Sunday, May 27, 2018

STASIS Review: Super Evil Space Science


It's been a while since I've done a game review, so I thought I'd write one up on a game I just finished called Stasis. For those of you who've never heard of this one, Stasis is a point-and-click adventure game that follows more in the vein of Event Horizon, The Thing, and Alien than something like Myst. It promises a terrifying environment with engaging puzzles and a story that makes you pee yourself, but does it deliver?

Well, yes and no. Don't get too excited about the comparisons, because while it bears similarities to those movies, it tends to fall flat in certain areas. As per usual with these reviews I'll give you a basic plot synopsis and an overview of my general opinion so that if you're just looking for a recommendation (or something to avoid) without getting into Spoilertown then you can know where I stand and not have the story ruined. And it's a good thing I do it that way because after that we're gonna get into some heavy, heavy, game-ending-ruining level spoilers because I've got some shit I need to get off my chest about this particular...thing. But I'll warn you before those come up, so no worries.

Stasis is the story of a man, John Maracheck, and his quest to rescue his wife and child (Ellen and Rebecca, respectively) from what basically amounts to hell on a spaceship. He wakes up from a stasis chamber, badly injured, and after getting some medical attention he's contacted by a woman named Te-ah who promises to help him find them and get off this ship. Over the course of the game's story, delivered through PDA logs and computer terminals and emails, he discovers that science has gone mad in space (again), and this entire ship is host to dangerous creatures that want nothing more than to nibble on your soft, meaty bits. They've killed almost all of the crew, and it's up to John to solve puzzles, collect items, and survive long enough to see his family back to saner areas of the universe.

The first thing I'll say about Stasis is that the atmosphere is quite good. They were going for Alien meets Event Horizon, and they hit that area perfectly. The technology has an almost retro-futuristic feel to it, not quite at the level of Alien: Isolation, but getting there, and impressive for an indie title like this one with a very small team. Seriously, the credits were about 15 lines long. But with that small team they made this ship feel like a real place with real danger, even if they did go a bit too heavy on the shock/disgust factor of SPATTER EVERYTHING IN GORE. But the Groomlake (the ship) feels at once wide open and oppressively claustrophobic, alive and dead, highly advanced yet falling apart, and I have to give props to The Brotherhood for nailing the atmosphere to the wall with industrial medical staples.

The puzzles are also very well thought out. I'm basically an idiot, but for some reason I love point-and-click puzzle solvers, even if I do need some help with the occasional fiendishly difficult puzzle. But, after getting the help, I feel like a dolt because more often than not it just involves creative use of the environment and what's in my inventory, like most P&C games. However, I will say that in some instances you could wander about for hours (if you're just determined to not look it up) pixel hunting the environment for that one single item you're missing to solve everything. That kind of thing makes certain areas of this game more than a little frustrating, but apart from three or four instances I found all the items very handily. The puzzles are fun, challenging, and creative, and there are very, very few instances where I thought, "I don't know how the fuck they expected me to figure that out."

The voice acting is tight the vast majority of the time, but other times leaves a little to be desired. I don't want to talk too much shit about an indie studio, because they might not have been able to hire professionals, or even semi-pro VA's, and for the most part the lines are delivered well with the proper amount of emotion behind them. The VA's try, even if they don't nail their performances 100% of the time. Although, for some reason, you can't pause while the voice reel scenes are going. Can't work that out, but set aside some time to play this one if you pick it up. 

The graphics are also serviceable. Now the backgrounds are downright gorgeous at certain points, and a lot of detail went into them. I can't fault the background designs one bit. They were always interesting to look at and hunt through. The character models, on the other hand, felt a little wooden, and looked more like they were sliding across the screen rather than interacting with the scenery at times. Granted, this is an isometric P&C game, so this isn't really all that important, just something I noticed more often than I should've in the game. But, indie title, so some things can be forgiven.

