You know what there’s just too much of? Me neither, but it sure as hell isn’t isometric sci-fi horror point and click adventure games. THE BROTHERHOOD is an independent studio run by brothers Chris and Nic Bischoff and Stasis is the culmination of their work of five years. The project was successfully kickstarted back in 2013 as an old school isometric adventure game with a space thriller atmosphere and came to fruition this fall. Naturally, it was published in collaboration with Daedalic Entertainment. One of the last few studios that seem to care about the adventure genre.
Stasis: Microsoft Windows [Reviewed], Mac OS
Developer: THE BROTHERHOOD
Publisher: THE BROTHERHOOD, Daedalic Entertainment
Release Date: 31 August 2015
Price: €24.99 [Disclosure: Game copy supplied by Developer/Publisher]
Every time I see a project like this that tickles one of my fancies (be it lovecraftian horror, cyberpunk or, as with the case of Stasis, sci-fi space thriller) I tend to be ecstatic at first, but then my joy slowly subsides into cautious optimism. Considering how sparsely populated they are, whenever someone says they’re tackling one of my favorite genres I reflexively start worrying that maybe it’s not going to be perfect or maybe they won’t manage to capture the atmosphere well and other things that my sense of entitlement tells me to worry about. All this considered, I went into Stasis trying to resist the hype.
The game starts, as all good space thrillers do, with a camera slowly panning over a 3D render of an industrial-looking ship drifting through space. The protagonist, John Maracheck, has just been spat out of a stasis tank and the last thing he remembers is putting himself, along his wife and daughter, to cryo-sleep before a big journey. Naturally, they were nowhere aboard the giant re-purposed industrial ship The Groomlake at the time. Wounded and confused, John tries to make his way across the seemingly-abandoned ship and reunite with his family.
This is usually where I talk about the mechanics of the game in a lot more detail than I should, but…
It’s a point and click game.
You point at things. You click on them. Things happen.
Stasis is more or less your core point and click adventure experience. It takes a streamlined approach to the interface, opting to only require you to actually click the mouse button whenever you’re picking up or otherwise interacting with something or the environment. Examining scenery is achieved by simply hovering the mouse cursor over the object. This simplified system, however, is not without its downsides. If, by any chance, you forget or weren’t paying attention to the description or hints that John gives you when you pick up an item there’s no way to re-examine it. Examining inventory items in adventure games has long-been a developers’ favorite way to sneak a hint or two in case you get stuck on a puzzle. This quirk is sometimes noticeably missing from Stasis.
So that’s about it in terms of mechanics. So let’s talk about the atmosphere. Boy, does this game have it… At its best, it has the sense of isolation of Dead Space and the tension of Event Horizon or Sunshine. At its worst it’s “just” effective. Stasis reveals its backstory through environmental storytelling and various logs found on the dead crew members or scattered around the ship. The ship belongs to the powerful and dodgy, to say the least, Cayne Corporation once again proving my theory that in the future, evil corporations have simply stopped trying.
Most of the crew logs contain a handful of journal entries or messages revealing a good chunk of someone’s background and referencing some major events that happened aboard the ship, helping you piece together what happened. While rarely containing vital information to help you solve a puzzle, the logs are so well-written and the characters, albeit dead, so well-rounded that it would be shame to skip on any of them. There are common themes among the journals. Some characters are hiding dark (sometimes highly disturbing) secrets, while some are just hoping they’ll be remembered after they’ve died.
I can’t talk a lot about how the game builds up tension and paranoia without going into spoiler territory, but I’ll just say it does a pretty decent job of it without relying too much on jump scares but peppering the experience with body horror here and there. You can also die in several ways, not quite at a classic Sierra level, but a decent enough amount of deaths exist that experiencing them represents most of the game’s achievements. To my shame I did, several times, allow myself to die just to get one of them…
In space, no one can hear you adjusting gamma
Again, because of the nature of the game, I find myself at a bit of a loss in talking about the graphics. The pre-rendered backgrounds are decently-crafted but at the same time they’re exactly what you’d expect given the setting. There’s little to set it apart and nothing exceptional to commend it for, aside for two or three particular screens and sequences that made me cringe (used here as a positive in the game’s favor). Most of the rooms are very dark at all times, sometimes making it difficult to make out the finer details of the background, but there’s almost always a visual cue where something can be picked up or interacted with.
The character animations, additionally, leave something to be desired. John seems to walk and run awkwardly in a way that was, to me, eerily similar to the cloned shifter from The Longest Journey and that was back in the before-time! The few 3D rendered cutscenes that exist, however, look excellent. They have a rough, gritty feel to them and for something that tries to be evocative of movies from the 80s and 90s I feel that whether by chance or by design, they fit perfectly.
Things are a lot better on the sound front. The effects complement the atmosphere perfectly, the ship’s sounds conveying distance and room acoustics well. I remember frequently asking myself, if all or most of the crew are dead, why do I keep hearing someone crying far away? Then I immediately started to regret asking myself that question because I really didn’t need that in my life.
As for the voice acting, it’s serviceable. There’s nothing particularly amazing about it, but at the same time there’s really nothing to really fault it for. I hesitate to call it “mediocre”, because that always sounds negative to me, and it’s definitely not that. Its presence is sometimes missed while reading the logs and I worry that some may be put off by having to read whole pages of text, like a bunch of savages but voice acting, especially for a small independent studio, is hardly a priority.
I do have some minor technical reservations with Stasis. It’s often too dark, well beyond the point where it adds to the atmosphere, the scripted sequences and dialogues seem to be unskippable and while the autosave system rarely puts you further than a minute or so from where you last died I did have to repeat sitting through one or two such scenes several times in a row until I got the puzzle solution right. The puzzles themselves offer a decent bit of challenge. None are particularly difficult per se, but I did find some of them at least a bit obtuse. Hint: a wet, dirty cloth is stronger than a hydraulic closing mechanism, in THE FUTURE. Of course, you can eventually brute force each puzzle if you have even a vague idea of where you’re supposed to be by using the ages-old method of rubbing everything in your pockets against every surface around you.
In spite of these issues which, I must reiterate, are minor at best, I found Stasis to be a very engaging experience and it definitely left me hungry for more from the developers. Whether you’re a fan of an old-school adventure game with a similar style to that of Sanitarium or simply into the sci-fi thriller genre I’m confident in saying it’s definitely worth your time.