While the studio might be an acquired taste, no-one would deny that The Farm 51 makes interesting games. Get Even, for all its faults, was a fascinating first-person experience that wobbled across a tightrope between standard shooter mechanics and inventive walking simulator, and for the most part, we thought the developer did a pretty good job with it. Then there's World War 3, a near-future multiplayer shooter that launched into Early Access on Steam with some interesting ideas but a way to go before it was the real deal. And now, the studio has unveiled its latest creation, a survival-horror experience set in the infamous Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Chernobylite is, stylistically at least, not a huge distance away from Get Even. One of the things that characterised the earlier game was the scenes where you explored memories in abstract sequences where your gun was put down and the story was picked up in its place. Straight after booting up Chernobylite for the first time, you're out of time and space and walking on angular green walkways made out of some mysterious substance, materials that wouldn't look out of place in The Matrix. At the end of each walkway, you must enter a portal, not because you want to, but because you must. You're subsequently taken to a new area, whether that be another green bridge or a wooded area around Chernobyl itself.
During the game's tutorialised introduction, we had a few issues. We had to reload the game a bunch of times and had to repeatedly replay the intro because things weren't loading in as they should, interrupting the sequence of events that needed to be completed in order to open up the demo proper. It's a pre-alpha build so it'd be unfair to be overly critical of these kinds of problems, but it's also fair to say that these issues weren't the only ones we encountered - there's still a long way to go.
The survival aspect means picking up the items that you find while you explore the overgrown Exclusion Zone. There are herbs, mushrooms, scrap materials, and other resources to be found. You might stumble upon them by happenstance, but it's more likely that you'll locate them via the scanner you hold in your hand at the start of the game. The scanning action is on a short cooldown timer so you can't spam it constantly. Instead, you need to use it in conjunction with your exploration of the various areas you visit, which apparently are closely based on real locations in and around the abandoned city of Pripyat.
Grabbing up resources is important and it wasn't long before we were using herbs to craft healing potions, and turning scrap into various items for our base. We were introduced to this central hub as part of the tutorial, meeting our comrade Olivier in an abandoned bunker found at the end of a map marker. The items we picked up needed to be recycled into a more fully-featured base of operations via the crafting of new equipment, and once we'd tidied up the place and made some improvements, it was time to advance the story.
Taking a mission from a voice coming out of the radio, we went out on an errand to hack some servers, however, there were a couple of missions available to choose from and we could allocate both characters on different assignments. We were incentivised to tackle the mission by our friend on the radio, Mikhail, with the promise of news about a missing friend. For reasons that have yet to be explained, our protagonist - a scientist called Igor - is looking for his long lost love and he's doing so in the abandoned and overgrown ruins around Chernobyl.
Igor and Olivier get around by opening portals. They do so with a handy device that can create a tear in reality (or something like that) and use it to move between locations, walking down the green walkways that we mentioned earlier. In true The Farm 51 style, these sequences involve spoken world dialogue between characters, adding context to your journey, and there are even other characters speaking to you from other walkways. It's all a bit trippy, but things get a bit more traditional when it's time for combat.
Armed with a single pistol, you will eventually encounter squads of soldiers out in the overgrown city. It's not an open world, rather we're exploring mid-sized levels, following a marker to each destination while exploring the locations discovered along the way. The enemies we encountered are slow aimers, which is a good thing when you consider how much firepower they have compared to Igor, but we found aiming for the head was a pretty reliable tactic that kept us alive. We tried to pick up the automatic weapons of fallen foes but we didn't have the tech that let us use them, and so we were forced to stick with the pistol for the duration of the demo.
Just as dangerous as the soldiers are the pockets of radiation that you routinely encounter on your travels. A Geiger counter tick-tick-ticks when you're at risk of serious harm, leading to a hot and cold brand of exploration where you're constantly directed away from danger. You can medicate any radiation poisoning away if you craft the right meds, once again feeding into the survival aspect of the game as you can craft potions and lotions at certain locations with the materials you've picked up while you explore.
There are puzzles too. At one point we were at a computer terminal and had to hack our way in via a little mini-game based around wordplay. Presumably, there's going to be more of these puzzles and distractions, as well as scraps of story littered across the world. The game's official page also makes mention of "savage creatures pouring from the alternate reality", but we saw no evidence of these creatures in the demo unless that was referring to the mysterious-looking figures that we caught a glimpse of a couple of times. Clearly, there's more to this than we've seen so far, but we're certainly intrigued by the ghostly figures and the compelling setting.
It's early days for Chernobylite as the studio asks for funding via its Kickstarter campaign. Based on the demo we played, there's some way to go, but at the same time there's potential in the premise. This mysterious, almost alien interpretation of Chernobyl and Pripyat could be very interesting with the right balance of authored narrative and systemic gameplay, and there's enough to the survival aspect to at least pique our interest. We're also hoping to see a more nuanced narrative emerge from this opening section because after experiencing Get Even a couple of years ago, we know that the studio has got that in its locker.