A game can have a terrible story and still be great. A game can have questionable mechanics and an unforgettable story. But can a game still be good, let alone great, if it has neither a standout story nor exciting gameplay? Chernobylite dares to answer this question.
It’s a game I enjoyed despite not thinking much of the overarching plot or the moment-to-moment first-person shooting. Even with these huge, core, aspects falling short, I found something to like. If story and gameplay are two major pillars of a good video game, Chernobylite gets by on a third, equally important but less obvious pillar: its structure.
As the medium matures, it feels like more and more video games have deeper systems at play, or combine more subgenres. Inscryption is a deck-builder card game with a creepy narrative. Returnal is a rogue-like, arcade-style third-person shooter with haunted house sequences and an opaque plot. And Chernobylite is a blend of resource management, base-building, branching narrative, and a bit of survival horror.
By layering on ideas from different genres, all of these games make structure a bit part of the overall package. In the past, a game’s structure would be “it has 10 levels, 20 different weapons, and 3 difficulty levels.” There wasn’t much more to chew on other than, “does it control well,” “is the story interesting?”, “is it fun to get headshots?”
Chernobylite’s controls are stiff, its story is head-scratching and cringey, and it is actively unfun to get headshots. On a controller, Chernobylite’s aim-assist does this weird thing where it actively fights against you, pushing the reticle away from enemies’ heads. Meanwhile, its wife-guy protagonist, Igor, wastes the oppressive Chernobyl setting on a lame rescue-the-princess, love triangle plot that goes in some very odd directions. The cast of characters Igor recruits vary wildly between lovable and actively awful—some, like Mikhail, manage to be both all at once.
But the structure saves it! Chernobylite is broken up into days, and each day you and your crew can all split up and venture out into the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The zone is broken up into 5 different locations, and each location will have either a basic supply run mission, or one of the many story missions. Either way, you’ll spend much of the time scavenging for supplies, risking radiation for some extra electronic parts, and hoping your crew comes back from their own missions unscathed.
At the end of the day, you get a breakdown of how successful everyone was. Your crew can take on any of the missions (even the story ones, though they won’t actually complete the story beats for you), but they have a percentage success rate based on their personal stats and the equipment you arm them with. An unsuccessful mission usually means that person is coming back injured, which you can solve with a first aid kit or some extra food.
Food distribution plays a part as well. Give one person more food than the others, and the ones going hungry will get jealous, damaging their psyche. Give everyone less food (because you’re running low), and it hurts everyone’s morale, lowering their psyche. Give everyone extra food, and it will go towards healing them up across the board, while taking a big hit to your food supply.
After food is sorted out, you have some time to talk to everyone, spend skill points on training, and use supplies to customize your base. It’s cute to call this something like post-apocalyptic Animal Crossing, but there’s more at stake here than cosmetics. Everything you build has a benefit and a cost. A crafting station may allow you to make new weapons or armor, but at the cost of more electricity. Generators cover the electricity cost, but hurt the air quality. Air purification costs materials to build too, so you have to make sure you have resources for all of it. Fall short and your companions become uncomfortable, hurting their psyche, and their chances of success on subsequent missions.
On top of the base quality and your supplies affecting how capable your crew is, they will also ask you to go on missions for them or chime in during important story beats. Make a choice that one person dislikes, and you may fall out of favor with them. Make too many choices like that, and crew members will leave outright.
It becomes an impossible challenge to make everyone happy on your first try, which is where the eponymous Chernobylite comes in. This strange crystal forms from concentrated radiation and plays a part in the monsters that plague the zone. However you can also collect it and use it to craft impossible weapons like laser cannons and energy shields. Most importantly though, you can spend your Chernobylite to change the past, overwriting your previous choices and sending the story down a new thread.
This system is brilliant. In most branching narratives, it can be hard to know how your choices affected things without multiple playthroughs. But in Chernobylite, you get a chance to peek behind the curtain and fiddle around with the entire branching structure of the story.
All of these systems come together to form a satisfying scaffolding through which a lot of serviceable combat and questionable dialogue (I don’t remember the last time I heard someone say the r-word in a video game) flows. The end result is that, in the same way it can be fun to do the same strike in Destiny 2 twenty times because you’re working towards something else, Chernobylite ends up being fun because of the base upgrades you’re working towards, or seeing how branching paths play out. It’s the structure that makes it all work.
I would have loved to have come out of this game feeling more strongly about the story and gameplay. I did warm up to some of the characters in the end, but it can be grating to listen to the likes of Mikhail and Tarakan for long stretches of time, especially with the English VO (I could pretend the Russian VO was better because I don’t speak the language, but even there I’m not sure it’s truly better).
Aiming glitches aside, I don’t think the combat is engaging enough to qualify as anything but fine. I found it satisfying to snipe soldiers from a distance with my little pistol, or craft a railgun with infinite ammo, but that satisfaction was more “feels good to win” than “feels good to play. I have to imagine this is less of an issue on the PC version though, so it’s worth mentioning that there’s a potentially much better game over there.
But for me the biggest disappointment was coming to this game as a huge fan of The Farm 51’s previous release, Get Even. That game was all about the wild, well-delivered storyline and surprisingly satisfying first-person shooting. So it’s a shame that Chernobylite didn’t arrive as an even better overall package, instead getting by on qualities that weren’t even a part of their previous effort.
Still, I have to admit that despite serious issues, I not only had a decent time with Chernobylite, but I was compelled to see it through to the end, completing every single side mission along the way. I spent a long time thinking about what drove me to have a good time with the game despite obvious flaws, and I ultimately settled on this fundamental idea of structure as a third pillar of modern games.
So how does one ultimately recommend Chernobylite? Hopefully if you’ve read through this whole review you have a good idea.
For me, it might go something like this: If you’ve ever enjoyed a story-driven game despite its gameplay, or a game with masterful gameplay but a poor story, maybe you’ll like Chernobylite despite missing the mark on both. Because it has a third quality, a brilliant structure, that makes the entire thing more interesting than it has any right to be.