Chernobylite (PC) Review

Although it may have the outward appearance of a survival- or crafting-oriented game, Chernobylite is primarily for those interested in a compelling and divergent narrative experience.
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Chernobylite – developed by The Farm 51 and published by All In! Games – is an unexpectedly compelling mash-up of genres. A curious hybrid of survival, crafting, base-building, and combat mechanics – yet still a game with a strong focus on the narrative and player-choice. However, it takes a few hours to truly appreciate that fact and the longer you play, the more the non-linear structure might work against your sense of immersion and progression.

Story

Chernobylite’s convoluted, intriguing, and often bat-shit crazy narrative kicks off with the player taking control of physicist Igor (the murderous Half-life-style physicist), as he returns to Chernobyl. He’s in the hunt for his fiancé that disappeared 30 years prior. In the years since the disaster, the multinational “NAR” company has purchased the land, officially to prevent intrusions and the spread of contamination, while unofficially conducting experiments using the titular “chernobylite”. What Igor fails to tell his mercenary companions is that he hears the voice of Tatyana in his mind. She often acts as his moral compass and voice of reason, though sometimes provides ominous warnings, repeats the lines of other survivors in a raspy voice, or just rambles incoherently.

Why is Igor only returning 30-years later to find Tatyana? Why are the ghostly apparitions of Tatyana so closely associated with the presence of monsters? Why does he own a portal gun powered by the mysterious Chernobylite? Why is Igor fitter than several companions half his age? All these mysteries are revealed as you unravel the plot, and the constant flow of new questions is the greatest hook the game has. In addition to preparing for a renewed heist at the power plant, Igor collects evidence for several key investigations that reveal past events. His companions are also all connected to the exclusion zone, and provide a mix of entertaining banter and tragic backstories.

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The prologue sets the scene, introducing you to the basic gameplay mechanics and provides you a clear objective to work towards.

Although it takes a while to become apparent, Chernobylite’s narrative is non-linear and there is a degree of randomness when it comes to the order you recruit companions. Almost every main mission ends with a choice, which may result in mutually exclusive outcomes, opening or closing off quest threads. Unlike so many games that would use this as an argument to replay the entire game, Chernobylite gives Igor has a portal gun that allows him to cross both space and time, so these choices and the consequences are not set in stone (from a certain perspective).

Death – either during gameplay, a scripted event, or (hilariously) “self-annihilation” – sends Igor into a fractal dimension between realities. With enough Chernobylite crystals, he can freely examine key decisions he has made and alter those events, changing the future, potentially revealing new missions, create new opportunities to find facts and clues for his investigations, and shift companion loyalty (as choices often split the team). As you’ll want to complete all investigations, acquire key gear, and keep your companions loyal for the finale, this becomes an entire metagame of its own. Depending on your decisions before and during the final heist, you may prefer to return to the timeline and alter events repeatedly.

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It can take a while for all the impacts of your decisions to become apparent – making some betrayals and mistakes all the more infuriating – but you can always tweak the past to your preference and try again.

Gameplay

Chernobylite’s basic gameplay loop is easy to explain: you’ll tackle missions – from the first-person perspective – engaging in scavenging, stealth, and combat in a semi-open world, as you pursue short story quests with variable outcomes at the end. This is followed by an evening at your base, conversing with companions, crafting base improvements and new gear, before retiring for the night to start a new day (or engage in a VR-like investigation if you’ve collected enough evidence). Each element is mechanically competent and engaging, yet also streamlined to ensure narrative pacing is not affected.

Thankfully, Chernobylite offers independent difficulty settings for resource availability, combat difficulty, and base management (which covers both crafting costs and the sensitivity of your team to base conditions). This allows you to fine-tune the game and focus on the elements you enjoy most. Personally, I dropped the combat difficulty and upped the survival and base management difficulties. This ensured I had to scavenge for firearms, ammunition, and upgrades to guarantee success, rather than extend the amount of time I spent with the functional but unspectacular gunplay.

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Your companions can be assigned to handle basic resource gathering missions, so you can focus on the main narrative.

When exploring one of the large zones, the combination of a handy PDA scanner and detailed map speed up your progress, pointing you towards your mission objective, optional encounters, investigation evidence, and resources. It’s a streamlined approach but the right one, as you’ll want to hit story beats frequently and move on. Avoiding radiation hot spots, patrolling NAR soldiers, and mutants is key to a successful outing, though Igor’s handy portal gun allows him to extract from (almost) anywhere, at any time. You gain experience from every activity – exploration, combat, crafting, and completing missions – which unlocks new skills points. These can then be used to learn new perks from your companions back at base.

