The following review was written by a member of The Escapist community. For more information on community reviews, please see this forum thread
Cryostasis: The Sleep of Reason is a justifiable piece of art, created with little money, but plenty of love by Ukranian developer Action Forms. I’d been looking forward to it for a long while: All of this “Russian BioShock” talk makes it easy to be intrigued. And while this equally ambitious and bizarre game may have the creepy atmosphere, glistening visuals, and beautiful plotline as advertised, it is, in fact, not a shooter. Cryostasis is a first person survival horror game, for better or for worse.
The game is set on The North Wind, a nuclear icebreaker, that crashed in 1968. Players enter the game 13 years later, in 1981, and assume the role of Alexander Nestorov, a meteorologist tasked with figuring out mysteries of the North Wind. The concept is all well and good, but the plot takes awhile to get going. The main punch isn’t thrown until nearly the ending, so for most of the game the story is more “mysterious” than it is substantial or satisfying. Ultimately this is fine, because the final fourth of the game ties the whole story together; with the last encounter being way too awesome to spoil. Just make sure you’re paying attention to the [seemingly-lackluster] beginning, because past events are often referenced. There are even a few different endings to add some replay value.
Cryostasis’ magnificent tale unfolds via notes left behind by the original captain with cinematic flashbacks to 1968. At one point, you’ll be walking through the frozen sleeping area of the crew, when a flashback reveals the actual crew of 1968 resting All of this makes the North Wind feel like a real place. However, Cryostasis is an extremely linear game. Linearity isn’t an inherent problem, but in this case, it is a tad constricting. Cryostasis has an original setting that is begging to be explored, but you’re never given the opportunity. The “vibe” of the North Wind is great, but there is too much repetition from level to level.
Right from the get-go, Cryostasis flaunts this atmosphere and goes the whole nine yards to try and scare you. It really does have most of the trimmings survival-horror fans are accustomed to. However, it lacks the “jump out of your seat” element that others have in the genre. Cryostasis is mostly eerie, not scary — there is a difference. It’s clearly trying to go for psychological scares, but after the fifth or sixth repeat scare-tactic, enemies become more bothersome than frightening.
Horror elements aside, Cryostasis’ gameplay is an invariable checklist of “unique concept; poor execution”. As an example, take the single most interesting idea found in Cryostasis: “Mental Echoes”. Mental Echoes require Alexander to enter dead bodies and relive their final moments of life, usually to better his circumstances in the present. Mental Echoes are more like extended cinematics than puzzles. You have to fix something, but it’s usually obvious what needs to be fixed. More troubling than anything else is that Mental Echoes are poorly paced (i.e. fight with monster, small environmental puzzle, mental echo, repeat), and consequently, can become monotonous. If nothing more, playing as the dead crew adds narrative depth, in that their deaths feel more personal.
The health system follows the same mantra of cool idea, poor execution. Rather than the standard health regeneration, Cryostasis features health degeneration. You’ll gradually lose health due to the cold, and you can only restore health by finding a heat source. The best bit is that you can see cold areas physically affect your gameplay. For example, get too cold and you won’t be able to swing your axe as quickly,. Health and temperature are one and the same, so when you’re shot by an enemy you get colder. It doesn’t make much sense, but it’s another novel idea that other games should look to improve on.
Combat is easily the worst part about Cryostasis. Most of the game you’ll be fighting with your fists or various other melee weapons. The timing seems delayed, making it a rather clunky affair. Combat goes downhill when you obtain a bolt action rifle. The weapon is realistically inaccurate, and the reloading time is realistically long. It does add tension when unarmed enemies charge you, but during fire-fights, it’s unwieldy and annoying.
On a more pleasant note, the North Wind is an absolutely beautiful place. Textures, enemy design, and lighting effects are on a high level, with the “cold” being the biggest star. The cold effects are so well done you sense the chill on your own body. Cryostasis is, to my knowledge, the first game to use PhysX real time water physics, so water also looks really neat. When multiple enemies are on screen the frame-rate dips a bit, which is a nuisance considering that ammo is at a premium. Here’s the kicker: Cryostasis doesn’t run well on multi-core machines. The frame rate dips lower than normal, even with settings turned down. Also, Cryostasis only performs well on Nvidia graphics cards. There’s a noticeable difference between Nvidia and other video cards, so it’s definitely something to consider. Excuse these oddities, and for the most part, Cryostasis looks great.
And finally, the sound department deserves loads of credit. Sound is what really sells the atmosphere of any survival-horror game, and Cryostasis rises well above the competition. Music is absent (save one gut-wrenchingly perfect “credits” song), but again, the effects are extraordinary. The various creaks and groans of the North Wind are more mind-numbingingly terrifying than any four-eyed-monster could ever be.
Bottom Line: Cryostasis is more of an “experience” than a game. It’s committed to its unique setting and story, often at the expense of gameplay. FPS fans expecting non-stop action will be disappointed by the slow pace and repetitive environments, while others will appreciate the touching story, beautiful graphics, and bone-chilling sound effects. Cryostasis deserves to be classified as art; but then again, art is subjective.
Recommendation: If you’re the type of gamer that can overlook some gameplay flaws in favor of a great story, Cryostasis is for you. At a budget price ($30 on Steam), the cumbersome gunplay can be forgiven, because of the amazing, amazing story. Buy it.
— Oakley Haight (mjhhiv)