Published by: All in! Games
Developed by: The Farm 51
You can’t argue against the appeal of the Chornobyl*/Pripyat setting for a decent and intriguing locale.
Over the last two decades, we have seen a myriad of content based on the nuclear disaster enter the mainline.
Heralded TV shows – in particular, HBO/Sky Atlantic’s Chernobyl miniseries among a dozen others – and movies – even the Fast & Furious, Transformers, and Die Hard franchises – have referenced or actively featured Chornobyl in some capacity.
And, within video games, it’s equally as prevalent. Hell, the area features in no fewer than three Call of Duty games! Undoubtedly, it’s here to stay.
And, when you factor in the unknown of the whole nuclear disaster and the untold environmental effects it could have had/continue to have, it gets all the more interesting. The place is a certifiable horror setting in real life! An exclusion zone – that had only started letting tours visit the infamous location in 2002 – that holds stories rife with intrigue, Chornobyl is fascinating, to say the least.
But could it be a horror? Well, the acclaimed S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series definitely lends to the genre nicely. Plus, creators can utilise plenty of sci-fi tropes, as well. And, speaking of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., let’s take a look at a spiritual successor/homage to the PC great. Don your hazmat suits and grab your Geiger counter, we’re going to visit Chernobylite.
For clarity, it should be pointed out I performed this review on a copy of the game gifted to us by the developer. This is the PlayStation 5 next-gen upgrade version of the game.
*Whilst previously and perhaps most famously known as “Chernobyl”, due to ongoing real-world political events [you know the ones we’re talking about, and, no, we will not be addressing them beyond this], the site has been renamed to show the Ukrainian spelling of the name as opposed to the Russian – hence CHORnobyl as opposed to CHERnobyl.
Chernobylite takes place, funnily enough, in the area of Pripyat and Chornobyl itself. It’s a massively open, derelict ruin of a setting to wander around in – perfect for the genre. There are plenty of forests to hide in, buildings to root in, and bunkers to lurk in. And, of course, plenty of real-world features were captured and brought in-game; the Ferris wheel, the playground, and the Duga radar system. In fact, the Duga plays a large part in an earlier portion of the game.
The game handles the landscape well, making everything look real, and, most importantly, not overly dramatised. And, much like Night City was the main point of interest in Cyberpunk 2077, Chornobyl/Pripyat was always going to be the main focus of Chernobylite. But it isn’t the main character, obviously.
No, the protagonist of this story is Dr Igor Khymynuk. A Ukrainian physicist, Igor heads back to Chornobyl after receiving a photograph of his missing wife, Tatyana. Upon arriving in the Zone, however, Igor is confronted by various, horrible visions, including that of a spectral Tatyana. Regardless, Igor presses forwards, confronted by Chernobylite “Shadows” – irradiated monstrosities.
A Mysterious Mystery
Igor’s visions also warp him in and around various places in the Zone, until he “wakes” up again in the company of two mercenaries. These mercs help lead Igor to Chornobyl’s power plant. Herein, the team discovers a mysterious, crystalline material known as Chernobylite. Note; the game’s version of Chernobylite is not the same as the real world’s Chernobylite – that’s how fiction works, after all. The game’s Chernobylite crystals are greenish-black and possess mystical properties. Thankfully, Igor has the technology to utilise such properties, including his handy-dandy hair-dryer portal gun. Using this, Igor is able to create wormholes and warp instantaneously around the Zone at will.
However, whilst in the power plant, Igor and his merc allies also meet the Black Stalker, a mysterious entity tasked with removing visitors to the Zone by any means necessary. This Black Stalker hunts you in later attempts and will track you down if left long enough. But more on that later.
Chernobylite features three key gameplay elements; there’s the general open-world venturing you do wherein you collect supplies, clues, and equipment. Then there are the base-building aspect in-between runs. These parts see you use your harvested supplies and turn them into machinery to make better equipment. You’ll need to focus on upgrading your base to get the best equipment for yourself, and to make it hospitable for your allies.
You’re Not Alone
Oh, speaking of allies, as the game progresses, you’ll need to collect them as you wander through the Zone. You need enough of them to help you with the game’s third gameplay element; the final “heist”. The heist will see you break into the power plant and solve the mystery/mysteries that have plagued you since you stepped off the train into Pripyat. To do that successfully, you’ll need more allies. And to get more allies that want to help you and are in the best condition possible (mentally and physically), you’ll need to improve your base. And, of course, to do that, you’ll need as many supplies as you can find.
