If there’s a recurring theme in Eastern European games, it’s suffering. Whether it’s the Stalker games, Metro, or Pathologic, there’s something about the area that focuses on the terror of decaying worlds. It’s one of the reasons you should play games from foreign countries. You get to learn a little bit about the culture in a way you don’t get by learning the language alone, but it also means that these branches of survival games are known for being a bit janky.
It’s the hump that comes with the genre. They come with a great atmosphere, but usually get held down with some convoluted mechanics or confusing translations. It’s one of the reasons why Chernobylite is fascinating right off the bat.
Developed by The Farm 51, the same team that gave us Get Even and Painkiller: Hell and Damnation, Chernobylite brings that survival we know and love with more polish than the genre usually receives after its first foray in Early Access.
Chernobylite totes itself as a Survival Horror, RPG Crafting combo. Mixing immersive sim-like gameplay with scavenging and an overarching goal to work towards, it’s all about juggling the needs of your party with your own supplies.
Along the way are various choices that will change the story slightly. Not only that, but the way your party feels about you will also change. It has a lot of mechanics in play, so we’ll need to go beyond the pitch.
You play as Igor, a scientist trying to save his wife, Tatayana, from the power plant in Chernobyl he used to work at. For whatever reason, she has been held captive by the NAR, a mercenary company tangled in a mind-bending conspiracy. it’s up to us to find a crew who can pull a proper heist to get her back.
Alongside that is the titular Chernobylite: green crystals that are able to produce wormhole technology. This tech allows Igor to travel across the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, scavenging for food and parts, but this tech has also brought monsters into the zone, making it even more dangerous than before.
Through the clues you find and the facts you learn about Chernobylite, you’re able to uncover the conspiracy of what the NAR is doing in Chernobyl and why they’re holding your wife hostage. But Igor’s not the only one who can use this emergent tech, and Tatayana’s voice is in his head…
While the overarching conspiracy doesn’t grab you from the start, the story grows on you as it picks up pace, which is in part thanks to Chernobylite’s charming characters. You have to be pretty crazy to scavenge in Chernobyl, and you get to meet people that range from desperate to absolutely bizarre.
One of my favorites is a Gopnik-like merchant who sells you lootboxes for food rations, all while he blares hardbass. Even if Igor’s determination to find Tatayana doesn’t engage you, the little stories that litter the world are delightful. This is especially true with your ever-growing party, as all of them butt heads about the proper way to enact this heist and fight against the NAR.
But the biggest issue at hand with Chernobylite’s story is a simple one: it’s not that scary. Even as you’re facing monsters caused by wormholes and learning about this conspiracy connected to Chernobyl, it’s easy to get desensitized. After you see one wormhole-based jump scare, you’ve seen them all. It’s still an engaging world inside the zone, and I don’t regret my time in the excursion zone. It’s a story with some fun twists and turns, but it’s not earth-shattering by any means.
With all the mechanics at play and its sci-fi story, Chernobylite can be an overwhelming experience, but if you give it time the gameplay loop is easy to get sucked into.
The first port of call is to set the party you’ve accumulated into different parts of the zone. Each party member has different pros and cons, making them better for different types of missions. However, there are certain story-based missions that will only be completed by Igor, so it’s important to do those yourself. Otherwise, the party member will just find some supplies.
Once you’re properly in a part of the zone, it’s time to scavenge and learn. Levels are split between more straightforward treks to steal supplies from the NAR to the more in-depth main quest missions. Markers give you a clear indication of where to go, so it’s easy to find your way. The tricky part is that everything’s against you. From soldiers setting up camps to monsters climbing out of wormholes, to even the radiation of the zone.
Chernobylite’s recurring antagonist is the Black Stalker: a mask-clad man with the same wormhole tech as you. He wants you dead and will stop at nothing to gun you down. He’s supposed to randomly appear as you quest, but it’s very uncommon. In my playthrough, I only dealt with him twice outside of story quests.
Thankfully, you have a scanner to help find what you need. It doesn’t just allow you to find scrap and the radioactivity of the current area, but also quest items. Since it can be easy to lose sight of things, the scanner is a must when you’re not in combat.
