Chernobylite review

By Tom West,
Chernobylite is dubbed a survival horror RPG, but it is really its own beast. Sure, the game borrows elements from both genres, but the resulting experience is neither here nor there when compared to them... and that’s what makes it so fantastic. It’s the blend from those two genres that gives Chernobylite the edge it needs to stand out from the other titles clawing for attention in the post-apocalyptic crowd. There is no doubt that The Farm 51 poured every ounce of love it could into this title, sculpting a time machine that not only transports the player to a land frozen in time, but also blends a layer of science fiction with it that feels natural and sends your mind into a state of imagination.

chernobylite review

As many of you know, the Chernobyl disaster in northern Ukraine of 1986 is one of the worst nuclear disasters that the world has seen, resulting in around 117,000 people being removed from a 19-mile (30-kilometre) radius of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The nuclear fallout from the disaster was so extreme that the nuclear clean-up operation isn’t planned to be completed until 2065, leaving Chernobyl and the neighbouring town of Pripyat frozen in time. It’s easy to understand why the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has captured the attention of many around the world, including The Farm 51, which had a team enter the zone to use a 3D capturing technology that would allow them to recreate the current state of the zone.

Chernobylite puts us into the shoes of a physicist called Igor, who has returned to Chernobyl after 30 years to find his missing fiancée, Tatyana. It’s a story that I initially believed to be a straightforward romp through the exclusion zone, kill some bad guys, save the girl, and watch the credits with a heroic feeling in my chest... simple. No, not simple, and nowhere close to the experience that this game offers. What I was confronted with instead was a multifaceted story that had me believing that I knew what was happening and where it was going, and then it wrapped it up in a little package and slapped me in the face with it. The story is beautifully crafted, with enough player choice that many will have differing experiences. I wish I could go into detail, but there isn’t anything I could say that wouldn’t spoil a great surprise. Just know that when you’re embarking on the Chernobylite journey, nothing is quite what it seems, everybody you meet has their own interests at heart, and your every decision matters — but when it comes to the ending, and you learn the truth of it all, you can’t help but applaud the team’s storytelling abilities and the complexities associated with the space-time continuum.

chernobylite review

Everything to do with the story and game is based on a material known as Chernobylite. This substance appeared after the nuclear disaster and allows you to travel through time and space, giving you the ability to watch events from the past unfold, and solve the mysteries of what happened on that awful day. It also allows you to change your past decisions, which you can do whenever you die, and reshape the game’s story on the fly. But, just like any post-apocalyptic game worth its salt, monstrous creatures have also appeared thanks to the time-bending material.

Chernobylite offers you two types of creatures to point guns at: strange, demented monsters and paramilitary scumbags working for a greedy corporation known as humans... unheard of, I know. Combat with both gives the game variety, and every reason to use your conventional weapons like revolvers, shotguns, and assault rifles at every opportune moment. But every encounter is built so you can run in guns blazing or sneak through like a ghost, so the choice is completely up to you. I really enjoyed the combat in Chernobylite, aside from the fact that you can't hip fire — which felt unnatural, considering it's such a widely used mechanic. But, using weapons that I’d fashioned with various crafted accessories to allow them to perform various functions felt authentic. For instance, I turned my trusty AK47 into a sniper rifle by changing out the barrel, trigger, sights, and butt. What’s even better is the ability to customise the combat difficulty to your liking without affecting other features in the game. By hopping into the game’s settings while playing, you can change the difficulty of the game’s combat, resource scarcity, and companion management as you see fit. There’s no turning up one only to be struggling with the other in this game, and that attention to accessibility detail is an absolute gem.

chernobylite review

The zone is a stunning recreation of what I’d expect it to be like (bar the creatures attempting to rip me to shreds). Everything is shown as a decaying time-worn environment that mother nature has begun to return to her control. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is the big sparkly jewel in Chernobylite's crown. It’s utterly beautiful, but also has an air of emptiness about it that is unnerving... all the time. Between the dangerous environment you’re traversing and the game’s solid grasp on sound design and atmospheric tension, you never feel safe. From the moment I had my first jump scare in the early portion of the game, my eyes and ears were primed for the next attack on my senses. What makes it great is that the jump scares — and even your general encounters with any enemy — are so infrequent, yet always lurking in the forefront of your mind. It’s a trope that’s been borrowed from the horror genre but perfected by using an atmospheric tension that comes across as natural and not forced in any way. It’s beautiful and terrifying, and I loved every second that my heart rate was raised in anticipation of an attack that rarely came.