The whole thing becomes an ever-feeding process of collect, build, recruit, repeat. That is where, especially early on, things get a little tedious. The world you inhabit is dark and eerie (as would be expected), and things aren’t always clear about where you should go to find something/someone. Thankfully, you have your Geiger counter-cum-environment searcher (don’t ask how it works). This will, naturally, tell you how much radiation is present at any given time, and also, with the hit of a button, scan the area to reveal hidden herbs/caches/guns, etc. The one thing it won’t do – at least, initially, reveals the location of enemies. Which is a bit of a bummer, if I’m honest.
Go In Guns Blazing?
However, you do get guns. You start off with a pistol that one of the mercenaries gives you. It isn’t terribly powerful and is best for a last-ditch effort to save yourself. But, you can upgrade your weapons with the right supplies and a configuration bench. The scope (no pun intended) of customisation you can give to each weapon isn’t vast, but it is a nice touch. You can add a sniper barrel to your pistol, a heat-signature scope to your shotgun, and more. Plus, in later stages, you can craft a portable rail gun. And who doesn’t love a rail gun?
That being said, whilst you can go into an area and take out any enemy – human or otherwise – you see, you probably shouldn’t. At least, not at first. You see, Chernobylite is an action-horror-survival-RPG. And that survival part comes into play really early on. Of the barebones UI that you have on-screen, you do have your psyche and condition meters. These show your mental condition (psyche) and your health. The more damage you take, the lower a meter drops. The more enemies you kill, the more your psyche plummets. Things can and will go wrong if you allow either of these meters to drop to zero. Thankfully, you have all manner of health remedies to see you right; health salves, potions, botanical soups, first-aid kits, and “enhanced adrenaline” shots which revive you back to full health at the point of (near) death.
And, unless you go in all stealthy-like, you will face the death screen a few times. But, and here’s where things go oblong-shaped, when you die, you don’t come back, per se. You do, however, join a new timeline of events – yeah, I know – and you are able to change the outcome of some previous choices. This can make things better, or worse, depending on what you do, naturally. It also throws an element of “better the devil you know”. Or, something. Either way, it creates potential paradoxes, and I hate paradoxes. So, the short answer there is, don’t die. Ever. At all.
Don’t Die. Ever. At All.
The gunplay, especially considering the PS5’s haptic shoulder buttons, was, actually, quite a letdown. Now, that could be me and my infamous aversion to FPS, but I often missed my targets. I know the gunplay is not a huge focus for the game – stealth is your friend, always – but I was put into a situation where I needed to shoot my targets as I couldn’t stealth kill them. Thankfully, the further along you get, the less reliance you will have on lacklustre guns. Or no guns at all, if you work hard enough.
Then again, the sheer amount of customisation/upgrade options available to you for gunplay is quite remarkable. Honestly, I wish I had more of a grasp when it comes to FPS, because the mechanics here, whilst a little more fiddly than expected, are quite impressive. Clearly, in the immortal and oh-so annoying words of the cult of FromSoft, I just need to “get good” at shooting.
In regards to the setting, I mean, what can I say? In its depiction of Chornobyl, Chernobylite is picture-perfect. As much it should be, considering the developers used 3D scans to recreate the Zone in its entirety. The wooded areas are dense and daunting, the scattered buildings are ruinous and unnerving, and walking through the power plant is like a nightmare come to life. I often found myself just wanting to hide in the bushes for fear of literally everything that wasn’t a collectable.
The Gem of the Former Soviet Union
And, additionally, with the setting, Chernobylite gets the tone of the landscape spot-on. From many accounts of people who have been to the real-life Chornobyl, there is an all-consuming atmosphere of silence and sadness present. And, walking through the in-game world, the most prevalent feeling I got was of silence (and of sadness but for different reasons). It is so unnerving to walk around that, at times, I almost longed to meet an enemy just for some noise.
Sure, there is music – and some of it is beautiful in its composition – but, on the whole, you’re left with nothingness. The tension rises when you meet a Shadow, or get close to an enemy in general as the music transcends from melancholic to nerve-wracking. Side note; the noises and music you hear when a Shadow is nearby is the most uneasy I have felt playing a game in a long time. Seriously, if I had a pre-existing heart condition, I would not play this game.
And therein lies Chernobylite‘s best feature; its ability to create a scene. Whilst the graphics (for me, anyway) wasn’t actually up to a standard I would expect from a next-gen title, the general atmosphere more than made up for it. And speaking of graphics…
Welcome to Hell
Now, I’m not sure whether it’s because it was a “pre-launch” copy of the game [as in, it was before the game launched in next-gen], but the textures seemed a little…limp. I have seen screenshots of the game running on a high-end PC, and the foliage, buildings, and floors are all photorealistic. However, on my PS5, it seemed like it was clearly a last-gen mark-up. That’s not to say the game isn’t breathtaking, because it sure the hell is! But it just didn’t pop the same way as I would expect it to.