Collecting clues found in the Zone allows you to set up investigations via a VR headset that enables you to see the past. That might sound silly, but the reason beyond it makes enough sense from a sci-fi perspective to not break immersion, and is vital to the game’s final heist that tells you more about the conspiracy. However, it’s also a part where the game drags, forcing you to hear the entire story beat before getting to the next scrap of lore.
Fighting, at least in the early game, is risky as hell. Both from the soldiers who won’t hesitate to gun you down, and the wormhole monsters that can appear in the world. The monsters are the bigger evil of the two, thanks to their heightened senses. You can’t stealthily take them down either, you can only fight or flee. At least the soldiers you fight will stumble after getting hit. Surviving a firefight against multiple soldiers is invigorating, and it makes you feel like you pulled off the impossible or made a terrible mistake.
While the weapon variety is limited (there’s only 3 guns you can mod alongside a single melee attack), there are other ways to fight. You can go guns blazing if you’d like, but crafting traps for enemies is also viable. You can’t set them if you’re found, so being stealthy is absolutely vital if you take the trap approach.
Alongside the traps you set in the field, you can also modify the weather. This is done by crafting machines that can decrease the radiation or prevent wormholes from being made. However, these only start working on the next day, so you’ll need to build them in a place that won’t get messed up by monsters or soldiers. Not only that, but they use the same materials used to upgrade your base, so it’s a constant battle between making sure the zone isn’t dangerously irradiated or making an item now to help you.
A noticeable feature of Chernobylite is the toll killing takes on you. Even if they’re your enemies, it’s not easy to kill your fellow man. You are then forced into a dilemma: do you kill the people who stand in your way so you don’t lose your sanity, or do you sneak around to find what you need? This is cool in theory, but it’s very easy to deal with. One of the perks you unlock allows stealth takedowns to not impact your mental health.
Not only that, but alcohol heals your mental health with little drawback. In the late game, it’s easy to dispatch enemies left and right with upgraded gear so that any horror or tension is sucked away. I was able to upgrade an AK47 to have a sniper barrel, extended magazine, and thermal sights, making any combat encounter a breeze. Since some soldiers carry vodka, it’s easier to just gun them down and steal from their corpses, negating that moral choice entirely.
Death plays a noticeable part in the game. When you die, you are given the option to reset choices you’ve made in the story by altering time. This costs Chernobylite you create, but it can help mend mistakes you’ve made in the past. However, death will cost you random items in your inventory, so it’s not always worth it and almost gives a roguelike quality to the game.
There’s a base upgrade that lets you die without penalty, so that is an option if you want to change the past without losing things. It’s a fun approach to trying new story choices, even if it makes your initial decisions seem less important.
Once you return to your refuge, you’ll need to distribute food. Full rations will keep your party happy, so make sure to find as much food as you can in the zone. While a full ration can heal your party’s psyche and health, it will only keep your psyche stable (or boost it if you decide to eat two rations). Thus, it’s easier for you to make the sacrifice to eat less than your comrades. Before and after the treks into the zone, you are given the chance to build and craft in your base.
With parts and plants, you can then create crafting machines, gardens for food, beds for your team, storage for items you find in the zone, and decorations to make the base comfortable. But it’s not easy by itself. Crafting stations take up power and can decrease air quality, not even counting the concerns with radiation. Thus, it’s a juggle to balance between creating what you need to make powerful gear and keeping your crew happy and healthy.
You might be tempted to make a landmine to take down a tricky soldier, but you also want to save your stuff to finally craft some armor. It’s one reason why the game is fun to dive into.
By defeating soldiers and monsters, collecting clues, and building your base, you level up. This gives you perk points that allow you to ask your party members to teach you some new tricks. These can be straightforward, like causing more damage with certain firearms. Other times, they can upgrade your equipment. Since each party member has their own skills to teach you, it’s a great incentive to have as many people in your base as you can.
Resource management is important, but it becomes a non-issue a bit too fast. The shift from hungry scavenger to full-on Rambo is too quick. This means that once your base is built up enough with a full party, you don’t have to worry about feeding everyone or keeping them comfortable.
For a party of six, I’ve had over 100 food rations with no problem and any previous downside to powerful tech was fixed by scattering lights or anti-radiation showers all over the place. You’ll still scavenge to be safe, but it’s less of a concern. I beat the game on medium without trouble, making it feel more akin to easy.
