When Chernobylite first released in July 2021, Russian forces occupying the former nuclear plant would’ve been unthinkable. Yet here we are, less than a year later as Russia wages an illegal war in Ukraine. The release of the next-gen version this month may seem like poor timing then. Although, I don’t exactly know when the right time would be. To the developer’s credit, all profits from their most recent DLC is being donated to Ukrainian humanitarian aid projects to directly support victims of the war.
Either way, the game’s 3D-scanned recreation of the Ukrainian Exclusion Zone is impressive, providing an immersive world to explore; made all the more haunting by recent events.
In Chernobylite, you play as Professor Igor Khymynyuk, a former Chernobyl physicist whose wife, Tatiana, went missing during the disaster in 1986. Returning to the Zone in the present day, you harness the power of a strange residual material, ‘Chernobylite’. This glowing, green crystal lets you create portals through time and space that aid you in your search for Tatiana.
At the centre of the game is your base – an old, abandoned factory on the outskirts of the zone. Here, you can use materials collected out in the world to improve your base with new items and craft weapons and armour for your companions. It’s important to keep your pals happy and well-fed as the success of each mission fluctuates depending on their health and wellbeing. Poor lighting or a lack of beds for example will bring their mood down, so the answer is to craft some home comforts.
Far from being a tacked-on mechanic, managing your base is a worthy extension of survival out in the field. It also offers a brief but welcome reprise between missions from the chaos of the Exclusion Zone. I’m a sucker for crafting in games at the best of times, so it’s no surprise that I got quite addicted to constantly upgrading and bettering my base. There’s something meditative about turning a heap of scrap into your own enclave amongst the horror of Chernobyl.
Highway to the danger zone
Every morning, you’ll survey the Exclusion Zone with a pair of binoculars and assign each of your team mates to a particular task. As Igor, you’ll take on a series of story-led missions that introduce you to new characters and leads in the search for Tatiana. Each mission takes place in a relatively small map with a set objective (e.g. to find a cache of documents) as well as various mystery markers that may reveal valuable loot, new characters or merchants. Even though the map literally signposts you to these places, exploration is still thrilling and unexpected.
Despite the size of the map, every location is rich with detail. One minute, you’ll be creeping through an abandoned playground, the next you’re scrambling through an old sewer system to avoid the guards. Oh yes, there are guards. The NAR to be precise – a military contractor conducting secret experiments at the plant. You have a health bar to manage of course, but interestingly, you also have a psyche meter to think about. Kill too many soldiers and you’ll start losing your mind. You can craft smelling salts to recover some sanity, but Chernobylite is clearly encouraging stealth and strategy over a guns blazing approach.
And it pays off – I could feel my sweat rolling off the controller as I hide in the grass waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting guard. Yes, it’s a standard crouch-in-the-bushes-and-they-wont-see-me affair but it still gets your heart racing all the same. Unfortunately, as the maps repeat, the missions get a little repetitive and it becomes hard to find anything new when you’ve already picked the area clean.
One of the most useful tools in your arsenal is your Geiger Counter that also doubles as a scanner. You can set the device to scan the area for certain crafting materials, which appear highlighted on the map. But there’s nothing more terrifying than fleeing an enemy and hearing the counter start to furiously tick. You’ve got seconds to get into a safer area, otherwise the radiation eats away at your maximum health. Again, Chernobylite is asking you to take a step back and think strategically about your journey ahead.
Aside from the NAR guards, the Exclusion Zone is home to some spooky bois. These guys have the habit of popping up when you least expect it; flitting across the screen in a stilted manner that defies the law of physics. Sure, they add a ton of tension but Igor’s central story is compelling enough without the need for supernatural beings chasing after you.
On the PS5, Chernobylite makes good use of the DualSense’s features – if not a little sparingly. When pulling the trigger, your fingers are met with satisfying resistance from the R2 button, although there isn’t much discernible difference between weapons. Aside from your guns, there isn’t much else to talk about. It feels like the devs have missed a trick here – the patter of raindrops or thud of footsteps coming through the controller would’ve ramped the tension up to 11.
Chernobylite looks great after its next-gen makeover. It’s highly polished, photo-realistic visuals are particularly impressive. Every inch of the Exclusion Zone is soaked in moody light; dust motes illuminate and dance in the shafts between the forest canopy. They sometimes settle on your gas mask visor and you can see them on the camera. It reminds me of 2019s Metro Exodus in both its visual fidelity and style.
You can tell that a lot of work has gone in to making each map as detailed as possible. Perhaps this is what’s responsible for the slow loading times which are disappointingly long given the game is running on next-gen hardware. It’s far from game-breaking but given the bitesize nature of each mission, you’ll be loading in and out of different maps quite often.
Chernobylite is an ambitious game that largely succeeds in combining survival, crafting, base building and team management into a compelling sci-fi story. But in cramming so much in, the quality does suffer, which is evident in the repetitive missions. Despite this, Chernobylite’s richly detailed rendering of the Exclusion Zone is mightily impressive, even if it does miss out on a few next-gen tricks.