The soundtrack is also very well put together, and adds the proper level of creepy to the environment. The sound effects are very well made too. They're good sound quality, and honestly if you get it I'd recommend playing it at night, in the dark, with isolation headphones on to get the full effect. I don't know if I'd pay an extra five bucks to get the soundtrack downloadable on its own, but it does what it's supposed to and never detracts from the overall experience like pixel hunting or the somewhat wooden character models occasionally do.

Now, for the bad shit. I feel like I've given a balanced accounting of this game's various features, laying out good and bad, but this is so bad it needed its own section before you throw down your money.

As I've said several times, this is a point-and-click adventure game in a horror environment, and gameplay is centered around puzzle solving. They go to a lot of effort to make you feel like you're directly in danger a lot of the time, as if a monster is going to leap out at any moment and tear your head off Dead Space style. However, in order to give the player ample time to actually solve the puzzles, that literally never happens. Apart from certain points wherein the dangerous thing is on a track and completely avoidable, you are almost never in direct danger. This excludes a couple of timed puzzles wherein you have to take care of a certain thing in a certain time or die, no avoiding it, but overall you have all the time you need to search for items, combine them, try them on different things, backtrack, whatever you need. 

Once you realize this the game quickly goes from, "For a P&C game this is really creepy and scary," to, "Okay how much longer will I have to scrape my mouse over the screen to find that one thing I'm missing?" The sense of danger is completely gone, and even in those instances where something does kill you it's just a matter of trial and error till you learn how to avoid it. So really this is less like Silent Hill and more like Dark Souls, in the sense that you don't feel directly threatened, but if you are you have infinite lives so you've got plenty of time to learn how to deal with it. So while the atmosphere in the game is plenty creepy, it's not played to the effect it could've been if John's life were actually in direct danger more than four or five times in the entire game.

I mean, this is a horror game, for god's sake. Atmosphere that never materializes into anything becomes background noise after like an hour of dithering around the medical facility.

So far as a verdict goes, if you dig horror games and point and click adventure puzzle solvers, this is worth a buy on sale. At the time of this writing it costs $20.00 USD, $25 for the Deluxe Edition on GOG dot com. I just have the basic, and I'm pretty sure I got it on sale myself. Put simply it's just not worth $20 in my estimation. For a game with only one ending, one storyline, extremely limited replayability, about 9 hours of story in that one line, and a depressing lack of danger for a horror game, it's worth playing, but drop that price down to around $15 and we'll start talking. $10 would be a lot more fair, in my mind, but for an indie title it's well put together and doesn't try to be more than what it is gameplay-wise. They knew what they were doing and did it competently. My recommendation is drop it in your wishlist and pick it up when GOG puts it up on sale. If you're into a good puzzle solver with some damn fine atmosphere (problems with that taken into account) this game won't disappoint and is actually fun to play.

Now we're gonna get into serious spoiler territory, so back out now if you actually want to play this thing and don't want the ending ruined because I'm about to bend that shit over a table and fuck it to death. I should mention again that, as a game, Stasis is perfectly playable, didn't crash, and was entertaining for however long it took me to get through the story. I have very few issues with this game as a game, apart from personal nitpicks mentioned above.

As a story, however, I have some very large fucking problems, and since this is getting into personal taste and my opinions on the horror genre in general, I've left it for this section of the review instead of bringing it up beforehand.

Okay so, as stated, this is about Evil Science Being Evil In Space. Fair enough. That's been done a lot, but this game takes a new little twist on it that I don't see a lot in sci-fi horror. Everything on this ship is 100% the fault of humans spitting in God's eye. There's no aliens, they don't go to hell like in Event Horizon, there's no cosmic evil, just human scientists being completely evil little shits and taking experiments far beyond the bounds of ethics and sanity.

This isn't a problem in and of itself. It was actually pretty cool. I thought there was going to be some alien organism, but no. The plot of this game can basically be summed up as:



So we've got mad scientists, a crippled spaceship far beyond the bounds of traveled space, genetically engineered monsters eating people, and one guy wanting to find his family and get the fuck out as fast as possible. Ostensibly this is a really good setup for a sci-fi horror story. How, you may ask, could they fuck this up?

