The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 was a terrible event that saw the complete meltdown of a nuclear power plant and the creation of a exclusion zone surrounding the power plant. Since the event occurred Chernobyl has been a mainstay in popular culture with movies, films, books, and even video games created around the event and its fall out. Developers The Farm 51 have put their own spin on the Chernobyl incident in their first-person title Chernobylite. This game was in early access starting in 2019, but has now gotten a full release. Ahead of the launch I got a chance to play the complete game. Here’s my thoughts in the Chernobylite review below.
What is Chernobylite?
Chernobylite is a first-person survival horror RPG in which you play the role of Igor. Igor is a former scientist employee at the Chernobyl Power Plant and returns to the plant to find his fiancé who went missing 30 years prior. During the infiltration attempt things go FUBAR and Igor retreats to a central base called The Refuge. At this point the game’s core mechanics are unveiled featuring a mix of first-person action, base-building, survival scavenging, and crew management.
Using the gameplay systems listed above players must form a team to go on a Heist of the Chernobyl Power Plant. Completing the Heist will grant you answers to Tatyana’s disappearance and the role of the shadow DAR in the strange happenings that have befallen the Exclusion Zone.
Before you can successfully take on the Heist you will put your time into resource gathering to build up your character’s strength and the strength of your allies. To do this you spend the majority of your time in exploring the Zone.
Into the Zone
The Zone is a collection of levels based on real-world locations. For story purposes they are not identical, but many of the iconic locations are there. Igor can visit one Zone location per day with a set mission. These missions typically revolve around getting a certain resource like food, ammo, and medicine.
Action inside the Zone is largely stealth based as you encounter enemy soldiers and strange creatures while exploring. I would compare it to something like Escape from Tarkov in PvE form, but with more emphasis on stealth. The gunplay itself is fairly standard. It feels good and controls fairly well. The enemies you encounter are standard soldiers and some supernatural mutants. Enemy design felt like it could use a bit of variety as most enemies feel a bit samey.
While you can use the Pistol, Shotgun, or Assault Rifle to take on enemies it is often smarter to remain in the shadows to avoid detection. Igor has a variety of skills he can use to make getting through the Zone easier. These skills impact things like stealth, gun damage, collecting resources, moving stealthy, and more. The skills unlocked are upgraded through ally characters in the game by earning XP to unlock Skill Points. The RP system is good. There is a good variety in skills and builds and you feel more powerful as you level up.
The Zone resource runs feel tense with many enemies around and environmental hazards like radiation to avoid. This means you really need to put in the work to survive even seemingly straightforward supply runs or you will die. Around every corner there is a good mixture of danger, keeping you on your toes constantly.
I liked that each level in the Zone contains a variety of secrets and hidden or locked areas making exploration a very important aspect of each run you take. The more you explore the better the items you can find. You will also meet a variety of characters offering in-field services like shops. The more you explore the more you can find to build your base up into a powerhouse.
Building Your Base Up
When you return from a Zone run you head back to The Refuge. Base upgrades are made through a building system using resources gathered in the Zone. You build a variety of items to place in The Refuge. These items all serve different uses like allowing you to create bullets, weapons, ammo, and other items that make your Zone runs easier.
Placement is fairly simple you open a builder menu allowing you to see and place items wherever you wish. This allows you to create your own base by laying it out however you want. The Refuge is a very important location during a playthrough as it houses your group of characters, resources, and research. The simplicity makes management fairly easy, but the menuing is a bit confusing at times to find specific things you wish to build.
Base building is not just specific to The Refuge. While you are in the Zone you can also create field bases. This allows you to create mini-sub basses in each area. These builds remain permanent so you can really explore each Zone level if you feel up to it.
Character Quests and Management
Now I’ve mentioned ally characters a few times but I need to explain how characters and recruitment works. As you do Zone runs you will receive radio signals from a variety of characters. These characters will make requests of you that are more specific than typical Zone runs. You can accept or refuse completing these quests.
If you do accept the quests you will unlock special missions that feature more interesting storylines to complete. When you complete these storylines you will be able to invite the characters to join your squad. There are 5 characters in total you can recruit and each of them has an interesting story to tell. Once they join you will need to keep them happy by juggling their needs and happiness levels.