To take the edge off, you can hang out in your base, which you can kit out with various upgrade stations, companion happiness items, and the like from crafting using myriad items you find on your travels. It’s also an opportunity to chat with your group and enjoy their unbelievable personalities — which range from calm, collected mercenary minds to teetering-on-the-edge-of-insanity lunatics. Each character you meet is unique and offers you a chance to explore the deranged side of life in a wasteland. Aside from amusing dialogue, the companions are essential to the game’s story progression and unlock new story missions to play. Be warned, though, that they can and will leave your side if you don’t keep them happy through player decisions and base upgrades. You can rectify it if you need to by dropping dead and using some Chernobylite to change your past decisions, so nothing is truly permanent.

chernobylite review

The game’s missions can be selected from your vantage point in a warehouse that overlooks the exclusion zone, each taking a game day to complete. You’re given a fair amount of freedom to explore the zone during them, uncovering a multitude of secrets along the way but not stealing away from the objective at hand. Your companions won’t be sat around twiddling their thumbs like lost children while you risk life and limb out in the zone either. No, they can also be sent out to scavenge for supplies, ensuring everyone is pulling their weight and earning the required rations to keep everyone fed and happy. Once you’ve finished with a mission, you can teleport back to the safety of your base to rest for the evening, craft your supplies, and manage your inventory. Upon re-entering the base, you’re presented with everyone’s findings for the day and can divvy out food rations as you see fit. Depending on whether you offer out no rations, half, full, or double to each member will affect their happiness levels, and ultimately have an impact on their performance during their next scavenge. You even have a chance to train with your companions, unlocking a roster of perks to make your missions a little easier. Most of the training sessions are set in a mini-game manner, tasking you with using your newfound skill to complete a small task. The Farm 51 has taken a mundane portion of the game — or pretty much any game — and turned it into a fairly enjoyable little exercise. You will of course need skill points to unlock the training, which can be earned by levelling up when out doing your missions.

Almost all of Chernobylite’s achievements are connected to the missions, aside from a couple of memory-based ones that you can unlock as you progress and find memory clues. I found that my achievement list and gameplay all wrapped up within the 20-25-hour mark, putting Chernobylite in a perfect position when it comes to game length. My progress was held up at a few points of play, though, so it hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows. I’ve experienced a few dashboard crashes and some of the autosaves hadn’t logged, meaning I had to replay a mission a second time. But manually saving at random points on the playthrough circumvented that problem. There were also instances of the inventory icons not lining up properly and my audio settings being reverted when re-entering the game. But judging by The Farm 51’s journey through Early Access on Steam, I have no doubts whatsoever that any of the game's technical issues will be straightened out quickly, so I won’t be making a song and dance of it, especially as it wasn’t game-breaking.

chernobylite review


Summary

Chernobylite is a lovingly crafted example of what a post-apocalyptic game can and should be, offering players a rollercoaster of a story with plenty of choices that naturally lend to an overarching sense of freedom. Aside from a few technical issues, Chernobylite does everything right and wraps it all in a tense, and oftentimes uncomfortable, package that has you wanting to see what’s lurking around the next corner. If there has ever been a game that makes you want to pack your bags and take a trip to a dangerous part of the world, this is it.
8 / 10
* Tom spent around 25 hours in the exclusion zone, unlocking all 34 of the game's achievements along the way. A review copy of the game was provided by The Farm 51 and played on Xbox Series X.
Tom West
Written by Tom West
Tom has been playing video games since he was old enough to hold a controller, experimenting with systems like the Nintendo 64 and Playstation until he eventually fell in love with the Xbox 360. With a passion for the platform, he decided to make a career out of it, and now happily spends his days writing about that which he loves. If he’s not achievement hunting, you’ll likely find him somewhere in The Elder Scrolls Online.