Horror is a tricky thing to nail in a video game. A good scary game is usually tense, tough, well-paced and more than just cheap jumps at the player's expense. Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason isn't all of these things, but what it lacks in toughness and pacing, it more than makes up for in mood and storytelling.
Like any good psychological horror story, Cryostasis' setting is clouded in mystery — and heaping helpings of snow. At the start of the game, you find yourself in an abandoned nuclear icebreaker stranded at the North Pole. As soon as you get out of the first room, however, you realize that the ship is more of an ice-covered haunted house, complete with all the ghosts and monsters you could ask for.
The first thing players discover how to do, other than move around and keep from freezing to death, is view the past of those who have died. When you discover a corpse with a glowing red heart, you can start a "mental echo" and find yourself reliving the life-changing or life-ending moment of his or her existence. At first, these echoes are more flashback than gameplay, but soon enough, you discover that to get through the icebreaker, you have to change the past. If someone died from getting caught in frozen water, you might have to go back and get him up above before he freezes; if someone fell down a crack in the ice, you might have to sidestep it and save him.
The second thing you learn to do is fight. You're initially restricted to practically bare-knuckle fighting, which is awkward and unwieldy from the game's first-person perspective. You can block and attack with your hand-to-hand weapons, and you'll need to do both to take down the ice demons that apparently took down most of the crew before your arrival. After a while, you find guns such as the Mosin Nagant and Thompson machine gun, which turns the game into a more traditional FPS. You're never weighed down with ammo, though, so the focus is on making your shots count, both up close and from a distance.
The game alternates pretty regularly between combat and solving puzzles in mental echoes, and the appearance of heat sources usually indicates that the switch is about to occur. In combat, your only source of health is accumulated heat, displayed as a red-blue gauge at the bottom of the screen. If you get hit or sit still in a cold area, you start to lose heat; if you run out of red, you drop dead. This gauge doesn't appear in mental echoes, where one hit or wrong step usually means you're dead, but mental echo deaths only send you back to try again, as opposed to real-world deaths, which make you load your last save. You recharge after fights or whenever you can by holding out your hands to powered lights, electric heaters, electrical transformers or the sparking remains of makeshift fires.
Heat sources are the med kits of Cryostasis' world, and they're also a chance to showcase the game's technology. The ship is so cold that as you navigate cooler areas your vision actually starts to freeze, crystals of ice creeping in from the corners of the screen as you fight back frostbite. If you step out in the snowy, wind-blown exterior of the ship, you start losing heat rapidly and get covered in gritty snow while your vision drops to almost nothing. However, once you get a generator running and heat up a room, water runs smoothly down the sides as everything thaws, and icicles crash to the ground with startling and convincing shattering noises. The water and ice particle physics are very well done and always great to look at, which is a good thing since you see so much of it in the game.
Even with the icy graphical shine, the game can still be tiring on the eyes. Thanks to the rather restricted setting, most every room you walk into will look very similar. There are cold steel interiors, exteriors and interiors covered in snow, completely frozen rooms, and rooms with cracking ice on the floor. The game even has two whole elevators, just to keep things interesting. The enemies are just as repetitive, but they're at least more interesting in inherent design. Each one is still human in some way, even the ones that fly like moths, stalk like behemoths or crawl like spiders, and it all ties deeply into the story themes.
The method of dispatching those few but interesting enemies is Cryostasis' greatest weakness. When you're not caught by surprise or in an unusually tough situation (such as facing two or three quick enemies), getting rid of your foes is usually a matter of a few startled shots, taking a breather and rewarming yourself. There's no depth to the encounters. There is no cover and no cover system, and the enemy AI is usually relentlessly driven to charge at you and attack so there's no compelling strategy from either side of the battles. The only interesting segments occur when you're solving mental echoes, such as one section where you have to save two men's lives with only a Mosin Nagant and a mounted flashlight. One man has to do the shooting, and the other has to pick out the relentless enemies with his light. If you fail in either role, both men die.
The mental echoes truly are Cryostasis' saving grace. Just when you get tired of tooling around the cold, dank ship and punching enemies, you might have to don a diving suit and weld the crashing ship's pipes back together. Just when you thought there was nothing interesting a mental echo could accomplish, you suddenly find yourself inhabiting the body of an ice demon who's trying to take down a crew member. Quickly enough, you may even find yourself slipping into the mind of an enemy who's just rounding the corner to attack you. Sometimes, these flashbacks and slips through time are safe zones, and sometimes they're shockers, but they're always a welcome relief from the monotony of wander-and-shoot gameplay.
The greatest thing that sets Cryostasis apart from other games, however, is its story and storytelling. Much like the famed BioShock, the mystery and tense atmosphere create room to tell a rich story through flashbacks and brief snippets of dialogue. As your character tries to unravel the mystery of what happened on the icebreaker, the player tries to figure out the significance of the intertwined fairy tale discovered throughout the ship. Soon enough, the allegory and connections become clearer, and it's soon obvious that the story of the doomed crew involves so much more than a simple crash. Cryostasis tries to tell a story of universal human tragedy, taking advantage of our faults and foibles to create suspense and terror. The complex tale, largely imparted through such simple devices as monologue and flashback, truly makes this a game that everyone should play.
Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason is sorely lacking in many regards. Its gunplay is boring, its fisticuffs are hectic, its environments are repetitive and it's not particularly well-paced or lengthy. It has almost no incentive for a replay, and it's even prone to crashing. Still, the strongly tied-together themes and the always-entertaining mental echo device make it so much more than a clumsy attempt at a horror FPS. It truly is a flawed masterpiece, but anyone who wants more from a gaming experience than mindless violence needs to give it a try and brave its deficiencies. Cryostasis is just a few short steps away from being a video gaming Mona Lisa, and it's still easily an experience worth having.
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