorable experience.

When blundering through the blizzard outside, you'll often wonder if you saw something move up ahead. I'm damn sure at least one of those times something did move.

In another scene, someone is trapped on the other side of a window and asking for help - what follows is gripping stuff. And I haven't told you about the level devoted to mood and story, dispensing with combat completely? And the cow and the polar bear? And the poetic descent into the endgame?

I have no qualms saying that Cryostasis feels Valve-esque in holding a strong show-not-tell line. The game bears such beautiful narrative work that it's a crying shame the thing is trapped within a poor implementation of a FPS.

Post-game buzz: Amazing and terrible. Well plotted and badly implemented.

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Comments (16) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Often times I’ll complain when a game with excellent design is stuck with a poor plot or shallow characters; I’ve rarely found myself so disappointed with poor design that I let it overshadow a truly great story. I’ll put up with a lot for a great story. I’ll probably try and check this one out just because my fictional appetite is always looking for something new.

    Good write up, sir.

  2. Good write-up indeed. Cryostasis is a tough one. Everything HM says is true, it’s a game that should have been better. Better technically, better mechanically, better as an experience. It’s one of those games that innovates a lot, but can’t bring the game part to the table.

    @Jordan – my advice is to look for Cryostasis on a Steam sale or something. Not because you might not like it, but because it might not run properly on your rig. As far as I know this game is very persnickety about who it works for.

  3. Interesting write-up. I acquired this one in a Steam sale and have yet to dabble; now I feel that I should, flawed or not.

  4. Hi Joel, I love your blog, I have been reading it for a few months back. I was in conversation the other day and was brought up some new classy games magazine I think you might have blogged about (now in its 4th issue or there about). But I don’t recall what is was called. Is this ringing any bells.

    Adam

  5. @Adam – I bet you’re thinking of Kill Screen. I’ve really been enjoying it so far.

  6. Thats the bad boy, thanks.

  7. I had been interested in Cryostasis after the Idle Thumbs talks about it. Unfortunately this does not sound good, a good story can be gripping despite some mechanical flaws (the Soul Reaver series). However, the flaws here seem to be a bit much. It doesn’t do any of those Death -> Reload -> Watch ‘cutscene’ -> Death -> Reload loops does it? If it does then it can bugger right off.

  8. Well, I played through Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corner of the Earth, so I think I’ll put up with Cryostasis just fine. Sod your recommendation!*

    *I mean that in the most respectful way possible. How serious is “sod” anyways? I’ve only heard it mostly in humorous contexts, but the same could be said for “shut the fuck up”. You see my dilemma here.

  9. Right, I’m back. Back with sunburn on my feet. My fingers are still good though, still good.

    @Jordan: Steerpike is right, I’ve heard reports of Cryostasis working just and other times working like a dog. I’d caught wind of one recommendation to change the shader model in the video options but made no difference here. The story is also spaced out across a lot of fights which means that you are made to work for the narrative.

    @Adam: Yep, as Steerpike said, Kill Screen. Here’s the post where I discussed the second issue. They’re pumping out online material regularly as well – I haven’t made my mind up whether that enhances the print edition with publicity or diminishes its value. I keep meaning to write up a Friday post about the third issue…

    @BC: In fact, the sequence I mentioned with the quickload-quickload-quickload does actually force you through a sort-of-cutscene if you rely on the autosave. The quicksave can get you over that though. I went through the cutscene about ten times before I decided enough was enough. I think everyone will find something to hate about Cryostasis but, similarly, find something to love. Tom Jubert talked about it too, after I had started my own game (for reference, my first saves are dated Sep 2010 and I completed the game early May 2011).

    @BeamSplashX: I loved Call of Cthulhu and I don’t think that suffers from anything like the issues Cryostasis flails around with. Its gameplay is more rewarding and innovative and there are fewer technical issues. Who can forget the flight from your bedroom with nothing but, well, bolt locks to save you? “sod” is not in the same ballpark as “shut the fuck up” it’s more like a gentle slap on the wrist, with a lingering caress. Thanks for that.

    If any of you do have a crack at Cryostasis, I would love to hear what you thought of it and whether you made it through to the end of the game.

    I should also point out I kept my resolution high at 1920×1200 for a long time which was a bad decision as the game frequently lurched in unplayability. I surrendered to low res only over the last few chapters of the game.

  10. Welcome home, HM! Home being the internet, of course.

    I’ll get back to you about Cryostasis in a year or so. I guess.

  11. @BeamSplashX: Oh it doesn’t take that long to play. It’s just me and my playing habits. Most of the time I wasn’t excited enough to play on and had better things to do – it seems the gambler in me hasn’t retired just yet.

  12. Actually, I’m talking about the timeframe of getting a better computer to play it on, and then actually playing it through. Though “Took Joel Goodwin a year to beat!” could be an interesting bullet point for future marketing.

  13. @BeamSplashX: I’d buy that for a dollar.

    Great write up Joel and I’m glad you’ve covered this because I’ve so nearly bought it a few times. There’s a side of me that really wants to play Cryostasis but the cat scares and insta-death loops are giving me cold feet. Har har, cold feet.

    I’ll get me coat.

  14. Just to clarify, the Doom 3 style scares and insta-death are not really defining of the experience, they are just examples of where the game is let down – the real problem is the frustration the play evokes due to both design and technical issues.

    Jim Rossignol concluded his Eurogamer review with “Cryostasis is a brave, fascinating, often very beautiful game, but I find it impossible to recommend it…”

    The comments on the article, however, are quite something. Someone says console graphics are much better than PCs because PCs need all this stupid cooling and, blammo, goodbye cruel world.

  15. If someone cannot run it decently or has a low patience treshold, I’d suggest to watch this LP: http://lparchive.org/Cryostasis-%28by-Blister%29/

  16. Wow, Fede, that’s pretty awesome. Brought back some memories from last year =)


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