As terrible as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 was, the incident was within a hair’s breadth of being much worse. An experiment gone wrong caused two explosions in the Chernobyl plant’s Unit 4, killing two people instantly, 29 more over the following months, and affecting the lives of untold thousands to this day. The fires caused by the explosion were quickly put out, but the workers soon realized they had a much larger problem on their hands: The reactor of Unit 4 was still melting down. Underneath the reactor was a large pool of water that, if touched by the flow of radioactive sludge, would have caused a much larger explosion, destroying the entire power station and spreading huge amounts of radiation across half of Europe. This disaster was averted by three brave men, dubbed the Liquidators, who ventured into the bowels of the power plant to cut off the water supply. Thought to be a suicide mission, the three men miraculously made it out alive, with two of the team still surviving to this day.
Liquidators challenges the player to recreate their heroic act, using each of the three men strategically to get further through the maze of pipes and metal. A free first-person survival horror puzzler with dramatic consequences for failure, the game is a tense, grim experience.
The objective the player is given in Liquidators is deceptively simple: turn off six valves across the darkened bunker. Getting to each valve, however, is rather difficult. The flooded areas must be navigated carefully, as the men cannot swim in their heavy equipment. Piles of molten metal spike a character’s radiation level harshly when touched. High temperatures shatter the men’s flashlights, forcing them to grope forward blindly in the darkness. The world is dangerous at every turn, and a constantly saving system means every choice is permanent. As the player becomes more familiar with the game, however, they gain enough experience to overcome the seemingly impossible task.
Each of the three explorers has a special ability. Alexei is an electrician and can rewire panels to brighten rooms. Boris has high endurance and can charge through highly irradiated areas longer. Valeri is slim enough to climb through air ducts, finding safer paths through the bunker. The game is technically winnable with any of the three characters, but using their abilities at the right time makes the process so much easier. Even a fallen comrade can be useful — an unconscious companion emits a blinking green light, which can be used to illuminate dark rooms. Every piece of every puzzle is carefully thought out, and victory was all the sweeter when I finally reached the end on my fifth attempt.
A unique art style adds to the tension of Liquidators, a thick layer of pixelation and artifacting that reminded me of early FMV games. The blurriness of edges increases the difficulty in navigation, making it hard to tell exactly how far a blast of steam reaches or where a water level drops. This filter can be turned off for those who do not care for it, but the world is considerably less ominous in non-blocky form.
The game should have a warning up front for players sensitive to flashing lights, as flickering happens rather frequently throughout the adventure. The poorly functioning lights make sense from an atmospheric perspective, with the whole plant on the brink of collapse, but an option to remove the flicking would be helpful. Additionally, a minimalist, menacing soundtrack adds extra tension to the experience — the shifting of metal, ticking Geiger counter, and strained breathing all adding a sense of frailty to the protagonist.
Options in general are extensive in Liquidators but strangely get set back to the defaults at the end of every run. This was just a minor inconvenience for me, as I only adjusted the mouse look speed and audio mix, but it could cause problems for players adjusting video options. While most issues players might have are covered, I would also like to see some settings that would help with color blindness: The red text on the green Geiger counter would be illegible for such players, and the crosshair changing color to interact rather than shape is similarly unhelpful. Subtitles would also be a plus, as the crackly radio calls are barely intelligible.
Liquidators is a really intense experience. Exploring the bunker feels heavy and oppressive, but puzzling out the right route for each room is really rewarding too. I am amazed that the story of the Liquidators is not common knowledge, as these three ordinary men accomplished an incredible task.
If you enjoy the game, the developers have requested donations to charities that aid the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, such as Chernobyl Children International.
Next week we will be playing Everything is Garbage, a factory game where everything is powered by recycled materials. The game can be downloaded from itch.io. If you would like to share your thoughts, discussions will be happening in the Discord server.