A sci-fi survival horror shooter RPG with base building, crafting and roguelike elements that features a choice-driven narrative, time travel, stealth, supernatural entities and an endgame heist on the Chernobyl power station? Yes, there are many different aspects to The Farm 51's Chernobylite, all of them vying for your attention at any one time, and it's a heady mix of gameplay mechanics and ideas that end up becoming this indie effort's single biggest problem - it all stretches itself just a little too thin to completely nail any one aspect in the end. However, if you can put up with a few rough edges here and there, this is a hugely atmospheric and inventive adventure that's still sure to please fans of all things irradiated.
Originally released on Xbox One back in September of 2021, Chernobylite is a game we've played on a handful of different platforms at this point and we're returning to it now on Series X to mark the arrival of its fancy new current-gen upgrade. Already a fantastic looking game - the meticulously 3D-scanned exclusion zone here really is a sight to behold - it's one that potential players may well have been holding out on an upgrade for as the last-gen version does suffer from technical issues, such as persistent framerate drops and a general sluggishness, that somewhat mars the core experience.
The good news for those who've been patient is that these issues have, for the most part, been completely eradicated, and Chernobylite on consoles now feels much, much slicker and smoother when you're out skulking around the zone, fighting enemies and looting the gear you'll need to survive. We did still notice a few small hitches here and there, all of which occurred in the base area of the game between missions, but overall this is an indie title that now looks and performs very nicely on current-gen hardware.
In Chernobylite you play as ex-Chernobyl physicist Igor Khymynyuk, a man who was present during the infamous reactor meltdown of 1986, an incident during which his wife, Tatyana, mysteriously went missing. Igor has now returned, some thirty odd years after the fact, to trek down Tatyana using some pretty crazy portal technology which you'll spend the opening mission retrieving from the bowels of the Chernobyl facility itself.
In terms of narrative, there's no doubt a lot of this stuff is pretty clichéd by now, and the supernatural elements which are worked into proceedings here are all things we've already encountered in the likes of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. However the solid writing on offer smooths over most cracks and, as you progress through the campaign, you'll meet a ragtag bunch of charmingly warped characters who become your crew as you work towards an excellent endgame heist that sees you attempt to infiltrate the main power plant to discover at the truth at heart of the game's sci-fi mystery.
Rather than giving you one great big open world to mill around in, Chernobylite is instead broken up into a handful of distinct areas that you'll jump into by going on missions, sometimes in order to further the story along, sometimes for food, ammunition, medical supplies and so on. The game progresses using a 24 hour structure that affords you the opportunity to kit yourself and your crew out before running a mission and you'll begin each fresh new day at your base where you'll assign yourself a task before doling out instructions to your current team members. You may want to take on a story critical assignment, for example, while sending your team off to other areas of the exclusion zone to pick up vital supplies, or maybe you'll take on a lowkey assignment for yourself and just wander off into the irradiated overgrowth on a journey of discovery.
It's a neat core gameplay loop that affords you the freedom to choose what type of raid/mission you want to run at any given time, and it's enhanced by the fact you need to constantly monitor both your own mental and physical wellbeing as well as that of your colleagues. As it turns out, repeatedly venturing into an irradiated wilderness where you'll need to savagely murder human and supernatural foes alike can take its toll on the old noggin, and so you'll need to concoct brain-soothing salves, as well as treating wounds and ensuring that your base is clean and comfortable, in order to keep yourself and your comrades fit and healthy to run errands. Let your team's mental or physical wellbeing slide too much and they'll need to rest up, becoming unavailable for action until they feel better, heck they may well even become hostile towards you and the rest of your group leading to unrest and members of the crew potentially being excised entirely. It's up to you to take control, be the leader and avoid these situations.
This aspect of proceedings then feeds directly into the game's base-building, and it's an aspect of Chernobylite that's all rather pleasingly in-depth. You'll use precious materials gathered in the zone to build cooking stoves, weapons and armorsmiths, power supplies, air filtration systems and so on, before graduating to more complex fare that's powered by the titular Chernobylite itself, a strange substance that's been popping up all over the region during mysterious storms. There's lots to dig into here and pulling apart old pistols, rifles and shotguns in order to retrofit them with new trigger systems, barrels, stocks and sights is satisfying stuff. So too is producing various types of armour for yourself and your comrades, although even here you'll need to consider whether the added protection of basic armour is worth the additional noise it makes as you sneak around the densely overgrown areas in which missions play out.
Of course, you'll also need to create a comfortable environment for your crew if you're to ease their worries after a particularly fraught raid and so you'll need to build bedding, provide televisions, couches, lighting and so on. Unfortunately it's here where the base building aspect of Chernobylite breaks down for us slightly, as you never get to see your teammates actually use any of this stuff, they tend to stand rigidly in the same spots between missions, so beyond a change in their mental outlook that's presented via in-game gauges, this stuff can begin to feel a little like busywork. In terms of creating and upgrading new tools and weapons it's all on point, but providing comfort and clean air quickly grows monotonous.
