‘Chernobylite’ review: an ambitious survival entry with a short half-life

A great - if repetitive - foray into The Exclusion Zone.

Within the first five minutes of Chernobylite, my Geiger counter begins to tick steadily. Relegating the ominous croak to background noise, I continue following my team – two grizzled Stalkers – forward. Our goal is the Chernobyl power plant, where I’m told great power lies waiting.

Okay, wait – let’s address the elephant’s foot in the room. Yes, this sounds familiar. Very familiar.

Developers The Farm 51 make their influences no secret. Chernobylite lives and breathes Stalker, though a quick glance at the game doesn’t do justice to the work that The Farm 51 has done to carve out their own piece of the genre.

The basic premise of Chernobylite, as far as supernatural sci-fi survival games go, is fairly simple. As a former physicist, our protagonist Igor is on a quest to find his wife, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances thirty years ago.

Chernobylite
Chernobylite. Credit: The Farm 51

Igor’s investigation (which involves betrayal, romance, and the KGB) is progressed by finding clues out in the world, which he uses to run a VR simulation that can recreate past events. As with all great investigations, your progress is charted through the string-web intricacies of a dingy pin-up board.

Igor believes that all his questions can be answered inside Chernobyl power plant, however the place is locked up tight by a shady private military company and you’ll need help getting in.

So begins the game proper. You’ll conduct missions to build a suitable team and prepare for the final heist, gathering crucial tools and information pertinent to the job. Operating from a warehouse base overlooking the exclusion zone, you can choose which daily missions to complete.

If you’ve played Dishonored, you’ll recognize the mission structure of Chernobylite. Each mission plants you in a fairly open level and hands you a primary story objective to complete, with several side-tasks along the way. How you choose to act in these tasks will usually have consequences later on, and can even affect the environment of the map if you return in future missions. The decisions system opens up the story tenfold, and I felt like a second playthrough would likely have very different results to the ending I received.

Chernobylite
Chernobylite. Credit: The Farm 51.

Many of the choices require balancing the desires of your team members, and too many disapproving choices will cause your so-called allies to turn against you. It’s a solid system that lives up to its ambition – without spoiling anything, tens of seemingly small decisions quickly snowball into game-changing consequences closer to the heist.

Although Chernobylite leans too heavily on using the same few locations for tasks, these missions are pretty fun. Limited resources and fragile health mean that you’ll need to choose your encounters carefully, usually relying on stealth to pick targets off one-by-one. There’s not much variance in enemies you’ll fight – it feels like the supernatural weirdness is under-utilized here – but gunplay is still satisfying nonetheless.

Outside of combat, the game dabbles in horror but doesn’t entirely commit. There are some incredibly scary moments (namely the presence of a jittery, stutter-stepping ghost) that proved far too much for my delicate non-Stalker heart, but these are let down by some cheap – and moderately frequent – jump scares.

The Farm 51 conducted extensive research trips into Chernobyl, and it shows. The resulting game puts players in areas that look and believably feel like the real, irradiated thing. Each location – from Pripyat Port to the Red Forest – delivers a vibrant, realistic trip into the Exclusion Zone.

Chernobylite
Chernobylite. Credit: The Farm 51

Even better, the game runs smoothly – with an ageing 1060, I was still able to run everything on the maximum settings. This doesn’t include a very nauseating motion blur, which was quickly turned off out of necessity.

After completing a mission, you’ll return to your base and spend the evening as you choose. You’ll also get to spend any skill points you’ve earned during the day, which are used to unlock powerful perks.

These perks are earned by handing in skill points to members of your team, who take you on a brief mission to learn the perk. It’s a nice touch, as it does a little more to make you feel like you have a physical presence in the world.

This attachment is a far cry from the warehouse you call home – despite starting and finishing each day in it, I never really felt too much connection to the base. There’s quite a lot of options for building, but they largely aren’t necessary and cost resources which can otherwise be used on tangible supplies. As a result, the system feels more like ticking off a series of boxes – comfort, air quality, etc – than building a cosy base worth staying in.

Chernobylite
Chernobylite. Credit: The Farm 51

My biggest disappointment with Chernobylite is that it’s not just the warehouse that feels like this. In general, the way the game is broken up into segmented missions makes it difficult to feel like you’re genuinely living in the world. It’s a huge shame, because so much work has clearly gone into making the environment realistic, but the disconnect between every area is just a little much.

That’s the core part of my issues with Chernobylite. It has all the foundations – and a good deal of the whole, spooky house – to be a great game. The premise of living and breathing as a Stalker? Incredible. The side characters are entertaining, I enjoyed managing the needs of my team, and the conspiracy-webbed main quest is drip-fed in a well-implemented, addictive manner.

It’s a genuine shame then, but that general feeling of disconnect doesn’t quite go away – it’s as if too many numbers-based mechanics and loading screens are the only thing standing between fully embracing a true Stalker lifestyle.

Chernobylite launches for PC on July 28. PS4 and Xbox versions are coming in September. This review was conducted on PC.

The Verdict

It’s easy to recommend Chernobylite to Stalker fans – The Exclusion Zone has never looked better, and an ambitious choice-lead approach to storytelling means that your decisions always have very tangible consequences. Despite this, a repetitive formula and shortcomings with the base building system prevent Chernobylite from taking that last great step to irradiated greatness.

Pros

  • The game looks great, and runs smoothly
  • Extensive location research makes exploring Chernobyl feel real
  • Significant focus on decision-making is backed up by powerful consequences

Cons

  • Missions become repetitive necessities to advancing the plot
  • Not enough things to do – or reasons to extensively build – in the base
  • Doesn’t quite manage to be fully immersive
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