The multiverse theory suggests that there are infinite parallel universes, all different from our own. In one of them, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 never happened. And because of that, no exclusion zone was formed and no S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game was ever released. In another, the Assassin’s Creed franchise did not have any recruits to send on contract missions. There is even one where Fallout 4 has no base building mechanics. But since all of these have happened in our universe, we now have Chernobylite, a survival-horror RPG from The Farm 51 that has been in early access for a few years. It mixes first-person shooting with stealth and exploration, and it borrows ideas from the above games to produce something familiar yet refreshing. Those itching to get back into the Zone will find that Chernobylite has plenty to keep the Geiger counter ticking over.
Professor Igor Khymynuk is after the exotic substance known as chernobylite, and players begin the game by controlling him during an incursion into the new Chernobyl power plant, thirty years after the 1986 disaster. The power plant is being guarded by a group known as the NAR, a private militia funded by investors. The NAR’s scientists are doing some freaky stuff in the Zone relating to the green chernobylite that is popping up—and bringing with it some hostile creatures. The green crystalline material has unusual properties and Igor can use a refined chunk to power his special portal gun, allowing him to teleport between locations. Oh, and he is also looking for his wife, Tatyana, who went missing after the explosion in 1986.
After finding some pure chernobylite, the search for Tatyana is cut short when a mysterious figure known as the Black Stalker attacks. Igor teleports to the safety of an abandoned warehouse, which becomes a refuge where he can sleep and build useful structures. He must regroup, restock, and reassess the situation before he can attempt another assault on the power plant. That means finding clues about what the NAR are doing, gathering equipment, and putting together a crew that can use their skills to penetrate the fortified power plant. All these, and more, are found in the Exclusion Zone, the alluring radioactive wasteland surrounding the power plant.
The Zone is made up of five unconnected areas that are revisited many times across the 15-20 hour campaign. Only one area can be explored per day and when you’ve completed the day’s objective, be it a resource run or a story mission, Igor must return to sleep at the home base. His portal gun allows him to zone out of each level, an elegant thematic solution to end the day whenever and wherever he chooses.
The five levels are not huge, roughly equivalent to a small or medium level in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, but they are detailed and great fun to explore. Not every building can be entered, but those that can be are crammed full of detail. There are interesting corners everywhere. Places from the real exclusion zone have been faithfully reproduced, like the stained-glass cafe in the Pripyat port, desolate camp buildings in Kopachi, and the infamous Duga radar tower. The environments are dripping with atmosphere and it takes quite a while before they stop being enthralling.
What helps the levels maintain appeal are the many points of interest that crop up on subsequent trips. These are diverse and always worth checking out. Some are visual echoes of liquidators cleaning up after the disaster, a fantastic touch that helps tie the game to reality. Others are jump scares or horror sequences, which keep players on their toes and set the tone. A few are merely NPC traders that move around the place and exchange ammo for food or vice versa. And some are clues that explain what happened to Tatyana—find enough and vignettes from the past can be viewed with a fanciful virtual reality headset. There are more of these points of interest in some levels, like the Moscow Eye (aka Duga), than others, so the balance is not quite right. And after about twelve hours there will be no more to see, aside from traders that move from place to place.
That is not to say the Zone is devoid of activity once everything has been uncovered. The weather changes from one day to the next, including different rain and fog settings, all rendered nicely with Unreal Engine 4. Areas become more radioactive; military patrols can increase or change; additional chernobylite creatures emerge from portals; and that pesky Black Stalker hunts you down often. Structures can be built to counter these hostile intrusions, although they barely seem worth the supplies. Other basic equipment can be placed, like campfires to craft tonics. All levels repopulate with resources every day, oftentimes in the exact same place as before, and a helpful scanning tool makes finding them easy. The important thing is that returning to areas provides both new rewards and new threats, much like the games from GSC Game World.