Out in the zone itself, though, is where Chernobylite really shines. The 3D-scanned environments through which you skulk here are absolutely oozing with atmosphere and you'll be able to pick out famous landmarks amidst the irradiated ruins, such as the Pripyat Ferris Wheel, enormous Duga-1 radar array and the ominous sarcophagus that houses the site of the 1986 nuclear meltdown itself. There really is a ton of detail in every aspect of the architecture and overgrown nature of the exclusion zone presented here that makes each excursion, whether it be story-related or a routine supply trip, a fascinating and nerve-jangling experience that does a great job of scratching that S.T.A.L.K.E.R itch.
Getting out into these beautifully recreated environs and using your scanner to highlight collectible materials, exploring the innards of long-abandoned buildings, sneaking towards a point of interest on your compass or pulling on a gas mask to investigate the toxic bowels of some industrial complex or other is where this game is at its absolute best. There's always some warped enemy encounter, flashback or ghostly apparition around the corner and it's hard not to get caught up in a loop of running mission after mission just so you get to see a little more of the areas on offer. In this regard, the current-gen upgrade provides some amazing eye candy too, with all-new ray tracing effects making a few areas - Pripyat hospital especially - look absolutely astounding.
There are also some choice-driven aspects to engage with during excursions, and you'll often be given the option to rescue or kill injured NPCs or enemy combatants with your decisions having effects on encounters further down the road. You'll even get to decide the outcome of a mission that sees the actual topography of the game's map changed should you decide to lay waste to the Duga-1 radar array. It's engrossing stuff, and the environments and enemies you face also change and evolve over the course of the campaign, with Chernobylite storms and more ferocious mutated foes to navigate and face off against as you progress.
When it comes to enemy encounters and actual combat in the field, well, we did mention there were some rough edges and, depending how you approach your Eurojank, your mileage may vary here. We tend to err on the side of stealth playing this type of game and Chernobylite's action definitely benefits from taking things slowly and sneaking up on your opponents for takedowns, as full-frontal assaults can become quite messy due to the rather clunky nature of how your enemies do business.
It's not that the gunfights here are completely terrible, in fact some of the guns, explosives and DIY traps on offer pack a lovely punch and feel great to let fly with, it's just that the NAR units and irradiated monstrosities you'll take on aren't the brightest, tending to make a beeline straight for you, ignoring danger or attempts at strategy entirely, and your own movements are also limited due to lack of a proper cover system or useful dodging manoeuvres. What you're left with is combat that can be satisfying if you put the time into carefully taking down threats and pumping materials into crafting plenty of suppressed and ranged weapons, but which can fall apart quite quickly and become a little bit of a clunky mess when you stumble into a bunch of baddies without warning.
Given how much Chernobylite gets right though, in terms of its story, its characters, choice-driven aspects, atmosphere and so on, we're honestly willing to forgive it a bit of clunky shooting and a few rough edges. For us this one's all about slow and steady skulking, investigating and just soaking in the vibe of the exclusion zone that this indie dev has done such a great job in nailing. It's a game you'll need to work with a little in order to get the best from, for sure, but we can't help but feel it's more than worth the effort as this is an experience that really gets under your skin when everything clicks together just right.
With regards to this current-gen upgrade itself, you now have two graphical options, performance and resolution, to play around with. Performance mode gives you a slick 60fps framerate at the cost of dropping the game's resolution down to 1080p, whilst resolution mode gives you 4K/30fps with those fancy new ray tracing effects and richer environmental details. We mixed it up between both of these and in the end settled on 4K/30fps for the most part as the graphical bells and whistles were just too appealing to miss out on. However in both modes, it has to be said, this upgrade looks pretty astounding all round so those who prefer 60fps smoothness should feel pretty satisfied with how the game looks even whilst sacrificing a little eye candy.
Elsewhere, everything just feels much zippier in this upgraded version of the Chernobylite. Loading times have been reduced, menus and base building elements are more responsive and combat and traversal of the various areas of the exclusion zone benefit noticeably from the improved framerates and responsiveness. We've been pretty big fans of this one since it originally dropped on PC back in early 2021 and, with this new update, console fans now have a much slicker, and often jaw-droppingly beautiful, version of Chernobylite to get stuck into.
Chernobylite is a fascinating survival horror RPG that serves up an enthralling and impressively detailed exclusion zone for players to run a series of dangerous raids in. There may be a few too many gameplay elements chucked into the mix here but strong writing, well designed missions, great support characters and some incredible visual and audio work smooth over most of the rough patches. If you can deal with a some clunkiness with regards to combat and are prepared to work a little to get the most out of it, you'll find a deep and addictive indie gem awaits that does a fantastic job of scratching that S.T.A.L.K.E.R itch.