…I have no idea what this game is about. At least not entirely.
On the surface, “Cryostasis” doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary. It’s a survival-horror game where you as the player make your way through the frozen wreck of a ship, doing battle with mutated monsters and making the best of your limited resources. But there are some unique elements.
For example, your health is determined by temperature. The colder you get, the weaker you are and the easier it is to die. This means that the only way to gain health back is to seek out heat sources. You can regain health by warming up at a smoldering pile of wood…
…and other, less conventional heating sources.
This interplay of heat vs. cold also plays into one of the major thematic motifs of the story, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
As you progress through the ruins of the ship, you’ll do battle with the mutated denizens with a variety of melee weapons as well as some guns you’ll find later on. Combat is slow and clunky, but purposefully so. Being in such a cold environment and clad in heavy winter gear, you’re not going to be running around and jumping off of walls like an action hero. No, the game forces you to play methodically. Because if you don’t, you will die.
So now that the basics of the gameplay are down, let’s jump into the story.
Spoiler alert: it’s weird.
As the story begins, we’re treated to a very optimistic and upbeat quote…
But before we even get control of our character, we’re introduced to this strange parallel plot of a group of villagers and their trek through a dark forest. It almost feels like a fairy tale of sorts.
After this brief introduction, the player is then given control of their character. Through a series of flashbacks (triggered by interacting with a faceless figure in a coat), it is revealed that the player character (known as Alexander Nesterov) traveled to the wreck of the icebreaker via sled dogs, but was forced to continue on foot after the ice broke and wrecked the sled. As Nesterov progresses through the ship, he experiences flashbacks to when the ship was operational, and it becomes clear that some type of disaster took place.
But just when you think you might have a handle on things…this happens:
The game prompts you to use your “mental echo” ability to travel into the man’s past and fix his mistake so that he survives (because, you know, that’s a thing…that…that normal people do). These sections are often like puzzles where you have to figure out what to do. Some are simple and logical, while others are more obtuse and frustrating. For example, a later section sees the body of a man dead in his chair after a window exploded and pierced him with glass shrapnel. The simple solution would be to just exit the room and shut the door behind you, right? Wrong. That doesn’t work. Apparently the real solution is to hide behind the chair and let the chair take the hit. Only then will you be able to progress.
Because logic is for suckers.
As the story continues to progress, more flashback events give insight into the story of the ship and its crew. And we start to get an idea of the major players in the story. Most notable in these beginning sections are the ship’s captain and his first officer. The first officer wants to use some sort of divining rod equipment to help steer the ship through the ice, but the captain decides to rely on sheer intuition alone. This leads to a confrontation between the two men where they argue over the dangers of the course the ship is taking.
The captain disregards the first officer’s advice and, predictably, the ship finds itself stuck. The first officer decides to go behind the captain’s back and send a message back to the company that owns this ship. He gets a message back and, despite being advised by the ship’s security officer not to share it with the captain, does so anyways. The contents of the message are kept hidden for a while, but its effect on the captain is evident. He gradually grows demoralized and finds that everyone he turns to seems to despise him. When he goes to the chief engineer of the ship to share the message, the engineer rebukes him and tells him to just go away.
Eventually there is a flashback with the captain standing on the deck, looking forlorn as he holds the message in his hands.
After a moment, he releases the piece of paper and it floats away from him. It is then that the contents of the message are finally revealed: the owners have decided that, following the ship’s completion of its current journey, it is to be decommissioned.
This feels like a good time to pull that parallel fairy tale story back into play. In the fairy tale, the people are trying to escape a forest, but the forest seems alive and wants nothing more than to prevent their escape. It is in their darkest hour that a man among them named Danko takes charge and leads them onward. At first, the people rejoice at Danko’s leadership, feeling hope swell within them. However, as the journey continues and grows harder, resentment begins to take root. They begin chattering among themselves, becoming doubtful of Danko’s ability to lead. Eventually the people rebuke him entirely, to which Danko fires back, criticizing them for how easily they allowed themselves to be led. The people then start surrounding him, clearly intending to kill him…
Numerous parallels to the game’s story can be found. For example, the idea of man vs. nature becomes a very strong motif in the latter half of the game, with the shifting ice around the ship a parallel to the malevolent forest from the fairy tale. There’s a “mental echo” segment where you play as someone in a slaughterhouse, and the solution is to open the gates and let the cows go free.
Not to mention there’s a later, optional segment where you help a polar bear escape from the people hunting it.
But I digress. As the story continues it becomes clear that something bad happened to the ship’s nuclear reactor considering…you know…there’s a giant hole where it used to be.
It’s also revealed that the crew began to suffer some kind of massive medical emergency, which appears to stem from some kind of radiation leak from the reactor.
On top of that, the ship’s layout starts to become more surreal. Doors begin to disappear, entire areas shift around you as you interact with things, and there’s even one really bizarre scene where, after activating an old-fashioned film projector, you’re forced to battle enemies shooting at you on the screen before one of them walks through the damn thing into the room itself. All of this seems to imply that the ship you travel through during the game might not entirely be real. But it’s hard to say. The game is metaphors layered on top of parallel allegories. It confuses the hell out of me sometimes.
