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Chernobylite review: hardly horror, but still a strong survival roguelite

Going nuclear

After reading Matt Cox's (RPS in peace) early access review of Chernobylite, I was less scared about the mutant nasties I'd be facing in this horror-y survival RPG and more concerned with how janky it might be. Had the devs over at The Farm 51 smoothed things out for the game's final release? Well, I can safely say that they've polished up the game into quite the pleasant surprise. There's a compelling mystery here that you'll unravel through a mix of base-building, team management, and stealthy survival, and it all fits together to form a roguelite loop that'll actually have you itching to venture back out into radiation-town.

As the name might imply, Chernobylite is set in Chernobyl's exclusion zone, a hazy nuclear wasteland that's distinctly "bad vibes". You play as Igor, a physicist and ex-employee of the Chernobyl power plant, who's investigating the disappearance of his fiancée 30 years before the blast. Crucially, this doesn't play out as a traditional one-track storyline, but rather through the careful repetition of its roguelite premise.

From the off, Chernobylite makes it clear that the key to your fiancée's disappearance lies in the Chernobyl power plant, and that this'll be your final mission. But you can't just go marching back in there like it's nobody's business. Nope, first you've got to set up a base of operations, get your gear in order, and find some suitable friends to help you carry out this heist. Only once you've slid all these pieces in place can you bust in and uncover the truth.

The exclusion zone contains all the bits you need to fashion these pieces, and this is where Chernobylite's roguelite rhythm comes into play. Each day you'll take on missions, gather important things like resources or clues, upgrade your base, and repeat the process. Don't expect missions to jet you off to brand new locales, though. The exclusion zone's made up of three distinct areas that you'll repeatedly dip into, albeit with different objectives depending on what sort of mission you've taken on.

Each of your companions is fully voiced, with believable dialogue and interesting backstories.

This might sound dull as hell, but it really isn't. In a similar vein to Monster Hunter, Chernobylite treats these locations as ever-changing sets. You'll become intimately familiar with their general layouts, but it's their specific details that'll keep you guessing. That stairwell you've climbed a bunch? Oh yeah, there's a crazed vendor there now. That building? Covered in crystals now, mate. That road? Patrolled by dozens of enemies, good luck. It nevers feels like you're retreading the same ground as there's always something new lurking around the corner.

Thankfully, Chernobylite's nooks and crannies aren't actually that scary - and I say this as a self-professed big wimp. At most, you're getting a soft butt-clench, nothing more. But you're suitably rewarded for these subtle tweaks of the gluteus. There's valuable evidence to be found regarding your fiancée, as well as ammo or crafting materials, all of which can be taken back to base or used out in the field to create traps, healing items and other things on-the-fly. Although I never bothered with traps, mainly because it was easier just to slip past enemies unseen, as drawing any form of attention could lead to disaster. Also, these "other things" were large generators that claimed to reduce radiation spread in an area, or the like, but frankly, who knows.

You've got this PDA scanner that'll highlight nearby resources. It'll even filter them out by type, if you're after something particular. And later, you can upgrade it to pinpoint enemy locations or scan more frequently.

What does matter is the EXP you gain when out in the field. With each level you'll earn skill points that can be spent on training back at base. In an interesting twist, the training you have access to depends on the party members you've found, none of which are too difficult to find, though. The training's decent too, with increases to your inventory space, stealthiness, or resource gathering just to name a few.

Stealthiness is particularly important, as going all shooty bang can lead to you becoming quickly overwhelmed. Chernobylite does a good job of making gun fights feel like a last resort and rewarding your efforts to stay concealed. Sometimes the AI's a bit unforgiving when it comes to spotting you, but for the most part, it's classic hide in bushes, monitor movements, and stabby stabby that'll lead you to victory. It's a shame the traps aren't worth the effort, but the bulk of the action more than makes up for it.

Thankfully, crafting is more meaningful back at base. Your job is to create an environment which is nice for your buddies, but also replete with things that'll make your guns better and your armour stronger. There's a bunch of bars you need to keep an eye on, basically, so as you build things, it'll up one and reduce another. If the comfort level drops super low, for example, a team member's mission performance will be lowered and they might threaten to leave altogether if you don't do anything about it.

My base! Pictured: Lots of crafting tables. Not shown: the lower level complete with five radios stacked on top of each other in total darkness.

The whole base building side of it is never stressful or demanding, either, which suits me just fine. Finding the right balance on those bars is pretty simple, and if in doubt, you can just plop a bunch of radios on the floor and that seems to perk everyone right up. The variety's on point too, with plenty of upgrade stations and furniture to work towards, each requiring materials which aren't too hard to gather. Some may prefer a more taxing style of base-building, but personally I think Chernobylite's more relaxed stance is all the better for it. It keeps the momentum of your base ticking over, rather than becoming a massive daily chore.

One thing did bite me in my slightly tensed arse, though, and that was managing my human friends, not chairs and air conditioning units. Turns out they have slightly more complex needs, aside from their love of radios. Nothing too complex, mind, but Chernobylite hits you with quite a few important decisions. Do you let a child stay imprisoned, but safe from the wasteland? Or do you let them wander free to join a band of hunters, but risk them getting snatched by a monster on the way? Tough, isn't it? Each of your party members has plenty to say on these matters, too. I pied off one of my allies so much he actually just upped and left, which wasn't great. This meant I went into the final heist a man down, and let me tell you, it proved extremely detrimental.

Chernobylite's world is inviting too. Yes it has some mutants and a heavy military presence - not to mention the radiation - but it's absolutely gorgeous. The way crumbled buildings sink into water, or grass pokes through windows feels faithful, not forced. The devs have done an incredible job here.

Don't feed your force enough rations, or send them on the wrong tasks and you'll suffer for it too. Again, though, this isn't Chernobyl Manager 2021 or anything. Food's surprisingly abundant, and assigning your allies tasks is as easy as looking at a number: if it's high, send them out to scavenge, if it's low, they can just chill at base. It does feel a bit shallow in this regard, but perhaps at higher difficulties the wasteland is less of an exploded Tesco.

Where Chernobylite really shines, though, is in its heist, which I guarantee does not feel like a descent into an irradiated supermarket. Those decisions I mentioned earlier? Well, this is where all of them, small or not, suddenly catch up with you. Information you've gathered, people you've helped or hindered, all of these things come into play in that final leg. And what a strapping leg it is, rippling with muscle and mystery. Oh, and there are even more decisions to make that'll drastically alter how the finale plays out.

I won't spoil any of those climatic moments, but Chernobylite's a genuinely good time, folks. The ease of the crafting and the management side of things might lack depth for some, but it does give you a constant sense of satisfaction as you bring goodies back to base and watch it grow. Similarly, the simplicity of its party management ensures balancing their needs doesn't detract from the fun roguelite loop it's got going on. The Chernobyl wilderness might be distinctly "bad vibes" here, but Chernobylite the game gets a big, irradiated thumbs up.

About the Author

Ed Thorn avatar

Ed Thorn

Senior Staff Writer

When Ed's not cracking thugs with bicycles in Yakuza, he's likely swinging a badminton racket in real life. Any genre goes, but he's very into shooters and likes a weighty gun, particularly if they have a chainsaw attached to them. Adores orange and mango squash, unsure about olives.

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