They fundamentally misunderstand how this type of horror story is supposed to go, especially within a video game like this. This game has a bad end, and only a bad end.

Now I should mention that I have no problem with horror stories ending badly. Most of H.P. Lovecraft's stories ended badly, and I love movies like Requiem For A Dream. Not every horror story has to have a happy ending, and indeed some stories are better served by ending badly. The issue with a story like Stasis, compared to something like, say, In The Mouth Of Madness by John Carpenter, is that the bad end in Mouth Of Madness was set up from the very beginning. It was obvious as the movie progressed that John Trent wasn't going to make it out because it starts off with him in a mental institution covered in charcoal-drawn crosses.

We know where this is going from the jump.

However, with a story like Stasis, we're expecting some kind of reward for all our hard work, and maybe this has something to do with Stasis being a video game rather than a movie. In a movie, we're drawn along with the story, we don't actively do anything to advance it. Asses in seats, we watch along as the story washes over us and no work is required on our part.

In a game, on the other hand, we do put in that work. What takes 2 hours max to tell in a movie takes upwards of 5 to sometimes more than 60 in a game, and on top of the time investment we also have effort invested into it. With a game like Stasis we've gathered items, combined them, put them places, solved increasingly difficult puzzles, and followed along with John's emotional turmoil as he's discovered exactly how fucked up this ship is and imagined what could be happening to his wife and daughter. Because of this, we want them to make it out.

Spoilers, they don't.

Nobody does.

This is a big, catastrophically fucking huge problem with this game's story. At least in my incredibly arrogant opinion. The big kick in the balls, the point I started to actively dislike this game's story, was late-late in the game where we have to sit there and watch one of the abominations Dr. Malan (the mad scientist in charge of this deathtrap) has created rip John's daughter to squishy wet bits in front of our faces without being able to do anything about it. 

This feels like you're betraying me. Like you're saying, "Oh, you thought there would actually be some kind of glimmer of hope in this universe? How stupid of you! Our story is much better when you see everything you thought you were working for killed in front of you! You don't get to have hope, you silly pleb! Hope is for losers! Grimdark and eternal sadness is what makes stories grown up!"

Yeah, piss on my back and tell me it's raining.

So okay, the daughter is dead in a horrendously grotesque fashion and he had to watch it happen, but Ellen is still alive, right? We still have a chance for a moderately happy ending in all this death and misery! Yeah, their daughter's dead, but we can link up with Te-ah, make Malan pay for that, and then escape from this hellship and inform the government about what Cayne Corp. (the evil corporation bankrolling the Groomlake) has been doing out here where nobody can hear me scream!

No, you retard. That's not how things really work! How fucking stupid of you to have hope! That's for fags!

So you go through some more puzzles and finally make it to the hangar where Malan has Te-ah at gunpoint, and your wife is in a stasis tube near Te-ah's escape craft. After some puzzle solving wizardry you take out Malan, then Te-ah turns on you! After all the help you gave her, she decides to leave you for dead because your wife's bone marrow has the research in it (somehow) and she wants to sell it to some other corporation so that she can ruin Cayne for killing her husband years ago. So after another quick puzzle you wind up killing Te-ah, but because the other stasis pod was damaged there's no hope for John.

In a last heroic act before he dies, John (you) send your wife off in the escape craft (already on autopilot). He watches the ship fly off out of the hangar, away from the Groomlake, and into space towards safety! We get a nice big panning shot of the Groomlake, see Te-ah's ship flying away, zoom in on the inside, close up on the stasis pod, take a look inside, and...

Ellen's a fucking corpse. Sunken eye sockets, dried out skin, the full nine. She's fucking dead, John. Everything you worked for in this game has come to absolutely jack and shit, and jack left town.


I cannot properly put into words how badly this pisses me off after sinking like 8 or 9 hours into this game's storyline. If it weren't for the clever puzzles and all the effort they put into writing the PDA notes and the music and the fun I had actually playing the game, this would absolutely be a fucking deal breaker for me. As it stands I'm currently on the fence about whether I should've recommended people pick it up earlier, even on sale.

