Playing Cryostasis is like putting your entire music collection on shuffle and not being able to hit the ‘next’ button. It’s a long trawl punctuated by brief sparks of brilliance and intrigue that almost excuse the vast, insurmountable wall of problems that places itself directly between you and the game it so desperately wants to be, and hints at throughout. Cryostasis is bad because at moments, it’s so so good. It’s the dirtiest of teases.
The premise is simple, and profoundly confusing. The fact it doesn’t really matter who you are or why you’re even on this dead, frozen ship or even why you’re able to slip into the past through the corpses of those dead aboard does help it somewhat, but it does make you think. There’s a set of little narrated pictograms that you find scattered throughout the metal innards of the boat that tell a story quite separate from the one you are experiencing, but, of course, it all ties in together. The premise isn’t at fault here. The reasons you’re there don’t matter. The reasons the corpses are there really does.
This whole ship is a frozen catastrophe. Things went badly wrong, they hit something and everything fell apart from there. Literally, in some sections. You find out about what happened both through living the last moments of the crew, and through peeking voyeuristically into the past, glancing down from a walkway to see the First Mate have a go at the Captain for being reckless, or glancing out into the open wastes, only to have your view swung up to the deck of the ship, where the crew are steeling themselves for a collision. It’s masterfully done, and really gives you an incentive to move on.
The problems begin to arise when the game introduces combat. You see, the game runs like QWOP. I turned almost everything down and I still couldn’t aim to save my life, which, quite often, I really was doing. You’ll die a lot in Cryostasis. The whole ship is full of weird frozen zombies that want nothing more than to have you dead. There’s little reasoning behind them, apart from the generic ‘dark forces’ that usually drive zombies. The fact that they’re so bastarding hard to kill is a bit of a kick in the teeth, but I understand it. Survival horror needs hard enemies, otherwise it’s not hard to survive, or particularly horrifying when they come at you. But when every move of the mouse freezes the screen and forces it all to tear about, I can’t fight very accurately.
This only becomes a real problem when firearms are introduced. That they’re all from World War 2, and thus weak and terrifyingly slow to reload doesn’t help much. It’s when the bloody zombies get guns too that it gets nigh on impossible. Every fight is repeated until you know where they’re going to come from, and where to put yourself so they can’t shoot you too well. It’s lazy design, and there’s no fun in it. You’ll be looking forward to finding a new body, just to break up the monotony of the present.
The past really is great though. Every memory, while extremely linear, is exciting and interesting. This ship had a hundred heroic moments before it died, and you get to play through most of them. You’ll be desperately fixing doors to stop flooding, creating huge metal washers in a metalshop while the smoke seeps in, threatening to choke you. You’ll fight the zombies, but in far, far more interesting ways than in the present. Every single moment in the past was infinitely better than those in the present, and when the enemies start to get mind numbingly, frustratingly, difficult, each body presents an escape.
I’m going to make a confession. I didn’t finish Cryostasis. I really, really wanted to, but the horrendous speed with which the game ran, coupled with a horrifically hard section, meant I could never get past it. I want to know what happened on the North Wind. I want to know about the lost tribe that’s talked about in the pictograms. But I can’t, because the game decided that it’d be more fun to present me with an extremely hard section than let me enjoy a story. Really, that’s what Cryostasis’ main flaw is. It’s trying to be a shooter at the same time as being an exploratory quasi-adventure game. Is it really so bad to just have a set of experiences that you live through in the medium of a game? I understand that, if you took out the shooting elements, you wouldn’t be left with much game that was still a ‘game’, but I’d really like to see what would happen if such a game was made.
Ultimately, I can’t justify recommending Cryostasis. I really did enjoy my time with it, but the frustration of not being able to see it through, and the utter boredom I experienced moving through rooms that all looked the same, praying for the soft woosh of a muffled heartbeat that signified a body in the room outweighs the enjoyment I savoured finding out about what happened. If they really wanted to retain the combat, they could easily have just made it all the same difficulty. There didn’t need to be a curve. Cryostasis is a victim of low self-esteem. It didn’t think it could get by on the story alone driving the player, and so it’s made it progressively harder. Gaming conventions have taken another victim, and it really does make me sad.