Chernobylite Review: Highway To The Exclusion Zone

There’s something so fascinating about the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Site of one of the worst nuclear reactor meltdowns in history. A place where nature has fully reclaimed a piece of civilization. Home to something called the Elephant Foot that will kill you in minutes. What’s not to love. So getting the chance to play The Farm 51’s Chernobylite was a great opportunity. I’d not picked the game up in early access, and I’m glad I waited. This title scratched that Stalking itch that’s been there since Call of Pripyat

Now I know what you’re thinking. I thought so too. Chernobylite is just a direct ripoff of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., right? Well, yes. Kind of. But hey, what does it matter? Even if it is following the same game model, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is one of my favorite horror games of all time. Chernobylite takes what works and builds off of it. Besides, they’re both based on Roadside Picnic anyways.

Chernobylite takes place in the area surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. I’ll assume you have some idea of what happened there. But as in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Roadside Picnic, the area is not only abandoned, overgrown, and irradiated; it’s also home to dangerous anomalies and strange creatures. Unlike others, however, the disaster is on lockdown by the NAR, some kind of paramilitary force that completely dominates the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. There are no bandits and exceedingly few fellow stalkers. 

You play as Professor Igor Khymynyuk, physicist and former employee at the CNPP. Chernobylite begins decades after the accident, with Igor and two friends/mercenaries sneaking back into the power plant to get a chunk of crystal named after the game (or perhaps vice versa). The mission goes bad, one friend is lost, the other injured, but Igor is able to use the crystal to create a portal to a weird dimension and escape. The two survivors regroup and decide that if they’re gonna get back into the plant, they’re gonna need a better plan. Thus begins the game. 

Spoilers ahoy for this paragraph. Igor was involved in the accident, and it locked his wife Tatyana in some kind of interdimensional limbo, the same dimension that you now use to portal around. The goal of Chernobylite, as Tatyana occasionally reminds you from her dwelling in the Black Lodge, is to hopefully get her back. 

This is the part of the Chernobylite story I enjoyed best—to get Tatyana back, you need to do a heist of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Like Ocean’s 11 and GTAV, you must organize and execute a plan of attack to infiltrate the plant and discover the secrets within. This premise alone I found to be both amusing and engaging. 

One thing I think was missing from Chernobylite was the dangers of the anomalies in the Zone. There are, of course, significantly radiated areas and poisonous gas. But part of what made S.T.A.L.K.E.R. so great was the ever present threat of walking into an invisible gravity well meat grinder, or finding yourself in a cave with an animal so mutated you can’t even tell what it was supposed to be. Even some weird noises would have upped the terror significantly. The paranormal instances start slow, gaining prominence as you progress through the game. But ultimately, all I ran into in Chernobylite were some kind of humanoid zombie, and something else that hid in a tree stump and wouldn’t let me get a good look. Interesting, but hardly as terrifying as a bloodsucker. 

Unlike Roadside Picnic, this iteration of stalking is the least alien one yet. Even if you do find yourself fighting off a zombie or walking through R’lyeh once in a while, the Zone is more or less what the actual Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is like. Maybe even less, as there is no wildlife around in the game. Chernobylite is great, but despite the incredible attention to detail, without mutants or anomalies, the Zone feels much less alive.  I think this is probably my only real problem with the game. 

Actually, there was one other problem I ran into. This one was of my own making. Chernobylite is a FPS, though the “S” is not always recommended. Stealth is always an option, and sometimes the best one. You can go into the zone guns a-blazin,’ which I usually did because I spent a lot of resources on this scope and I wanna see it in use. Unfortunately, this meant that the next time I went in, there were more soldiers, and as I kept fighting, they got better arms and armor too. Soon each mission had me fighting a half dozen guys with bulletproof armor that were unable to be taken down stealthily. Needless to say, I had dug my own hole. Learn from my mistakes. 

Chernobylite is composed of a handful of smaller maps. Unlike S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, which took place over a large open-world area or interconnected locations, every in-game day you pick a mission for yourself and off you go to a seemingly random area to scavenge or investigate. This was an interesting way to go about building the world. Igor having a portal gun certainly eliminated the need to run back to base after your objectives were completed and made the gameplay loop much more streamlined. The downside is that if you find yourself without an important resource—like food—you really can’t do anything but end the mission, go to bed, and accept whatever consequences to your team’s health and sanity may arise. Thankfully, you can send your friends on missions too, relieving the necessity of scavenging a bit.

When the day is done and you’ve had your radioactive isotope-filled fun, you return to base. A huge part of Chernobylite is the base-building. You and your cadre inhabit a big warehouse at the edge of the Zone. Igor, as the leader, is responsible for keeping things comfortable. You need power to keep the lights and the crafting tools running. Everyone needs a bed and maybe a radio would make things less gloomy. And should you be running a gas generator inside? How bout an air purifier too. All of these things are necessary to keep the team together, and they also cost a lot of resources.

At this point it’s very well polished, and I encountered no crashes or noticable glitches, which as I understand it was a big problem during early access. Chernobylite may not be the scariest  Roadside Picnic style game. But with fun gameplay, beautiful visuals, and a great story, Chernobylite certainly holds a special place in my heart alongside S.T.A.L.K.E.R..