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Review: STASIS

Originally published on 1001Up:

Title overview

  • STASIS by The Brotherhood
  • Published by Daedalic Entertainment
  • Released in August 2015
  • PEGI rating of 18
  • Adventure, horror genre
  • Available on Mac and PC
  • More information can be found on the official website

  • Initial impressions

    Adventure-horror STASIS is the work of brothers Chris and Nic Bischoff, also known as The Brotherhood, and was in development for around five years before its release at the end of August 2015. During an interview with Chris back in November 2013 he told us:

    [The game] came about as a side-project in late 2010, as an artistic distraction to keep me occupied during a December break. It naturally expanded as I grew more involved and fell in love with the world! Since then, not much time has passed where I haven’t worked on it on an almost daily basis.

    I first heard about the title after receiving a press release in connection with its Kickstarter campaign, and I decided to become a backer myself as soon as I’d watched the promotional video. Many other gamers obviously had a similar reaction as the project ended up raising a total of $132,523 from 4,298 people – almost a third more than the original $100,000 target. The game has gone on to receive positive reviews from critics and players alike, which is pretty amazing when you consider that it’s the baby of such a small team.

    I’d like to refer to a section of our full disclaimer statement here: ‘From time to time, members of the team may choose to back projects on crowdfunding platforms… This is done using their own funds; their decision to back a campaign is a personal one and doesn’t reflect the views of the team as a whole. However, we may choose to review a video game that was obtained through such methods and will always reveal this within an article if it’s the case.’

    Plot

    Players step into the shoes of John Maracheck, a space-tourist who’s abruptly awoken from deep sleep within a stasis pod on the seemingly-deserted Groomlake. Broken machinery, bloodstains on the floor and distant wails are evidence that something terrible has happened here. John quickly finds himself thrown into a terrifying nightmare: where is everybody? What has happened to his wife and daughter? And what dubious research has the shady Cayne Corporation been carrying out aboard the re-purposed mining ship? Our protagonist is in tremendous pain and time is running out, as the Groomlake plunges further into the swirling blue methane clouds around Neptune.

    Personal digital assistants (PDAs) are found scattered across the ship, usually on abandoned desks or – more gruesomely – on the bodies of poor victims. Log entries and emails held on the devices share details on the individuals’ daily activities as well as larger, catastrophic events in the Groomlake’s history. It’s a perfect way of drip-feeding the story to the player and creates a wonderful atmosphere of despair and lost humanity but, despite being very well written, the PDA messages just can’t compare to the huge vessel itself. I found myself torn between wanting to read them to find out more about what was going on and getting back to the game itself so I could explore the sinister Groomlake further.

    Minor spoiler ahead – please move on to the next section if you wish to avoid!

    Overall I enjoyed STASIS’ plotline, with inspiration from sources such as Alien and Event Horizon being very evident. But there are an awful lot of elements contained within it: horribly-mutated clones; a mysterious fungus spreading throughout the vessel; a giant insect queen; log files referring to ‘The Twins’; and several others. Despite searching for as many PDAs as possible I’m still not entirely sure how they all fit together and there are a number of subjects which are left unexplained. However, the developer has revealed that upcoming downloadable content (DLC) will further illuminate the events aboard the Groomlake, so hopefully some of the loose ends will be tied up in the near future.

    Gameplay

    In the whole STASIS plays as a traditional point-and-click adventure, featuring both inventory and puzzles. The former is located in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen and isn’t particularly large so it feels less like you’re carrying around a bunch of random objects until you find a use for them. On the downside, you’re unable to examine items once they’re in your inventory; and you won’t receive constructive feedback about why particular solutions fail as John will say something like ‘I can try to make it fit but it will only end up breaking’ – even when it doesn’t make sense for the object in question.