In any case, following his thrashing by the rest of the crew, the captain makes one last desperate move. He orders the ship full speed ahead in an attempt to brute force their way out of the ice. During the attempt, he is injured as the first officer and security officer break into the bridge. They order the ship in reverse, which only makes things worse and ends up dooming the ship once and for all. While the crew deals with fluctuating temperatures and radiation sickness, the main officers hatch a plan to take a helicopter and abandon the ship and its crew.
One popular theory is that the captain of the icebreaker is the parallel to Danko in the fairy tale, and I can see why. They both lead their people. And they’re both rebuked by their people when they fail to lead them to safety. The parallels between the two of them are numerous, and it seems to be the most solid conclusion. However, it is only but one interpretation, as I’ll explain shortly.
As the game nears its close, the two parallel tales come to a head. In the fairy tale remember, the people are circling around Danko, ready to kill him. But Danko finally sees that it is not hatred that drives them, but fear. His resentment is then swept away by a wave of compassion, which causes his eyes to start glowing with light. The people misunderstand what’s happening, fearing that the glowing is another symptom of Danko’s anger. But then, Danko rips his still beating heart out of his chest, the sheer light of it obliterating the forest and giving way to a new land.
Danko looks upon this new world with a smile, then falls over dead. Because happy endings are for losers.
On the icebreaker, the first officer and the security chief carry the captain to a helicopter piloted by the chief engineer. The crew watches anxiously as the helicopter begins to take off, leaving them all behind.
But it’s not over yet…remember that whole flaming heart thing from the fairy tale? Yeah…the ship’s nuclear reactor functions as that parallel as it decides to go all ker-plooey and explode.
The helicopter is vaporized, and the following scene implies that the explosion transformed the crew into the monsters you fight throughout the game.
So yeah, that’s it. That’s the story. I mean, there’s no way things could get weirder or anythi-
Hold on a second…I have to go make sure nobody spiked my drink…
So the final boss of the game is Father Time. No, I’m serious. I’m dead serious. The title of the level itself is “Chronos”, which is the ancient name for the personification of time. So yeah, the giant blindfolded man with the hourglass is literally Father Time.
And you must do battle with him by shooting mystical orbs at the people who appear around him.
Yeah it’s definitely one of the most out of nowhere moments I’ve ever experienced in a game. I mean, this game was bizarre to begin with, but when this happened I think my jaw literally dropped.
Anyways, after defeating Old Man Time (I can’t believe I actually typed that), he rewards you with an opportunity to go back and change one singular moment that alters the fate of the ship and its crew entirely. There are multiple ways this can take shape, but for this playthrough it takes the form of the chief engineer.
There was that scene earlier in the game where he basically told the captain to piss off. Well, you can change that by having him express sympathy for the captain, a small act of kindness that averts the tragic fate of the entire vessel.
The story then shifts back to the beginning scene, with Nesterov approaching the vessel by dog sled. Only, this time people are waiting for him.
After the sled falls through the ice, the captain appears above and extends his hand, saving Nesterov from falling into the water. He is joined by the chief engineer, the security officer, and another officer. Together, the five of them head off toward the ship as the story reaches a close.
Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin with this craziness…
Like I said before, the fairy tale story is a clear parallel to the tragic tale of the icebreaker. And like I said, a popular interpretation is that the captain is Danko’s parallel. However, I’ve also heard it as the ship’s crew being Danko’s parallel, although I don’t particularly agree with that assessment. It seems more fitting for the crew to be the parallels of the villagers in the story, as they gradually succumb to fear and begin fighting among each other. Another interpretation could be that the ship itself is Danko, as the captain does personify the ship during an early scene in the game, saying that to be a true captain the ship must “respect you”.
There’s a lot more to unpack with this game, but I think I’m gonna leave it alone for now. This post has gone on long enough.
I know I made light of the game’s weirdness at points, but in all honesty that’s part of what makes the game so fascinating to think about. It’s so weird and so out there at times that it makes you want to understand, makes you need to understand. And there are lots of things I didn’t even go over, like the theme of confinement or being trapped that’s a motif throughout the game (many of the enemies are horrifically constrained within their armor, with one tough enemy having only a keyhole on his helmet to see through). There’s also references to other obscure Russian works of literature and art that I haven’t even begun to delve into myself (the game’s subtitle “sleep of reason” is one such reference). But despite how cryptic and obtuse it is, the game has a charm to it that cannot be denied despite some of the technical shortcomings (i.e. the game chugs along at times, even on powerful hardware). Unfortunately, the game doesn’t seem to be available on any digital storefronts. In fact, the only way I can see buying it now is via a physical copy from Amazon. So if you’re interested in trying it out, that might be the only way to do it aside from other…less reputable means…if you catch my drift.
In any case, thanks for reading my long ramblings about some obscure game barely anyone’s ever heard of. Have a wonderful rest of April and check back on the third Wednesday of May for my next post.