These semi-open zones are not as static as in many survival- and crafting-based games. Weather conditions, spreading Chernobylite clouds, and NAR helicopter patrols can be seen from your hideout, reflecting the dangers you’ll encounter on any given day. Certain story events change locations permanently; optional encounters may spawn when you enter; there are once-off stashes of gear that require the right tool to open; and each zone retains any structures you’ve built (think campfires, workstations, and even devices that reduce hazards on future visits). Spend too long in a zone and a Chernobylite storm may begin spawning in mutants, or the mysterious “Black Stalker” may emerge to harass and capture you. It never feels as dynamic as the Stalker games but there’s typically something new to see every time you return to a region.

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There is no shortage of weird things to encounter while exploring the ruins of the zone. Better still, almost all these encounters have some significance to past events or the overarching story.

When you do get into trouble, the gunplay is fine. Competent enough that you can rely on your aim and reflexes, but still clunky enough that you’ll want to avoid firefights when you can. As a fan of playing on the couch, the gamepad support is solid – which applies to all elements of the game except navigating crafting menus – though you’ll want to avoid using high auto-aim assist (it drags the sight towards the centre of mass, making headshots and hitting enemies in cover difficult). You initially encounter harmless (but terrifying) illusions and slow humanoid “shadows”, though the roster grows to include shambling zombies and mutated insects. For stealthy players, NAR soldiers are a cakewalk if you’re patient, but shadows can slip in and out of reality, making it difficult to predict their movement, and setting up some great jump scares.

Using the excuse of biometric-locked firearms, you only have a few conventional weapons to manage at first, along with two sci-fi variants you can create and modify with the right base upgrades. Armour – which ranges from a basic jacket with metal plates to futuristic repulser fields – is powerful but they require a consumable item to provide optimal protection (think ceramic plates or batteries). Each companion can be allocated a weapon and piece of armour to bolster their basic stats, which in turn affects their chance of success when you send them on field missions. These are optional resource-gathering missions that are best assigned to your growing team while you focus on narrative missions (food rations are hard to come by at first but essential to keeping your team happy after a long day).

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Aim and shoot, preferably from stealth or cover, is about as complex as it gets. You can modify your weapons – adjusting damage, accuracy, stability, clip size, and the sight – but combat is rarely mandatory and you’re free to focus on other gear and perks. If killing humans is affecting Igor’s psyche, you can either train in non-lethal takedowns or just chug vodka!

Building up your warehouse base – taking into account comfort, power, air quality, radiation, and sleeping spots – is both involved and adds a personal touch. A motley collection of herbs, mushrooms, chemicals, flammables, and mechanical parts somehow become complex workstations, power generators, and radiation scrubbers. It makes little sense, but I nonetheless enjoyed creating an indoor box farm that resolved any future food requirements. That said, the initially spacious interior quickly becomes cramped as there are too many items that do only one thing. Do we really need a separate calibration bench for each weapon and armour type?

There’s little about the gameplay elements that are novel, but they’re streamlined and come together to create a distinctly moreish experience. You’re always enticed to tackle another 20-30 minute “day” to see what happens to your team and what revelations you might uncover. However, the map layout and mission structure sometimes feel at odds with the storytelling. Taking the logical approach of recruiting everyone as soon as I encountered them, there were several occasions when back-to-back story missions took me to the same map, and sometimes to the same location (the Pripyat hospital… so many times).

The further you progress in the story, the tougher it gets to maintain loyalty and you’ll find yourself making some morally questionable decisions simply to balance crew trust levels. Although you can trigger the final heist at any time, gathering a full roster of companions, unique tools, and investigations will provide you with more options for low-risk subterfuge. Your past and present choices will still affect the survival of your team during the heist, so escaping back into the fractal dimension and altering the timeline remains enticing. That said, if you’re someone who just wants to roll with the punches, the ending – which gets weird – still accommodates for all decisions and should leave you satisfied regardless, thanks to a detailed montage-style sequence.

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Although some crafting steps feel extraneous, I still enjoyed customizing my own lair from which to strike out into the zone. It’s also the source of some fantastic conversations with your quirky companions.

