Love the taste of Chernobyl, but don’t love your skin falling off? Try new Chernobylite. All of the cool, crisp flavour you love, but with none of the organ-melting radiation. Chernobylite: it’s not just a drink, it’s a lifestyle.
Now, flippant intro aside; Chernobyl was one of the worst man-made industrial disasters in modern history. The initial meltdown and the protracted clean-up operation claimed many lives, and I’ve no desire to diminish the horrors those people faced. If you’ve not already, I highly recommend watching the utterly haunting Chernobyl miniseries to get some understanding of how fucked up the whole situation was.
It’s also a game, which is the real reason I’ve gathered you here today. Chernobylite is the latest title from Polish devs The Farm 51. No, I don’t know what happened to the other fifty farms. Chernobylite treads the familiar path of one of my absolute favourite games, GSC Game World’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series.
Many of you will be familiar with the eerie photos of hastily abandoned homes in the exclusion zone. There’s also just an innate human curiosity about anything “forbidden” or “unknown”, and Chernobyl has created a rich seam of speculative fiction in writing, film, and games. I’m a total sucker for it, and I’ve always felt S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was a high-water mark in the genre. It was just so… Substantial. Intriguing. Terrifying. Full of true WTF moments that I still remember even a decade later. I can still distinctly remember the first time I encountered a Controller in an underground bunker and damn near shit my pants.
Chernobylite has a lot to live up to then. I’ve managed to play about 20 hours of the game so far, and I’ve not yet finished the final heist mission (yes, a heist). By comparison, I played S.T.A.L.K.E.R. for around 30 hours, so there’s likely content I’ve not yet experienced. In the game you play Igor, a former physicist at Chernobyl, genius inventor and tinkerer, and zone-hardened stalker. He can definitely bench more than you, bro. While doing math.
The game centres around Igor’s quest to discover exactly what happened to his wife. A fellow worker at Chernobyl, she disappeared under SUSPICIOUSLY MYSTERIOUS™ circumstances. Personally, I think she left because of the shit he wore on their wedding day, but who am I to judge?
Firstly, let’s talk visuals. According to the wiki, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, “The game's map was developed from 3D scans and recreations of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine.” Honestly, it is utterly stunning and one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played. The skeletal trees, cracked asphalt, and rusting structures of the zone give a physical weight to the landscape. It’s ominous and almost suffocating at points. The zone also changes over time, each day becoming more irradiated, corrupted, and dangerous. It’s a neat way of keeping the game challenging, especially given there are only really a handful of recurring maps for all of the game's missions.
Add the stellar ambient audio into the mix – wind whistling through cracked panes of glass, raindrops plinking off a rusted flatbed truck – and Chernobylite is an incredibly immersive experience. At points I would panic at spotting something that was just a piece of cloth or a tree branch in the wind. Yes, I am a coward. The music is suitably zone-esque, and I have no strong positive or negative feelings on it. Well, other than the slavic hardbass. That shit kicks. Bratva forever!
On the topic of cowardice, hiding in bushes is brilliantly implemented. At first I was puzzled by the lack of a distraction mechanic, but the more I played the more I felt the devs have made a fairly bold choice. I mean, think about it. If I was guarding something and I heard an obvious PLONK directly behind me, I would immediately start spraying the nearest bush with bullets. Lacking this mechanic isn’t an annoyance because of the way they’ve built the stealth system. Crouching gets you basically prone, and there’s tons of vegetation, trees, and cover to hide behind. Bushes also go see-through when you’re crouched in them, which is a nice touch. The spotting mechanic is also interesting; there’s no marking enemies or seeing them on a minimap. Instead you get a directional queue as the enemy gets closer to hearing you, which also acts in the reverse, helping you hear where the enemy is. It’s genuinely quite good, and a refreshing change from the usual mechanics.
If you are spotted, combat is brutal. Gunplay is MEATY – capitalisation required – and the headshots are just so awful and yet so horribly satisfying every time. Enemies aren’t particularly challenging, especially when you get some of the better weaponry like the AK-47 or shotgun. As you progress and the zone becomes more dangerous, new enemies do occasionally appear, although I wouldn’t say any of them posed a particular challenge once I had a shotgun.
