After spending almost 2 years in Steam Early Access, The Farm 51’s Chernobylite has finally seen the light of day with its full release. Set in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone following a botched nuclear experiment, Chernobylite is a post-apocalyptic RPG ripe with a number of mechanics lifted straight out of contemporaries of the genre, and a few others from not-so-obvious places. Chernobylite treads a fine line in terms of balancing all of these together but is hampered down by a few annoying oversights that stop it from reaching the triumphs it should.
Chernobylite starts off simply with a flashback of the protagonist Igor aboard a train with his fiance and the love of his life, Tatyana. It then quickly cuts to a dilapidated version of the place, and you are put right into another botched heist job at the power plant wherein you get to meet the main antagonist of the game, the Black STALKER. After a friend’s unfortunate death at the hands of the Black STALKER, Igor and his companion Olivier vow to take revenge and rescue Tatyana.
"This forms the basis for a seemingly humane and emotional plotline revolving around love and commitment but quickly falls into a number of post-apocalyptic tropes as emotional story beats are sidelined in favor of raising a collective revolution against the oppressive NAR."
This forms the basis for a seemingly humane and emotional plotline revolving around love and commitment but quickly falls into a number of post-apocalyptic tropes as emotional story beats are sidelined in favor of raising a collective revolution against the oppressive NAR, who wants to exploit the Chernobylite material for its own corporate greeds. This is further exasperated by an ending that veers more into the philosophical territory than humane, which leaves a sour taste in the mouth. While it’s filled with a number of revelations surrounding time paradoxes and the supernatural, it didn’t feel as emotionally impactful as I’d wanted it to be.
The main characters aren’t also interesting enough to warrant emotional investment in their personal tragedies, which is accentuated to a further degree by inconsistent dialogues and voice acting – which can range anywhere from convincing to downright embarrassing; all at the flip of a switch. However, the one-tone main cast is offset by a band of funny and likable companions, the standout highlights of which are Tarakan, a delusional maniac who wants to defeat The Rat King and Mikhail, an obnoxiously loud and violent junkie with a dark past.
"At times, it can prove to be a fun tug-of-war between how much resources should be used to upgrade the base, and how efficiently one can keep comfort problems at bay."
All of these colorful personalities reside at The Warehouse, which acts as the base of operations for the entire game. Chernobylite offers a number of base upgrades by means of crafting, which strikes a fine enough balance between accessibility and depth. You can craft a plethora of machines that allow you to create new equipment and upgrade existing ones, but doing so decreases the comfort level of the base which by extension can take a toll on the health and psyche of your companions. At times, it can prove to be a fun tug-of-war between how much resources should be used to upgrade the base, and how efficiently one can keep comfort problems at bay.
At the start of each day, you get to assign all of your companions their daily jobs. Any of the companions can be assigned to any job – even the main quests, wherein the companions will rid the area of enemies so you can easily finish up the job at a later time. Each companion has a success rate for a given job, and failure can have consequences ranging from a slight decrease in morale to being captured by the military forces.
While there are a number of options for tackling quests as you deem fit, there is a noticeable lack of variety nevertheless. Side quests revolve around getting to a location and pressing a single button to retrieve the contents of a supply drops, and it almost never veers away from this template. The main quests fare a bit better but operate on the same blueprint for a decent chunk of the game. It does ramp up in complexity towards the end, with one of my favorites being a multi-step kidnapping operation where choosing different options can have an interesting impact on the environment and the kinds of enemies you face.
"Chernobylite has a unique take on player mortality, which is one of the most interesting parts of the game."
When you are out and about, you need to constantly be on the lookout for resources, clues, and information that might help you inch further in your quest for finding Tatyana. There are a number of world events marked on the map, which can have either the titular Vagabond who is a trader with a knack for business and entrepreneurship, or containers with useful resources. Of course, you will also have to defend yourself from monsters and soldiers, the latter of which can be dispatched either with stealth options or combat. The enemy AI is easily exploitable with traps and distractions, which allowed me to sneak past most scenarios with relative ease. When fights do start, they are brutal – Igor goes down relatively easily in just a few hits, and most enemies are quite aggressive. Ammunition and healing supplies remain scarce for the most part, so it’s absolutely vital to understand which fights need to be taken and which don’t.
Chernobylite has a unique take on player mortality, which is one of the most interesting parts of the game. If you die at the hands of the NAR, you are most likely to end up in a prison alongside any other lost companion. It’s here where you are required to find your lost gear and make an escape. In other cases, you will end up in an otherworldly portal where you get to see all of the choices you made during the course of your playthrough and get a chance to change them. It’s quite interesting to see how each choice leads to a number of consequences in other quests and relationships, which then need to be replayed in order for the timeline to make sense, of course. This also allows Chernobylite to be extremely brutal with its choice and consequences, and it’s quite possible that your companions might even leave your cause if your relationship with them deteriorates to a certain point.
However, depending on the fail state – you are either required to relive the current day or continue on with the next day, which robs you of any progress made on the active quests. This kicks into gear during the latter half of the game, where quests start to get interesting and also relatively long. In addition to this, you lose all gear and supplies consumed during a failed run which can have a dire effect on your plans and options – both in the short term and the long term.
Chernobylite has some great art direction, which isn’t surprising since the team spent extraneous amounts of money capturing photos and doing scans of the real Exclusion Zone. The game is built using Unreal Engine 4 and captures the aesthetics of a dilapidated post-apocalypse wonderfully. The music is equally somber, which adds a lot to the melancholic ambiance that Chernobylite wishes to portray.
"It’s quite interesting to see how each choice leads to a number of consequences in other quests and relationships, which then need to be replayed in order for the timeline to make sense, of course."
However, its biggest triumph is the expertise with which The Farm 51 uses its limited resources and scale to create something that hides its limitations well enough to not be noticeable. Rarely – if ever – will you see a character model’s face during the entire course of the game since most dawn gas masks. This serves as a brilliant way of cutting all costs associated with motion capture and animation without sacrificing the story and characters. The game’s “open-world” is divided into a number of zones which cuts all development efforts required to have a robust asset streaming system for seamless travel across the map.
Chernobylite isn’t a very long game though, it took me just over 15 hours to roll the credits. However, there are a number of choices that can drastically affect the endings for each of your companions as well as the antagonist, which gives enough reason to replay it some time again in the future. There is also a free-play mode that allows you to roam around any of the game’s levels, which is a serviceable addition as an end-game distraction.
Chernobylite’s tapestry of intertwining mechanics treads a fine line between being a half-hearted effort and an obnoxiously complex one. That being said, it’s not for everyone – and it shouldn’t be. While its story elements are heavily hampered by uninteresting characters and the campaign littered with a number of repetitive quests, the moment-to-moment gameplay is brutal in the truest sense. Its unique implementation of choice and consequence allows for a number of divergent paths that bolster its replayability. It’s an enjoyable experience, albeit a flawed one.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Rich mechanics; unique implementation of choice and consequence; great art direction; brutal survival elements.
Inconsistent dialogues; repetitive side quests.