    On the positive side though, pixel-hunting is limited: (most) inanimate items within the environment are highlighted by vivid descriptions at the bottom of the screen, while those you can interact with or pick up are indicated by a hand icon to show that action can be taken. However, this isn’t always the case and a couple of objects caught me out. At one point within the game, I was completely stuck on a puzzle and felt as if something was missing; but after clicking on the environment by accident, I came across a new item which enabled me to push forward.

    Speaking of the environment, some of the PDAs found around the Groomlake are vital when it comes to working out solutions for the puzzles. The now-deceased crew may have left important information about how security systems work in their personal data logs, or clues might have been left on notes or diagrams stuck to the devices themselves. A number of other players have complained that most of STASIS’ challenges are obtuse but I think a lot of this comes down to how observant you are. Pay attention to what you’re reading, and you’ll usually be able to figure out how to proceed – and putting the hints together yourself provides a great sense of achievement.

    The number of interactive items in the environment and objects within the inventory decreases towards the end of the game thus making it somewhat simpler, so there’s some slightly uneven pacing in terms of challenge. The final puzzle is straightforward as there’s really only one solution and the show-down you were hoping to have with your nemesis never really materialises. But one thing that doesn’t let up is the dark, foreboding atmosphere: it’s enough to make you overlook these minor negatives and want to see John’s perilous journey through to its emotional climax.

    As for my favourite puzzle: play STASIS for yourself and I’ll bet you arrive at the same answer. I don’t want to give too much away so I apologise if what follows is a little vague. You’ll need to find the solution within a set amount of time or John faces dire consequences, and the answer lies somewhere within the environment. The problem is that the situation you’re presented with is so shocking that your eyes are drawn to it and it’s hard to look anywhere else! It’s gory but not overly gratuitous –well-handled in terms of both timing and how it fits in with the title’s storyline – but it’s some pretty-messed-up-stuff that will stick with you.

    Unlike the majority of adventure games, the title contains a number of inventive ways in which you can die and this is in part due to the way the puzzles are structured. For example, you may have figured out that you need to combine a lighter with a gas-leak in order to blow your way through a wall; but do this in an incorrect order and you’ll get caught-up in a fiery explosion. If you find yourself in a death scene, STASIS will reload and put you back at the point just before the event. The only problem is that sometimes this is before a lengthy cut-scene or dialogue that can’t be skipped and after you’ve seen it once, you don’t particularly want to have to sit through it again before getting back to the action.

    In a paragraph above I used the words ‘foreboding’ and ‘perilous’, and the title does a marvellous job at setting an ominous tone. It never seems to amount to much however: death scenes are triggered by the player themselves; breathing in the spores from the mysterious fungus doesn’t seem to do you any harm; and walking past mutated research subjects poses no threat. The feeling of tension therefore gradually dissipates over time but this is when the title pulls you back in. Just when you think you’re safe, a security hologram will come rushing at you or a dead body will fall from the ceiling – resulting in a nice little jump scare every once in a while. Such situations are used to good effect and the game doesn’t rely on them for its tone.

    Visuals and audio

    When I first played the demo, STASIS reminded me very much of Sanitarium in terms of its visuals. I mentioned this to Chris during our interview and he told us:

    Simply, I like the isometric point-of-view. Fallout, Diablo, Commandos – these are games that shaped me as a young artist. To be able to create and then explore my own world from that point of view… it’s a dream come true.

    He went on to explain that an isometric layout has a way of making you feel small, and it does a great job of ramping up the atmosphere here; the world around you feels so much larger than your character, and who knows what’s lurking in the darkness.

    The vivid item descriptions mentioned in the section above do a great job at bringing the world to life and some of it is so horrific, it’s probably a blessing it can’t be seen close up from the player’s birds’-eye-view. It leaves plenty to the imagination and that’s kind of worse! The flickering lights from broken machinery; shadows hiding god-knows-what in their darkness; blood-splatters across the floor and up the walls; all the small details add up to create a menacing environment which leaves the hair standing on the back of your neck.