And, whilst we’re on the notion of graphics, the character models also seemed a bit…meh. Like, their clothing was just kind of there. There wasn’t huge detailing available. And this may be gripes, or my expectations being too high, but the textures on the skin and hair (wherever applicable) were also lacklustre. Now, don’t get me wrong, these gripes are not enough to ruin my experience, but they did make me lose touch with how the game could have looked. It felt more like a game than a chance to walk around a must-see real-world locale. And, yeah, I get it, it is a game. But everything else promises so much more than that.
Moving along, something I forgot to touch on is how the world reacts to you. When you’re at the start of the day, you get the opportunity to do some planning. You can choose to send whoever you want wherever you want to do whatever is active. Need food? Send the mercenary. Has a new monster appeared somewhere that poses a threat to you and the team? The thief can take them on.
A Living, Breathing Worldscape
The fact is, you don’t have to do much in regards to foraging/world-saving. However, when you are tasked with story missions, you are often left with a weighty choice to make. And, depending on what you choose, the world can – and often, will – change along with it. Take one of the earliest missions you are sent on. You must get to this specified point on the map (I’m going to be vague to avoid spoilers, by the way). When you get there, you have a decision to make; either destroy something valuable or use the technology to advance your own equipment.
Now, you can choose whichever one you want, the game will still proceed. But one choice will affect the relationship with someone (again, vagueness for spoiler’s sake), whilst the other choice will affect the relationship with someone else. And, if you choose to destroy the technology, the world map changes to reflect that. You will no longer see that structure on the map anymore going forward. Which has its advantages and disadvantages, naturally.
Additionally, the world can react to the things you don’t do as well. Chernobylite is an almost living material; it can and will show up in the middle of a map despite not being there when you entered. As such, it is possible that the amount of Chernobylite present in and around the power plant can increase. As such, you’ll find a larger presence of Shadows, as well as other beings. [Side note; the game’s first free DLC, “Monster Hunt”, added several new creatures to the mix. Just in case the wilds of Chernobylite aren’t terrifying enough for you all]. Of course, you can employ various machinery to counteract the presence of Chernobylite, but you’ll need resources. And, well, you know the rest.
Finally, Chernobylite had me feeling so much unease and tension, even when I started to acquire decent equipment, that I didn’t want to spend too long in its world. The horror aspects were truly frightening. And I don’t mean in an “ahh, it’s a monster! Run away” kind of way, either. More like a heart-tightening, seat-of-your-pants-edge-of-your-seat thriller. You know that a good horror movie never shows you the monster and leaves it all up to you for interpretation. Well, in this instance, it’s both up to interpretation and you see the bloody monsters. For anyone craving more of that S.T.A.L.K.E.R.-shaped presence in their life, or want a Fallout where the threat of radioactivity will almost certainly end your life, you need to check out Chernobylite.
Despite its (few) flaws, it is a masterpiece in tense horror gameplay that is based in and on an incredibly real-world location. Yes, it leans into the tropes of the genre all the way, and there are elements that won’t be to everyone’s liking (base building!!). But, do you know what? It makes a damn good show of it. Oh, and, as base-building survival games go, this one is just intuitive enough to be okay. Which, for everyone who played Fallout 4 will know, that means something.
As such, with all things considered and weighing everything up, Chernobylite earns a strong 8/10. Depending on your playstyle, it will take around 15 or so hours to complete the game – considerably longer if you linger in the bushes, however. It isn’t the greatest game in the genre, and there are areas where improvements could be made, but what it does do right, it does amazingly. With all the Chornobyl-based media out there, you’d imagine it would be hard to stand out from the pack. Thankfully, Chernobylite isn’t going to be lost in the Exclusion Zone anytime soon.
Chernobylite PlayStation 5 Review
- Overall - 8/108/10
Chernobylite is a first-person, action-horror-RPG based in and around the Exclusion Zone of the city of Pripyat and the doomed Chornobyl power plant. With a strong presence created with 3D scanned architecture from the real-world setting, this tense game keeps players on their toes as they uncover the mystery behind the madness. +
- Amazing atmosphere
- Compelling gameplay mechanic
- Strong sense of foreboding – critical for the genre
- Picture-perfect recreations of the real-world Chornobyl
- Music was exceptional
- Gunplay was difficult to gel with (for me personally)
- Graphics could have been better in places
- Too scary (haha, this one was a joke. But seriously, major spooky)
ABG’s Senior Editor (News), YouTube content creator/streamer.