Perhaps the most infamous example of human ingenuity gone wrong, state-controlled secrecy and hubris, is the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine was the site of a catastrophic explosion, destroying one of the reactors and releasing massive amounts of deadly radiation into the surrounding area. This lethal contamination led to the rapid evacuation of the nearby city of Pripyat and the establishment of a 2,600km² exclusion zone around the plant which, to this day, remains shrouded in mystery and dread. It’s no wonder then, that it has been the inspiration for countless movies, television shows and video games, with its abandoned structures and shadowy forests serving as the perfect backdrop for dark and thrilling narratives. Enter Chernobylite, a sci-fi survival horror RPG from The Farm 51 and All In! Games, which is launching out of Early Access and puts you in the unenviable boots of Igor Khymynyuk, Eastern Europe’s answer to Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman.
The game opens in an alternate reality, where former physicist and reactor employee Igor, is leading a small team to recover some of the eponymous Chernobylite, an exotic material created during the reactor explosion and housed exclusively within the smouldering remains. However, Igor also has an ulterior motive – to investigate the disappearance of his fiancé, Tatyana, who mysteriously vanished on the day of the incident and has recently been speaking to him in his dreams. The mission swiftly goes sideways and Igor is forced to retreat to an empty warehouse on the outskirts of the exclusion zone. From there you must explore the corrupted wastelands, scavenge what you can to arm yourself, put together a team of dangerous individuals and build a base to keep you all alive. As if the silent but still very deadly threat of radiation exposure wasn’t enough of a threat in your quest for answers, you’ll also be forced to deal with heavily armed mercenaries, warped biological monstrosities and the frighteningly powerful ‘Black Stalker’.
I’d walk my dog here if it weren’t for that radiation warning sign
While the core gameplay of Chernobylite is clearly influenced by similar titles such as Fallout 4, S.T.A.L.K.E.R and the Metro series, it weaves together the best parts of these games in a unique and wonderful way, as well as mixing in some unexpected and interesting mechanics alongside them. You begin each day in Chernobylite by waking up in your warehouse base, presented with several missions and forced to decide how you want to spend your precious time. Do you want to hijack a mercenary supply drop for the vital anti-radiation medicine or food within? Should you instead comb the crumbling and irradiated remains of the city for clues about Tatyana and conspiracy around the reactor explosion? Or is it more important to investigate the voice on the other end of the crackling radio, potentially adding companions to your team? Each of these missions is only available to embark upon for a limited amount of time, à la Dead Rising, so each morning you must choose between strengthening your position or uncovering the truth.
Luckily, you don’t necessarily have to face these challenges alone. As I mentioned before, you have the opportunity to recruit some badass buddies, ranging from battle-hardened mercs to a brain-addled old man who chose to remain in the exclusion zone when everyone evacuated. In exchange for food and shelter at your base, these folks can be assigned the daily missions you can’t do, gathering materials and supplies for your team while you chase down the narrative threads. They also help Igor’s progression by offering lessons in surviving the wasteland such as upgrades to stealth, damage and resource harvesting. Be warned though, their safety and loyalty aren’t guaranteed and you’ll need to take care of their needs as well as arm them properly for them to succeed in their errands (and stay alive!). These people aren’t mindless drones either, they have their reasons for joining you, their own stories to tell and the choices you make during your playthrough will determine who decides to stick around and who will dump you like radioactive waste. The companion management aspect of Chernobylite was very different to what I was expecting and felt more akin to This War of Mine than something like Fallout.
Glad to see that everyone is wearing their mask indoors
Once you’ve decided what you and your team are doing for the day, you’ll be dropped into the exclusion zone, where it becomes a more familiar experience to fans of the genre. As Igor, you must stalk around gorgeously macabre locations, completing your assigned task, gathering building materials and scrounging for food. Being a first-person stealth/shooter, you can either go in guns blazing against a mercenary army and mutant horrors (not recommended) or take your time and hide to avoid conflict. Given that Igor isn’t a superhero, murdering people and exposing him to otherworldly events and individuals will take a toll on his psyche, which must be managed while in the field, lest he start to hallucinate. You’ll also have to keep an eye on your combination resource scanner/Geiger counters though kids, because invisible pockets of radiation can impede your progress and rapidly send you to an early grave. These sections of the game are where you’ll be spending most of your time and although they don’t do anything terribly different than other FPS titles, the stealth, exploration and gunplay are all well executed and enjoyable, if a little undemanding.