Character management ratchets up the amount of resources you need to get from the Zone and generate in your base. You also need to make your base more accommodating by building beds and other amenities that destress your crew members. This plays into the management aspect of the game where you must constantly balance to keep everyone happy and part of your party.
A Story of Conspiracies and the Supernatural
If base building, character management, and Zone runs wasn’t enough content for you there is an underlying story running throughout the core of Chernobylite. This story is a mixture of conspiracy and supernatural elements. While I won’t give away any spoilers for the game here I will say it is very confusing and probably the weakest part of the game.
This weakness is due to a few things. First the writing has a few off translations in some instances and there were a few spellings errors in the version I played. Second the story centers on non-linear decision making tied back the Fractal Timeline. You make a lot of decisions while playing. These decisions shape your game’s outcome. When you die you visit the timeline and can view the decisions you’ve made in key character quests in the game.
If you wish to change the decisions you’ve made you use the a special material called Chernobylite which is rare to find. There are over 20+ decisions you can make and change, making it very expensive to do so. Often times a change in the timeline results in cascading effects on the story. These effects mean you have to sometimes change other choices which can quickly make your timeline messy. This is further effected by ally characters who are effected by choices you make. Decisions typically are viewed favorably by one person and not by another. This can create an annoying dance of trying to balance everyone’s happiness.
I found the timeline system itself is really only valuable once you’ve completed all major decision quests in the game. Once this is done you go into the timeline to line it up as needed to get the best Heist result. Unfortunately you will constantly end up in the timeline when you die regardless. This felt like a waste of time.
In the same vein there is a similar system where you end up in DAR jail or your crew members end up in jail upon deaths as well. The guards take all your items and you need to escape and find them. The first time it was interesting, but the ensuing times it happened weren’t.
My mediocre feelings for the story extend further into The Heist conclusion. The actual heist itself was a bit of a letdown. Gameplay wise there just isn’t much to it and I had to really finagle the timeline to get it where the Heist would be successful. Once I did manage to reach the perfect timeline setup there were a few bugs that made the experience a bit weak. I couldn’t select certain options until I turned off and relaunched the game. Another bug had my character stuck in a crouch that put him basically at ground level.
I really wish there was more meat to The Heist than was presented. It feels like the point you are working towards for the entire game only for it to be basically a choose your own adventure ending. While you can try and deviate from the core path, the result will end up frustrating you like it did for me multiple times.
Presentation, Sound, Accessibility, and Bugs
Chernobylite is an indie title with an indie budget. This is surprising because it looks and sounds like a solid AA-AAA title. The studio created the buildings and items in the game by going to Chernobyl and scanning them. This makes a lot of the locations feel eerily real. Many of the famous Chernobyl landmarks appearing in the game as they would in real life. I really liked this attention to detail and often found myself looking at the various locales and objects.
Further complementing the good graphical design is a haunting score and sound design. The game has a nice soundtrack and decent voice acting. These elements further add to the package making runs and exploration an audio treat.
If you read my review up to this point and feel the game sounds a bit too hard core I have good news. The developers have added a wide selection of accessibility options so you can tweak different aspects of the game. Each pillar of gameplay has its own difficulty toggle so you can cater to how you want to play the game.
As this is an indie game there are a lot of bugs still in the final product. The bugs that occurred during the Heist are just a few of many I encountered over the course of my playthrough. There was nothing major that impeded me too much, but it is unfortunate to still see many bugs in the game following early access.
Before wrapping things up I just want to briefly touch on controls. I played on PC and split time between Xbox One X Controller and Mouse and Keyboard. I will say it feels designer more with a controller in mind. Certain things like menuing and the map just feel clunky scrolling with the mouse. That aside the KB+M layout can be remapped via options so you can setup the layout as you’d like.
Chernobylite is a well-crafted collection of gameplay systems tied together with a just okay central story. I found all the gameplay systems worked well and created a solid experience over my 30 hour playthrough. The game looks nice, sounds nice, and is fairly stable but not completely bug free. Unfortunately the real drawback for me is the story. The Fractal Timeline is needlessly complicated and the final Heist mission is underwhelming for the effort put in. This hurt my experience but I still feel comfortable in recommending it. Jumping into the Zone to explore, gather resources, and upgrade your base, was enough to keep me playing even though the story didn’t fully pull me in.
Thoughts on my Chernobylite review? Let me hear them in the comments below.