If you’re at all familiar with the survival genre then you’re no doubt aware of what the basic gameplay loop might entail – exploration, crafting, building, combat. Of course, there are a variety of games you’d consider ‘survival’; from recent hit Valheim through to one of the most popular games of all time, Minecraft. Where Chernobylite fits neatly into the survival picture is anyone’s guess (for that we’d commission Joab to fire up his Charlie Day triangle graph thing) but it’s leanings into this genre are quite easy to come to terms with.
In fact, you might call Chernobylite’s ‘gameplay loop’ somewhat simple and straightforward.
Set in modern-day Chernobyl, you get to explore the gorgeously 3D-scanned and creepy irradiated wasteland as it might look on a real-world sight-seeing tour through the Ukraine. As Igor your main goal is returning to the place where it all started – the Power Plant. As a physicist and ex-employee that was there at Day-0, you’ll meet several strange Stalkers, face off against a shady global entity, and build a small stronghold to gather strength, work up a plan, and ultimately attack.
Oh, and the Chernobylite of the title refers to a strange green crystal that has emerged in the fallout, which for starters lets you create makeshift wormholes for fast travel. It gets a lot weirder from there.
Set in modern-day Chernobyl, you get to explore the gorgeously 3D-scanned and creepy irradiated wasteland as it might look on a real-world sight-seeing tour through the Ukraine.
And with that, each day brings randomised missions alongside ones that focus on story. Go and gather food and crafting materials or push the narrative forward, the choice is yours. Send someone to check out a medical supply drop or have them rest-up at camp. It’s here where the simple ‘loop’ begins to feel like a lot more than a collection of well-worn and familiar mechanics and RPG-like progression systems.
Chernobylite is part action-RPG, part survival game, but it’s also part choice-driven narrative. And it’s the latter that adds impressive context to the former.
Collecting 0.7 of a 1.0 food resource, which equates to 70% of the daily ‘stay calm and sane’ intake of one of your Chernobyl Crew is very much a mechanic that makes sense. It’s game-y. As is collecting 2.4 Electronic Parts and adding that to the stockpile you’ll use to upgrade a few things back at basecamp. Camp life in Chernobylite is very much like the Settlement stuff in Fallout 4, in that you have a space to build various crafting tables alongside placing a few beds, chairs, power generators, walls, and pot plants.
But again, context is key. From exploration to combat things are straightforward, but they make sense. There’s very little in the way of confusion when it comes to the survival or crafting side of the game. Some of it is quite clever, like learning Perks off your crew via character driven story/training sequences. Combat-wise the shotgun does the damage (natch) and those Mechanical Parts and Fuel you found can be used to make more ammo. Hiding in bushes means no one can see you, and if you sneak up to someone you can perform a ‘silent takedown’.
Though on that front, as a scientist, killing up close takes a toll on Igor’s psyche.
How all this ties into the narrative, which is one of the most memorable and ambitious you’re likely to find in 2021, is wonderful. And it’s here where Chernobylite begins to transcend its core. It’s here where familiarity goes out the window and often you don’t really know where a decision might lead. Or what the ramifications could be down the line. Decisions that might upset someone, have a negligible effect, or drastically change the ‘ending’ you get to experience several hours later.
There’s very little in the way of confusion when it comes to the survival or crafting side of the game. Some of it is quite clever, like learning Perks off your crew via character driven story/training sequences.
The branching path the story takes in Chernobylite is as impressive as those found on the trees still standing, unchanged, since the 1980s.
Bringing it back to the location, Chernobyl, the work done by the small team at The Farm 51 to recreate the mood of a place lost to time is commendable. The creepiness comes from both the emptiness of abandoned buildings and the overgrown splendour found seemingly everywhere. Nature is both stuck in time and moving on.
Chernobylite leans into horror quite a bit too, playing into psychosis and madness through the obligatory irradiated doll with glowing green eyes showing up to the more genuinely unsettling stuff like walking through a long abandoned residential courtyard and hearing actual recordings of evacuation orders playing out over a spectral PA system.
From a pure technical standpoint, the environmental detail, texture work, and use of rendering tech like NVIDIA DLSS is impressive in and of itself. But, like the narrative, all of that is in service of the place you get to explore. And ultimately, the story being told.
Okay, so this is one of those games where the more you talk about specific narrative elements the more you might call the SPD (the Spoiler! Police Department). But it’s worth walking that fine line in relation to Chernobylite because of how integral the story is.
On paper, a sci-fi tale set in the outskirts of one of the most well-known disasters of the 20th century and using that as a stepping stone to deal with heady concepts like wormholes, quantum memory, and even time travel, might sound par for the course. These are all elements that exist in the sci-fi supernatural space, and elements we’ve seen time and again. And really, if that’s the kind of setting and tone that’s up your alley… well, Chernobylite will grab you almost immediately.
But there’s a moment and eventual mechanic that is brilliant in how it adds unforeseen layers and meaning to the relationships you forge as Igor -- and the decisions you make in trying to find answers. At one point, dying in Chernobylite leads you to a place that exists between time and space. And if you happened to have some actual Chernobylite on hand, you can review and relive past decisions and change them. All of this is presented on a ‘physical’ path you can see and touch, one that leads back to the real world. A reality that you can now seemingly shape.
How all this ties into the narrative, which is one of the most memorable and ambitious you’re likely to find in 2021, is wonderful.
So then, what does this mean for difficult choices? Or any choice. Does this mean nothing is final and the past, present, and future can be altered? Does everything exist simultaneously or are there multiple timelines? Is all of this connected to the wormholes? Questions that build off the very human and grounded relationships Igor develops with Olivier, Olga, Mikhail, Tarakan, and others. Questions that are mostly answered in the engaging final ‘Heist’ mission. A lengthy mission that puts everything on the line. A rollercoaster ride of choice, emotion, action, surprise, and suspense.
Ambitious and impressive sci-fi storytelling is rare, doubly so for an experience that uses narrative as the main driver for all of its elements. Context for all its mechanics and disparate parts. Chernobylite is by no means without fault, the English voices feel ‘off’ from the get-go. The Russian fares a lot better, but still feels a little on the cartoonish side. Some of the story beats are a little familiar too, with the opening hook of trying to find your missing fiance being one that does little to incentivise exploration.
The combat too is a little easy on the normal setting, where the danger seems to lessen the more you play. The small-ish levels also become repetitive after a while, and need a bit more variety. Even as the world around you becomes more unstable, Chernobylite’s awe does wane a little. But setting aside all of that, Chernobylite presents a memorable story set in an endlessly fascinating locale. One that is as ambitious as it is immersive. The choices you get to make and unmake stick with you and, well, it all makes for an unforgettable journey into the Exclusion Zone.
What we liked
Even better story
Interesting and heady sci-fi concepts
All the survival/RPG/action and other mechanics build off the story
The gameplay loop is simple but if it grabs you it won’t let go
Impressive and ambitious final mission
The Exclusion Zone looks wonderful (and supports NVIDIA DLSS)