S.W.A.N. Chernobyl Unexplored is an Intense Yet Broken Horror Experience

S.W.A.N. Chernobyl Unexplored is an Intense Yet Broken Horror Experience

S.W.A.N. Chernobyl Unexplored has the makings of a game like Slender: The Eight Pages, an indie horror title with a simple concept and rather straightforward execution that doesn't require high-resolution textures to invoke a sense of fear. The game had been released previously on PC and the Nintendo Switch, but today it releases on the Xbox family of consoles. Over the past week, I have been playing the Xbox version of S.W.A.N. Chernobyl Unexplored early. Having not played it before, this was my first experience with the game as a whole, and I am rather conflicted about it. As is the case with most of my first impressions articles, I have not rolled credits yet. I do plan on finishing the game (I am about seventy-five percent through the campaign by my calculations) but seeing as the embargo date is approaching and the reason for the game being unfinished is mostly out of my hands, I decided to just hit the keyboard.

Let's start with my general thoughts on the game, starting with the story. The title, S.W.A.N. Chernobyl Unexplored sort of sets the stage. You enter the S.W.A.N. Institute, an unexplored area within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a few months after the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant disaster. Right from the opening, the game blends historical facts with fiction, resulting in an interesting, if somewhat abstract, mystery. As you play, you will go through dimensions, see things that you won't expect, and float on static. There are puzzles to be solved, monsters to evade, and, if you are so brave, monsters to be killed as well.

The gameplay loop in Chernobyl Unexplored is similar to the aforementioned Slender-Man game. You walk around looking for routes to progress or keys to doors you passed. There is a certain floaty aspect to the controls that I actually enjoyed a lot. Running around with the flashlight on and seeing it glide to where I point, even if it is the floor as I run in circles, was something I can't quite explain why I liked but considering that Alexa, who took the controller briefly during our live stream, had quite the opposite reaction, know that it's not a universal compliment.

Most of the game's puzzles are easy and handy tutorials pop onto the screen whenever a new mechanic is introduced. The downside to this is that it can at times feel like you're stumbling through the game. As you solve meaningless puzzles, like finding a door locked with a pin code and finding that code written on the wall of the adjacent room, you are interrupted by disembodied exposition or random letters on desks that progress the story forward. There are a few puzzles, like one that gives you control over an area's lights, that do require some trial and error in order to find the solution. But these are few and far between. I played through Chernobyl Unexplored across three sessions across a week, and I think that helped me not grow bored of the gameplay. I have a feeling that if I tried to complete the game in one sitting, I would not view the gameplay in the same light because the same three or four gameplay mechanics are used in constant circulation for the entire runtime.

Chernobyl Unexplored is a mixed bag visually. You may look at the developer curated promo images for the game on Steam, or even this review, and think the game looks great. However, that isn't always the case when playing. Some textures can look great with a good amount of detail on floors, walls, and certain objects, but there are also areas that look muddy or unusual. A big reason for this is that a large part of the game takes place within the monotonous walls of the S.W.A.N. Institute. And the wasteland, which is what breaks the monotony, is just a floor of static with disappearing chunks that fail to be entirely compelling. Some of the texture choices work in favor of the game with certain rooms having unusual textures that made me uncomfortable to step forward. But after taking into account the uninspired monster designs, which can be seen over and over again throughout the game, it makes me less than impressed about the game's graphics.

That's not to say the game isn't atmospheric. I would be lying if I said I didn't get scared at all during the game. I jumped several times and paused the game to mutter curses on more than one occasion. The Poland-based developer, Volframe, clearly had a knack for horror games and their understanding of when a scare should come in is great. My favorite moment in the game has to be walking out of a room early in my walkthrough after exploring it and finding out that I wasn't alone in the hallway.

It's at this point that I want to explain why I say the game is broken and to explain why I didn't yet finish it. Let me first say that a game doesn't have to be "perfect" in order for me to enjoy it. For that matter, a game can be broken and still be memorable. I look at the slew of open-world games that I adore that come with their fair share of flaws. So I don't say the game is broken to deter anyone from playing it. But the fact of the matter is that the game has its problems. A few times in my playthrough of the game I came across small glitches and bugs that were easy to overlook. But at one point, Chapter 27 to be specific, I experienced a game-ending bug that would not let me progress. I tried three times to complete the objective but every time I did, the game crashed on the loadings screen. Booting the game back up put me back to the objective before the crash. I tried multiple times across two days and had the same issue.

In the end, S.W.A.N. Chernobyl Unexplored is an intense game that leverages simple puzzles and conflicting visuals to make a scary few hours of horror. While the story sets up an interesting premise, an overreliance on exposition, uninspired creature design, and numerous bugs make the experience mostly forgettable. That being said, S.W.A.N. Chernobyl Unexplored is out now on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. A code for the Xbox was provided by the publisher for review.

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Sloyvan said…
Were you able to find a way around the chapter 27 bug? Same thing happened here and I'm stumped.
Sri Kandula said…
I honestly have no idea how I fixed it. I opened the game on another Xbox and it magically worked. Not sure what the solution was. Sorry I couldn't be of much help.