Long ago, Nvidia’s new GPU brought us physics engine acceleration and with it we were promised a golden era of new exciting titles that would feature destructibility, fluid simulation, and heavy usage of particles that reacted to their environments. Few, if any, of these came to pass, but one game prominently featured in a popular tech demo was an indie title called Cryostasis: Sleep Of Reason by the small Ukranian Studio, Action Forms.
There was so much more to Cryostasis than water physics, but unfortunately, despite the positive PR brought on by the tech demo video it suffocated by the high expectations it had set. With high technical requirements that had befallen other games of note, like Crysis, combined with poor optimization, it was another release from a small publisher that became lost in the noise of the industry, falling into relative obscurity to the point that it is no longer even available on steam due to lapsed licensing agreements.
Cryostasis is a relentlessly gorgeous game with a chilly atmosphere. Ice is the true centerpiece here with water physics only acting as occasional theatrical window dressing. Frosty breath builds up on your visor, light sources emit heat that thaw out the harsh environment and often act as the game’s equivalent to a restorative bonfire, and many enemies are outright augmented with frozen appendages. It’s a survival shooter with cosmic horror overtones that often leaves you dead in your tracks with meditative reflection on the narrative instead of oppressive fear; a ghost story fermented in distinct Russian nihilism.
Our protagonist, Alexander is an expeditionary meteorologist sent on a routine mission to help free an icebreaker trapped in the arctic circle under mysterious circumstances. Upon his arrival, he is immediately separated from his sled dogs and almost succumbs to a frost quake, leaving him with no choice but to enter the seemingly derelict vessel through a massive gaping wound in the ship’s hull.
What follows is a perilous journey through the ship’s inner labyrinth and the human psyche, forcing the player to confront the frigid hostility of the elements in order to piece together the mutinous tragedy that ripped apart the crew on their ill-fated expedition. A psychic link ability allows you to clear frozen corpses that block your path by giving the crew a final chance to redeem their mistakes and break free of the misunderstandings and mistakes that anchor their spirits to a fixed point in time.
As you progress throughout the story you come across fragments of charcoal art accompanying diary entries and intertwining excerpts of Maxim Gorky’s “The Flaming Heart Of Danko” in parallel to the ship’s own tale.
The dying heart motif extends not only to the individual crewmen but also to the vessel itself as a living thing; the burned out reactor pumping hot water and electricity throughout the infrastructure like a beating heart. As you slowly restore the environment along your path, you bring light and radiating heat to life, a shining ray of hope that Alexander might be able to free all the lost souls frozen in the hull and restore the flow of time.
Flashback cutscenes give glimpses of the internal conflict between a by-the-books Soviet Officer and his misguided attempts to wrestle control of the situation away from the Captain whom he perceives to be an aging delusional fool that sees the arctic ocean as a living entity, friend and foe, deserving of reverence and respect. Tradition bristles against the hubris of the New Soviet Man found in our Officer, his panicked meddling causing a cascade of chaos that spirals into a crew wide mutiny.
Feeling listless and betrayed by his subordinate, the Captain finds himself estranged and at odds with his own people and begins to wonder if the Officer’s doubts are justified, if he really is just a relic from a bygone era. Adrift without proper leadership and purpose, the seamen turn on one another, tear each other apart, and slowly mutate into lovecraftian horrors. With Alexander’s clumsy combat skills serving as a crude yet effective metaphor for the crew’s internal strife with their inner demons, he is a passive observer despite his role as an active force. He is as trapped as the crew by his search for a way to thaw the ship from reliving the never ending collective trauma.
The game is host to some of the most imaginative set-pieces and scripted sequences I have ever seen in a shooter, with a health system that leverages itself as an effective representation of struggling to hold onto one’s humanity and optimism in the face of an overwhelming crisis. If you cannot find a way persevere and undo the mistakes of the past, the fiery essence of the crew may be extinguished forever.
If you can find a copy of it, or failing that a no-commentary walk through on youtube, as one of the most under-rated, unnoticed games this side of Pathologic it’s definitely worth your time. Be sure to make sure you brew a warm cup of tea, crack open a tin of smoked fish, wear some warm clothes and keep some vodka handy, it’s a doozy.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice