Cryostasis – “From Russia with Cold”
As western game development grows thick in its arrogance and nigh religious faith in the formulaic, and the far eastern dwindles in its inability to appeal to the new found world masses in any way but the mimicking of the western ways, only those left in the middle can still make a stand. Russia and other eastern countries’ economical limbo has given rise to a number of small independent studios that the far reaching arm of the industry still hasn’t a complete clutch over. This small harbor of creative freedom is showing signs of being able to protagonize a cold wave of video games, as interesting titles such as “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” and “Metro 2033” creep in the commercial mainstream, and the bizarre ventures of Ice-Pick Lodge, “Pathologic” and “The Void”, show that an auteur approach is still possible in the medium. “Cryostasis” lies somewhere in between these two approaches, but despite its compromise, is unequivocally another eastern promise.
Something in these eastern countries… something about the weather there has a powerful effect on the region’s cultural legacy. Something which explains that fatalist tendency for the dark and violent, that weighty existentialist anxiety, the ever-present gloom and cold and frigid, the icy and slow, the rugged and gauntly. This artistic propension is ever clear in “Cryostasis”. As an explorer stuck in an abandoned nuclear ice-breaker somewhere in the northern pole, you set out in search of answers about the ship’s predicament. You dive into that icy purgatory’s bowels, as you slowly pave way through a labyrinth of dark, rusted metal corridors, covered in crisp ice crystals and snow and clear stalactites, overrun by a dreaded silence that is only muffled by the cruel howls of the blizzard that runs amok in the white-clad exterior. “Cryostasis” is precisely about how humans can survive in face of harsh environments, posing its key themes not only through the core exploration of the ship, but also through narrative exposition, via a re-telling of Maxim Gorky’s tale “Old Izergil” and re-living of the ship’s defunct crew memories, in a series of bizarre flashbacks. Revelations are slow to come, but subtle and profound, and the authors’ propension for the extraordinary and the strange and cryptic make the game altogether more captivating for those who like a good narrative conundrum.
There’s a bit of the old survival horror cannon here as well, as the ice-breaker holds some of its former crew hidden and mutated into ghastly creatures. Though far from being the game’s highlight, combat with these monsters is particularly intense, thanks to a great use of sound effects, and the game’s unrelentingly slow rhythm. In the end, this is what makes “Cryostasis” a valid entry into its genre, as despite its first person perspective and shooting interactions, its pacing and exploratory moods utterly distantiate it from the military action aesthetic which pervasively corrodes the survival horror genre. Indeed, “Cryostasis” only failure lies in its authors not recognizing that they should not compete with the likes of these games. In what seems to have been an urge to stick to standard mainstream games’ length, the experience ends up sprawling for far too many hours, with little variation in both aesthetic content and narrative development. But, even so, after a depressing number of these nautious action-horror hybrids, such as “Dead Space“, “Resident Evil 5” and “Silent Hill Homecoming“, it is great to, once again, be able to experience a true survival horror game that lives and breathes atmosphere.