Chernobylite is a game of interesting choices held back by a deeply irritating loop. Yet, it’s through that very cycle that their consequences are revealed. And, just as often, undone.
Players take on the role of Igor, a Russian scientist searching for his long-lost fiancée, Tatyana, in the irradiated Zone (the capital “Z” is intentional) surrounding the Chernobyl disaster. Chernobylite cribs heavily from Stalker narratively, aesthetically and mechanically. Expect plenty of ashen buildings, fields barren except for the herbs and mushrooms you need to mix healing salves, and radiation damage digging a red trough in your health bar. Igor is a stalker and you will run into mysterious enemies called Black Stalkers, too.
This dark first-person survival game from developer The Farm 51, newly out of Early Access, is not especially original. In this post-apocalyptic setting, you will scavenge for supplies to keep your weapons loaded and your companions well-fed, venture out into the Zone to complete missions and find clues to Tatyana’s whereabouts, sneak through the tall grass and shoot dudes in the head. As you find materials, you can put them toward building new equipment in your base, like a weaponsmith for fabricating guns and gardens to grow necessary plants. The shooting is fine. The base-building is fine. Chernobylite, in general, feels fine enough on a moment-to-moment basis.
Yet it’s in Chernobylite’s approach to progression that it goes beyond familiarity. Here the game hints at the significance of friends and partners in establishing a meaningful routine. When you level up, you earn skill points. But instead of pulling up a menu and allocating them to your stats, you need to wait until you return to your base. Once the mission is complete and you’re safe and sound, you can speak to one of your companions and ask them to train you. From there, your companion will literally put you through training. During a session to upgrade my precision, my companion had me lean around some boxes to shoot a stack of cans. In another stealth training section, my companion tasked me with sneaking up on him through the tall grass. This is a really smart approach to leveling that ties narrative and gameplay together, reinforcing the idea that you and your companions rely on each other.
But as you progress through Chernobylite, some design quirks become major impediments to this circuit of progression. Most of my frustration comes from the way it handles death and respawning. Each time you die, the game treats it as if Igor was captured by enemy soldiers. As such, after each death, you’re transported to a mostly abandoned prison where enemies stand guard. To escape, you’ll need to find your portal gun, which is stashed at a marked location on the map. None of this is especially difficult, but it means that each time you die, you’re forced to restart the mission. And before you can do so, you must first play through a tedious stealth section.
Again, this happens every time you die.
Later in the game, when I reached a mission that requires you to fight a Black Stalker—not a ridiculously hard fight, but challenging enough that if you’re battered going into it your chances of survival are significantly diminished—I died repeatedly. That means playing through the prison section, which never changes much, over and over again.
Cycles of death
But what if you fail again after being captured? Here’s when the game reveals its most interesting mechanic. After a double death, you’re transported to a walkway in an ethereal realm studded with green crystals. Here, you can spend Chernobylite—the titular currency being a crystalline reward for accomplishing key quests or exploring off the beaten path—to redo a decision you made earlier in the game. During one early mission, you have the choice to kill or spare a suspicious man who is on the run from the villainous NAR. Later, a companion reveals that this man was important to them. I sentenced this man to his death at first, but when I realised that I could spend Chernobylite to go back and spare the man for their sake, I instantly altered my past.
To be honest, I’m of two minds on this. On one hand, it’s a convenient way for busy players to see everything the game has to offer. Unlike most choice-based RPGs, you don’t need to replay the game to witness the results of different choices; your playthrough can contain multitudes. But I dislike it for the same reason that it’s superficially interesting. It flattens the importance of choice; rather than asking you to roleplay a specific character, warts and all, Chernobylite allows you to be all things to all people. Chernobylite, the material, is fairly rare, but so are the key decisions important enough that I felt any desire to reverse them. That’s why on the rare occasion that I felt compelled to seek out a do-over, it was awfully easy to turn back the clock; I already have the materials to do so.
In the end, Chernobylite felt a lot like scavenging for supplies in the Zone. There are certainly interesting things to unearth, but the laborious process of revealing them was barely worth the hassle. If Chernobylite is a loop, it is one that brings increasingly diminished returns with each completed cycle.