This would go for a pretty penny on the Australian property market
Surviving the day will bring you back to your base, where you’ll need to debrief and feed your troops, review any clues you may have found and use your scavenged materials to furnish your warehouse. You’ll of course need to build beds and workbenches, but also things like power generators, radiation cleaners, air purifiers and small gardens to grow food. If you neglect to improve your dwelling, your companions can get sick or angry and bail on you, so it’s important to plan your builds around their needs. There are also specific stations you can build that turn raw materials into useful tools for your daily missions, like med-kits, lock picks, armour, weapons and upgrades. As mentioned earlier, you’ll have access to a conspiracy board where you can examine letters, photos and files found in the world to piece together things like where Tatyana may have gone and the identity of the Black Stalker. I didn’t realise until later in the game that you can also build traps and certain structures while out in the world, which can help with environmental hazards and dealing with enemies. There are also some very interesting and unique mechanics and settings within Chernobylite that I’m intentionally not mentioning, as I think it’s better for you to experience first hand. Suffice it to say that the gameplay loop is not necessarily as simple as it may seem from this review and things will most certainly get weirder as you play.
The exclusion zone is massive and in order to keep things manageable, Chernobylite has broken it into sections for you to travel to each day. These areas include; Pripyat Port, Kopachi village, the Red Forest, with each area meticulously recreated in the game to be as close to their real-world counterparts as possible. Broken buildings, burnt-out cars and barren planes have all been made using maps and photo-scanned textures which adds a beautiful level of authenticity to the environments. The developers even have location comparisons and site visit videos on their YouTube channel, which I recommend you check out if you’re interested. The sound design is also phenomenal, from the warped floorboards creaking under the weight of a shuffling monster to the wind whistling through a broken window and even the sinister clicking of your Geiger counter, it all really enhances the sense of isolation and dread associated with the area.
“50,000 people used to live here…now it’s a ghost town”
I have heard that the Early Access version of Chernobylite suffered in performance, but I am happy to report that in the 20 odd hours that I’ve played, I didn’t encounter any issues that stood out. When I first booted up the game there was slight screen tearing during the opening sequence and occasionally it will stutter when loading between sections, but otherwise everything ran as smooth as butter for me on all the highest settings. Given the fidelity of the assets and environments, it’s also not terribly demanding in terms of hardware needed to run it, but of course, mileage will vary depending on your PC.
The only gripes that I have with the game are fairly minor and really come down to personal preference. Although the narrative and the missions are fairly interesting, visiting the same locations multiple times (as gorgeous as they are) can become a little repetitive after a while. The placement of items, enemies and starting locations does vary as you visit them, but a lot of the mystique around an abandoned hospital, for example, wears off once you’ve explored it a few times. Also, for something that bills its self as ‘survival horror’, I didn’t actually find it that scary. Sure, there are some fantastic jump scares that definitely got me, and an overall sense of foreboding, but after a while, I barely hesitated to run headfirst into crumbling buildings. I was playing on the medium difficulty setting so perhaps the enemies are a bit more threatening on higher difficulties. If you’re familiar with games like this, I recommend trying to up the difficulty on your first playthrough to keep it interesting. I also recommend playing with the Russian voice-over option, as this feels like a better reflection of the characters and narrative. The English voice-over is okay, but can sometimes be distractingly average, pulling you out of the moment completely. Finally, the building mechanics feel a little unintuitive compared to other games. I eventually got used to it, but I often had to go in and out of menus (using ‘F’ and ‘Tab’ for some reason) to find what I actually wanted to build.
I wanted to make a “3.6 roentgen – not great, not terrible” joke, but this game is actually fantastic
I have thoroughly enjoyed playing Chernobylite and I look forward to replaying to discover the multiple conclusions it offers. It’s a great example of a dedicated and talented team of developers and an early access success story. I highly recommend checking it out if you’re a fan of the multiple genres it spans or even if you just find the mystery and dread surrounding the exclusion zone interesting. At the very least, you’ll get to see what the rapid evacuation of 50,000 people does to a city, without the risk of radiation poisoning (or worse).
Chernobylite is available now on PC but if you would prefer to experience this fantastic game on console, it will be releasing on PS4 and Xbox One on September 7th 2021, with a PS5 and Series X and S version later in the year.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher
- The Farm 51
- All In! Games
- July 28, 2021