Compared to the other Eastern European survival games (a la Pathologic or Stalker), this is probably the most straightforward to play. It’s without a lot of the jank associated with the genre, but alongside that lack of jank is a game that becomes a breeze after the initial difficulty. Resource management becomes a non-issue, and appealing to your party isn’t that tricky. Later on, it’ll be more about finishing the story than trying to stay alive.
A lot has been said about Chernobylite’s team literally going to the Excursion Zone to accurately portray Chernobyl. Even as I put the graphics down as low as possible (more on that later), it’s a great rendition of the zone. Each section of the zone is distinct, and it’s almost pretty. We can only hope that no-one got radiation poisoning just for the sake of a video game.
This is also true for the game’s more surreal moments, letting wormhole tech have an otherworldly beauty to it. It shouldn’t fit well together, this realized portrayal of a real-world location with sci-fi tech. Yet, it never breaks immersion. Alongside the focus on Chernobyl’s accuracy, there are a couple of FMVs placed around the game. They aren’t a huge part of the game, but it does give Chernobylite its own identity.
Audio & Music
Chernobylite’s sound and music play a big part in the game’s atmosphere, and it’s solid. While it’s not a soundtrack you’d buy on vinyl, it nails that weird tension between the calmness of the excursion zone with the bizarreness of wormhole tech. Sometimes, the sound when a jump scare plays is lacking, but that’s it. From the ticking of the geiger counter to the sounds of traps and firearms, the audio is what it’s supposed to be for this type of game.
Chernobylite gives you an option for either a Russian or English dub, though the Russian dub will be the more authentic choice. Bad performances aren’t given, though some acting choices are odd.
The most notable example is Tatiyana herself. While she does a good job as the voice in your head, her attempts to be scary fall flat. She changes her voice to more of a hiss while she says spooky stuff and it’s a bit try-hard if we’re being honest. You can almost imagine the actress waving her arms as she pretends to be a ghost. Apart from those brief moments of silliness, everyone does a solid job and that makes the Russian dub a fine choice.
The AI you’ll be dealing with in the Zone isn’t that special. Don’t get me wrong, it gets the job done and it helps the early game stay tense, but it’s prone to moments of stupidity. When the AI finds a corpse of its brethren, its calls others to its current position.
This also means those soldiers who were called to the body will also express that same shock, standing there for a while. Beyond that, it’s the sort of AI we’ve seen before in similar games. Attacks are clearly telegraphed, and it feels like your fault when you get caught. It’s not out of the ordinary, and it won’t surprise you.
Chernobylite is like many current games in that it has some basic accessibility options, but nothing out of the ordinary. You have control mapping, aim assist for controller users, and the options to change running and crouching to be a button you hold, but that’s the main stuff you get.
There’s also an option to change the difficulty separately for combat, management, and survival, just in case you think one mechanic should be easier/harder than another. These are nice options to have, but there could be more.
If you’ve been reading my reviews for a while, you might know that my PC isn’t the flashiest. This means that while I was able to reach the end of Chernobylite, it wasn’t easy. The game was prone to stuttering during the game’s more crowded levels, even as I put the settings down to their lowest. Thankfully, the game had a lot of performance options, including the ability to run a benchmark. If you are someone who likes to tinker with settings, Chernobylite’s got you.
One of the weirdest issues I’ve had tuning the settings was attempting to lock the FPS to 30 to make the game run more consistently. Instead, it dropped frames to the point where firing a shot took two seconds. Running the game at 60 FPS prevented that. If this game sounds like your cuppa, make sure that your rig is beefier than a MSI GL63 8RC.
If you love the atmosphere of Eastern European survival games but hate the jank, Chernobylite is for you. Its cycle of scavenging and questing is addicting, and its characters are fun to meet. But that also means it becomes too easy once you get a feel for the controls and mechanics. Add that with a story that isn’t scary, and you have a flawed game with an engaging core. It held my attention during its full runtime, and I can’t say that for a lot of games.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Enacting the game’s climactic heist and my plans both succeeding and failing at once.
Engaging Gameplay Loop
Detailed portrayal of the Excursion Zone
Cool approach to death
Surprisingly easy on Medium
Not that scary.
About Gavin Herman
Gavin Herman is a critic with experience in editing, journalism and video game PR. He's still too afraid to ask what this Fortnite thing is all about.