There are hostiles in the Zone and you can either shoot them down or sneak around. Direct combat works okay but do not expect slick action. The three standard weapons—revolver, shotgun, and assault rifle—are acquired within an hour and can be modified with sights and other attachments. There are some chernobylite sci-fi weapons for late game action too. They are fine killing machines but more diversity and gradual progression would have been nice. The biggest obstacle for combat is often a lack of ammo, but if your aim is good and your armor is strong, it is a viable tactic to get through both monsters and patrols. The human AI enemies flank well in battle; a group of three soldiers took up different points on the compass and would have killed me if not for a life-saving adrenaline shot that came with slow-motion benefits. The downside of shooting humans is that it hurts Igor’s psyche, which must be strengthened with calming salts or vodka.
Sneaking about is a better fit for the game. There is a lot of foliage and hiding in the bushes is easy. Aside from using a silenced revolver, melee takedowns are the most useful method to eliminate humans. Sadly bodies cannot be dragged or hidden; patrols usually spot the dead (when there are not AI bugs) and come to search the immediate area. Fireworks can attract soldiers to a specific location, but unlike other stealth games this lures the whole group. Deadly traps can be placed as well, but their usefulness is greatly diminished when they cannot be deployed while guards are in search mode. The AI will hear if you are running about and their visual detection is fair. They will even wait patiently for the melee takedown animation to finish before unloading their Kalashnikovs. While the stealth is basic, it does work well enough to form the bulk of the experience.
Just because the Zone is lonely and inhospitable, does not mean the base has to be. Up to five companions can join Igor and they will come to call the warehouse (aka refuge) home. These companions do not join you on missions, but each day they can be sent to fetch resources from an area. They might fail and return injured, or go missing. They need to be fed and require a place to sleep. They can also teach Igor skills, to boost inventory space or provide health bonuses. Each one is a unique personality with quite a lot of dialogue, and it is worth talking to them in the refuge every night.
Many useful things can be built in the refuge. The interface for building is similar to Fallout 4, with items in sub menus and the ability to drop and rotate, albeit without as much depth. Workbenches customize weapons; storage containers free up inventory space; grow beds produce herbs; and a lab crafts medkits or essential vodka. In addition to companions needing beds, they also have a comfort level. This can be raised with furniture, decorations, plants, and lights. Use too many lights and another generator is needed to power the whole shebang. This reduces air quality, which requires a filtration device, and so on. Keeping the base liveable is tricky at first but after about ten hours not much more needs to be done. It would have been nice to see some active management requirements, like maintenance of equipment or defending the base from incursions.
The most interesting structure that can be placed in the refuge is a radiation chamber that causes Igor’s immediate death. Why would anybody need to kill themselves? So they can change history. No matter where Igor dies—in combat (with a loss of resources) or via this suicide chamber—he is transported to a strange world where all the current story choices are laid out in sequence. These choices can be altered, providing you have enough chernobylite, or they can be forgotten and rediscovered when Igor wakes up to a new day.
Messing around with the timeline is the best chance of successfully infiltrating the power plant. If a companion loses faith in Igor, they leave. If you make one choice during a story mission, a clue is missed. Trying to complete that final ‘heist’ mission with half the assets is going to result in death. Since companions have different motivations, they often disagree. One will appreciate if you save a scientist, but another will loathe it. Some want you to burn clues about Tatyana, but they are needed for those VR headset simulations. Make enough choices in one direction and that group of five is now just three. But altering decisions after death lets you wake up to a new universe, one where all five companions tolerate your existence.
Trying out different universes can be a crucial part in the late game stages, if things have tipped too far one way. It is usually clear what happens when changes are made, although the impact on companions is less transparent in terms of how far it swings their mood. Some choices filter into others, although most are isolated. A bit of experimenting is required to find the right balance. All the branching story options provide good replay value and the depth is easy to appreciate when it is all laid bare.
Zone aficionados should definitely play Chernobylite, especially if they want an intimate story-driven survival experience. There are many layers to the multifaceted narrative, including a cast of diverse companions and a way for players to change history each time they perish. Best of all are the five detailed and captivating areas of the Zone that are repopulated with points of interest and feature accurately reproduced structures from the real world. These areas are fun to shoot or sneak through, while scouring for resources in order to build structures back in the home base. It all makes for a great experience with strong replay value, and in a universe of infinite possibilities, Chernobylite is one of the better outcomes.