Gameplay is best described as Resident Evil Stalker Skyrim, with This War of Mine Fallout 4 base building mechanics. Oh, and there’s like some Psychonauts in there too. Yeah. The game does a good job of blending these influences. Mostly. There’s exploration, resource gathering, crafting, visiting the magical crystal realm, base building, mission planning… You get the deal. Fortunately, each of these has been given just about enough space to not feel totally overwhelming, mostly thanks to a clever decision to split gameplay into “doing the mission” and “back at base” sections.
Another mechanic I found myself liking more over time was the PDA scanner. A sort of Swiss Army knife that helps you avoid radiation, it could also be used to ping the local environment and highlight scavengeable materials. Now, like the lack of distraction mechanics, I found this Batman vision a bit cheesy at first; one moment I’m Bear Grylls, stoically trudging my way across the zone, then PING, suddenly I can see all of the loot for miles around and I’m snaffling it all up like a greedy pig on Supermarket Sweep. Oink oink. The more I think about it though, the more it couldn’t be done any other way. The visual environment is so dense, if you didn’t have something to highlight the loot you’d literally never find anything.
Also, u wot m8? Visiting the magical crystal realm? Yup. It’s got one of those too. A big part of the game revolves around what happens when you die. It’s… interesting, but I’m not quite convinced it works how the devs thought it would. I frankly never died. That’s not a boast; there is literally a thing you can build at your base you can use to kill yourself. I’ll not overshare – it’s where most of the more interesting story stuff happens – but for some reason, despite being a core part of the story, it feels at odds with the mechanics of the game itself. Although again, it’s all bloody gorgeous.
The biggest criticism I’d level at the game right now is that despite the gorgeous environments, they are completely devoid of life. And, yes, I know: irradiated forbidden zone. But I quite literally mean completely devoid of life. No birds. No rats. No deer. There aren’t even any flies. Now look, I’m not expecting Red Dead Redemption 2 levels of animal life, but the absolute absence of anything other than enemy soldiers and mutants is just… Wrong. I’d love to know if it was an intentional choice, but either way here’s hoping they can at least add some pigeons or something eventually.
Let’s talk about base building. Most of the progression in-game is linked to you building increasingly complex things in your home of operations. You also need to consider the comfort of your companions, making sure there are enough places to sleep, looking after the power levels and air quality, and so on. It’s reasonably enjoyable despite some painfully bad UI / UX choices. No middle mouse scroll to rotate stuff, instead having to click and hold and drag to rotate a chair? Urgh. This also bleeds over to other aspects of the game. Inventory management is absolute cack. Having to open three menus to build a trap which you then have to open another menu to dismantle? Let us build traps and have them as consumable items in the inventory instead. Some of the hotkey choices are just bizarre too, with the mix of Enter and F key particularly confusing.
This is where the problems start to bleed in. There’s nothing majorly wrong with this game, but there are so many small and persistent annoyances. I’m loath to judge any team on spelling and grammar mistakes – I’ve made plenty of both – but for the love of God: there is nothing more immersion-breaking than small but consistent spelling mistakes. I’m sorry. English is hard and stupid, but proofread please. I beg you.
However, despite that the characters and the voice acting is brilliant. If you don’t listen to the audio in its original Ukrainian you are doing yourself a massive disservice. It’s a language that’s both beguiling and hard as fuck all at once. There are plenty of interesting personalities to meet, and I love that the devs injected some humour into the writing. Sure, the zone is bleak as shit, but that doesn’t mean everything is misery and sadness. The voice actors clearly had a lot of fun; Mikhail is completely demented and one of my favourite video game characters in years. There are even some touching moments as characters explore themes of family, love, and politics. It caught me by surprise how much I ended up invested in their stories.
From a technical perspective, the 3D scanning and graphical immersion of Chernobylite is an atmospheric triumph. From a gameplay perspective, there are problems. It feels like a classic case of feature creep, where the devs could have made more focused decisions on a smaller number of mechanics. However, I still really enjoyed my time with the game. Now please excuse me, I must go and argue with Mikhail about flat-earth theory.
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