    The Groomlake is a particularly gloomy environment, fitting when you consider that the run-down vessel has been abandoned in space, but this does have the unfortunate effect of making John quite hard to spot when a new scene loads. In addition, the protagonist’s path-finding seems to be a little off in certain places; instead of taking the quickest route to the point clicked he’ll head the long way around. These small issues didn’t do anything to dampen my enjoyment of the game but they do have a tendency to break the player’s immersion slightly.

    The audio is another of STASIS’ high-points, with a brilliant score by Mark Morgan that combines magnificently with sound-effects. In our interview with Chris, he said:

    I got a message from [Mark] on Twitter, saying how much he enjoyed what he had seen. It was an incredible surprise and an honour… When he offered to score the game, I almost fell off my chair! The games he has worked on have been such an intricate part of my artistic life and in many cases their fingerprints can be felt on STASIS.

    The title is never entirely quiet and the sounds contained within pull the player into its world. From creaks from nearby machinery, to the squelch of something grotesque underfoot, to distant wails of terror echoing throughout the ship; it all adds to the atmosphere and makes for a wonderfully-immersive environment. And when you hear the children talking through the walls, asking why they’ve been forsaken… you’re bound to feel a shiver down your spine.

    Considering how many unimaginable things the protagonist is put through, voice-actor Ryan Cooper puts in a decent performance as John Maracheck (take a look at our interview with him here). Especially heart-breaking are the strangled cries as he comes across one horrific sight after another, each more terrible than the next. There’s a slight disconnect however between the character’s behaviour and what’s happening onscreen. At one particular point during the game, a revelation is discovered through a PDA entry that’s absolutely horrendous; but because this plot-point isn’t told through the main storyline, John’s behaviour doesn’t accurately mirror that horror.

    Replay and innovation

    In a Steam Discussion thread on STASIS, the developer revealed that ‘every PDA entry and event was planned for the last five years’. Chris also stated that ‘if you play [the game] again with the ending mind you will pick up many more subtle hints’, so there’s some incentive there to have a second playthrough to discover all the log files and piece together the entire story. Players also receive a Steam achievement for each death scene they uncover so there’s no harm in walking into that vat filled with grey goop or giving the insect queen a little stroke.

    With regard to how innovative this release is, it’s a little hard to give a definitive answer. We’ve seen isometric video games before; inspiration from movies such as Alien and Event Horizon is obvious; and the science-fiction and horror genres are often combined. But what STASIS does well is atmosphere. Rather than resorting to the usual gore and jump-scares, the former is rarely shown directly onscreen and the latter are used infrequently so when they do arrive, players get a real shock. The developers have decided to leave a lot to the imagination and that makes it all the more frightening.

    Final thoughts

    STASIS has garnered a lot of attention since being released at the end of August. It was chosen as a finalist for MomoCon 2015 and has received plenty of positive critiques, with branches of both IGN and Eurogamer giving it an eight out of ten. Alec Meer from Rock Paper Shotgun said that ‘[the title] punches so far above its weight that I almost can’t believe it exists’; and at the time of writing, the game holds a ‘very positive’ rating on Steam from almost 300 reviews.

    If you like your adventure games sprinkled with a bit of horror and plenty of dark atmosphere, then yes. A lot of recent releases in the horror genre have resorted to overdone gore, with puzzles of blood and close-ups of gruesome death scenes, or so many jump-scares that they become expected after the first thirty minutes. The Brotherhood’s project tries to buck that trend – and it does an awesome job, all the more impressive when you consider that it has been created by such a small team.

    I’m very much looking forward to the DLC and to seeing what the developers come up with next. If it’s anything like STASIS, there are plenty more scary nights ahead.

    Review round-up

  • We played the game on PC
  • I backed the game on Kickstarter in November 2013
  • Detailed visuals and an awesome soundtrack
  • An incredibly atmospheric title
  • A little uneven in terms of challenge
  • Easy ending
  • Grade: buy it now

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