As a horror junkie who's put a lot of time into understanding this genre, let me explain what makes a satisfying horror story. 

Satisfying horror stories have one of two ends, good end or bad end. Satisfying bad end horror stories telegraph that shit well beforehand, so you know what you're getting into. In Requiem For A Dream, they're all drug addicts, and there is literally no glimmer of hope in the entire movie. You know precisely what you're getting into from the jump, from word go, and what makes that movie effective is knowing they're fucked and watching their self-destructive behaviors run their natural course.

Or in Return of the Living Dead. This is the series with the immortal zombies you literally cannot get rid of. The extinction-event zombie movies. They never get better. There is literally no part of that movie wherein you think, "They might have a way to stop this." Not one spot. So when you get to the end and they're burning the bodies, and the virus gets up into the clouds and rains down on a graveyard to animate the corpses, it just cements the "YOU'RE FUCKED" nature of those films, which puts them in sharp contrast to George Romero's zombie movies.

Now, in a story like what Stasis could've been, exemplified in something like Silent Hill, if you do everything right along the way there's a good end to that game. Harry makes it out, rescues and adopts the baby, and even the police lady gets to live. It was happily ever after until Silent Hill 3 happened, but my point is at the end of SH1 you were satisfied because you put in the work, solved the puzzles, killed the monsters, and saved everybody. The hope for making it out alive was always there, and in the proper ending of the game it pays off in spades.

Or for another example that's closer to sci-fi horror, Alien. In Alien Ellen Ripley(oh I just caught that, I bet the devs thought they were slick) has to deal with this fucking monster slaughtering all her friends on the crew, runs a marathon of trials, and makes it out at the end. Even the cat lives (They kill the cat in Stasis. Pissed me OFF.). That even translates over to the sequel. It has a satisfying ending because our heroine overcomes the danger and escapes. 

With the amount of work a game like Stasis expects you to put in, having it end like that is A: cheap as fuck and B: seriously dissatisfying. Like I said, it was nearly a deal breaker for my recommendation. You just couldn't let us have a nice thing at the end of this hellish series of trials you've designed for us. Fuck's sake even Portal has a good ending. Once again I'm finding it difficult to put into words precisely how bad of a decision this was, and precisely how angry it makes me.

Really I think this anger stems from having the main character watch his daughter get ripped to pieces in front of him. It almost feels like the original ending of Clerks.

For those unfamiliar, the Kevin Smith movie Clerks actually ends with Randall and Dante cleaning up and leaving the store to come back to work the next day. In the original ending, however, a robber runs in at the end and shoots Dante in the chest, killing him. This ending was changed because a professional filmmaker sat Smith down and told him, "You can't just kill your main character because you don't know how to end your movie."

That's what this feels like. They didn't know how to end the game on a good note, so they just killed everyone and called it a day. Even the heroic sacrifice of John trying to at least let his wife escape is completely undercut and pissed on by having her be dead this entire time. It makes the entire struggle of the game, the emotional investment I as a player put into it, and the story itself feel pointless and like it might as well not have been told.

Maybe I'm being a curmudgeon about this. Likesay, the game is competent and does what it intends to, but that ending just rankled me so damn badly I had to rant about it. But this post is too long by half, so I'll wrap it up now. If you want to play this game after knowing that, go to and good luck, but get it on sale. Can't stress that enough. I'm sure when they were designing it and writing it they felt that this was a great subversion of your standard horror story ending and that it was a remarkably clever thing to do, but all it did was piss me off and make me not want to pick up any of the other games with their studio name on it.

This was worth the time sink and the money, but by god did that ending piss me off. Grab it if you dare, but don't say I didn't warn you.

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If you enjoyed this post, you can find many more like it here on my website, or on my Steemit page. You can also find free original science fiction and fantasy stories, as well as my contributions to the anthology Darkest of Dreams from DimensionBucket Media on Amazon. Feel free to check out my other work, including my weekly podcast and audiobooks I've produced. You can also throw me a tip if you like at Ko-fi.

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