Presentation

Chernobylite runs on Unreal Engine 4 and, visually, it can look great, albeit lacking the massive production values of its “AAA” peers. There’s a focus on creating large, lifelike spaces and an immersive atmosphere above all else. Unlike the Stalker or Metro games, Chernobylite’s exclusion zone often feels largely abandoned and serene, with NAR soldiers and shadows sticking to key locations. As a result, the calm ambience and soothing orchestral soundtrack make exploration a joy but can lull you into a false sense of security.

There’s plenty of dialogue – Tatyana in Igor’s mind, crew members, survivors, and villains – which I found both well-written and voiced. Russian dialogue with subtitles feels the most authentic, while the English voice actors are entertaining in their own right (mostly because they’re clearly hamming up their role). There’s an over-reliance on real-world references, environmental catastrophes, conspiracy theories, and layman descriptions of scientific principles, but this ensures the conversations are always interesting – especially when conversing with your quirkier companions.

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Regardless of your visual settings, Chernobylite always maintains its massive scale and immersive atmosphere.

When it comes to performance and stability, Chernobylite is highly scalable and the PC review build was stable – I only had to reload a handful of checkpoints to fix some bugged mission scripting in over 20 hours of gameplay. Shifting between “low”, “medium”, and “high” settings offers considerable visual upgrades with increasing world-detail and post-processing effects, whereas the “ultra” setting simply offers a few more refinements.

That said, there’s room for improvement post-launch. Load times are long, even when reloading into the same area and installed on an SSD. Triggering autosaves and data streaming also introduced hitching. This manifested on all quality settings, with some objects popping in very close to the player, and plentiful stuttering if you dashed through buildings, moving between interiors and exteriors rapidly.

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That said, reduced foliage density can make the forested areas feel very significantly sparser and brighter, with both stealth and combat feeling a lot easier.

Conclusions

This has been a lengthy review, but Chernobylite is a game of many interesting parts. It’s not going to be for everyone – especially those that feel “AAA” production values are what makes a “good” game – but it provides a compelling mashup of genres with a non-linear narrative that encourages you to mess with your own timeline (without the need to completely replay entire sections of the game).

If you enjoyed Get Even for its twisting, weird, and unpredictable narrative, Chernobylite will scratch that itch, just with refined stealth and combat, and engaging survival and crafting mechanics thrown into the mix. Sure, it’s a less focused game as a result, but that narrative component still dominates. There are few games that provide such a divergent narrative these days, and fewer still that manage to turn those deviations into a compelling metagame itself.

A review code for Chernobylite was provided to Gameblur by the publisher

Chernobylite (PC) Review

Chernobylite (PC) Review
8 10 0 1
Chernobylite won't be for everyone, but it offers a compelling mashup of genres that serve as an engaging foundation for a non-linear narrative, which encourages you to mess with your past timeline to prepare for the present. Few modern games provide such a divergent narrative, and fewer still manage to turn manipulating those deviations into a compelling metagame.
Chernobylite won't be for everyone, but it offers a compelling mashup of genres that serve as an engaging foundation for a non-linear narrative, which encourages you to mess with your past timeline to prepare for the present. Few modern games provide such a divergent narrative, and fewer still manage to turn manipulating those deviations into a compelling metagame.
8/10
Total Score
  • Story
    8/10 Very Good
    Intriguing, divergent, and often weird, Chernobylite's greatest hook is the narrative. It also ties directly into the gameplay mechanic that allows you to alter the timeline.
  • Gameplay
    7/10 Good
    There's scavenging, survival, and crafting element, combined with stealth and open combat. It seems like a lot to juggle but it's streamlined and rarely gets in the way of the narrative.
  • Visuals
    7/10 Good
    Chernobylite may not have all the bells and whistles of some Unreal Engine 4 games, but it excels at creating massive, lifelike environments and a great atmosphere.
  • Audio
    8/10 Very Good
    Ambient audio and the soundtrack are instrumental to the atmosphere, but I was always entertained by the voice acting. The English dub manages to fall perfectly in the so-bad-it's-good category.

The Good

  • A lengthy, divergent narrative with a focus on player-choice
  • A timeline-altering mechanic to tweak those choices and manipulate the consequences
  • Streamlined gameplay mechanics that avoid dragging down the narrative pacing
  • Lifelike environments with immersive ambience, solid voice work, and a great soundtrack

The Bad

  • Visiting to the same location repeatedly
  • Autosave and data-streaming performance hitches
Total
10
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