In space, they say, no one can hear you scream. That's just as well for the Cayne Corporation, whose brand of spectacularly unethical research tends to involve a lot of screaming, not to mention blood. But it also gets results – hulking, shambling, genetically mutated results. Hungry, homicidal results that, right now, might just be the only other living thing on this ship with you. Welcome to STASIS, technically the debut title from indie developer The Brotherhood but mostly a solo effort by the self-described "one-man army" Chris Bischoff, the product of five years' hard work. The end result of all that effort is a big, bold, beautiful game that goes its own way about presenting an intricate and creepy sci-fi take on an otherwise standard survival horror story.
By the mid-22nd century, the Cayne Corporation has gotten tired of governmental oversight and ethics committees. Such squeamishness just gets in the way when you're trying to do really cutting-edge research, and what are the lives of a few down-and-outs when compared to the potential benefits for the whole human race? In the face of such bureaucratic hand-wringing, they did the only thing they could do: refitted an old mining vessel with all the latest lab equipment, staffed it with the most brilliantly sociopathic minds they could find and sent it out into space, beyond the reach of politicians and free to let the end justify the means.
Naturally, it all goes horribly, tragically wrong. By the time the game opens, the ship is adrift in a decaying orbit around Neptune, seemingly derelict. Except not entirely: there are still a few intact stasis pods, one of which houses your character, John Maracheck. For reasons that eventually become clear, the systems reactivate, thaw you out and bring you back to stumbling, gasping life. Why are you here? The last thing you remember, you and your family were going into cryosleep on a shuttle headed for Titan and a family holiday. You certainly weren't aboard the Groomlake (Cayne's cavernous and now-empty research ship). It's time to find out what's going on, find your family and get out of here as fast as possible.
The first thing that strikes you about STASIS is just how stunning the graphics are, followed by the sound design. It's hard to believe that they're the product of just one man: the level of polish and attention to detail is just amazing. Presented in pre-rendered 3D, the display uses an isometric view, looking diagonally down from above. This was a popular technique in the ‘90s (more so in action and RPG games than adventures, but occasionally used in titles such as Sanitarium) and its use here gives the game an unusual and distinctly retro feel.
For all its retro inspiration, however, this is a thoroughly modern game: presented in a crisp HD resolution, the Groomlake is beautifully rendered in a photorealistic style, with every screen full of little details like clutter on a desk, worn deck plating or worrying-looking scratches to make the environment feel like a real place rather than just a 3D model. For a dead ship, it's also surprisingly full of life, with fans spinning, steam rising and scrolling computer screens. The lighting, too, is dramatic but moody, leaving much of the ship in shadow. The only real downside is that, at least for much of the time, you can't get past the fact that you're on a spaceship, all metal walls and floors with a severe and institutional look done in muted blues and greens. You do stumble into hydroponics at one point, though, which is a riot of verdant plant life, and the all-too-rare external views of Neptune's atmosphere are beautiful.
This mix of the retro and the modern also feeds into the technology you run across as you explore. It may be more than a century in the future, but that hasn't stopped the Groomlake's designers from relying on good old-fashioned dials and switches and even what look suspiciously like tube TV displays in places. Sure, they've also got force fields and AI medics and even a "quantum storage device" (more of which in a bit), but there's a definite feeling that technology has been used sparingly and that the simplest solution was often considered the best one. Records left behind suggest that recent history was turbulent, and straightforward reliability counted for more than flashy technology. This isn't a world that was just arbitrarily thrown together; you can see that the developer has a definite vision for the future and has thought through every element of what that would entail.
The sound design is similarly inspired. Music is only used sparingly, to highlight the most dramatic or emotional moments; for much of the time all you hear is your breathing and the sounds of the ship around you. That means the whoosh of fans, the hiss of steam escaping, the creak of the deck plating. Even John's breathing changes with the circumstances, hinting at his escalating stress and distress levels. Just as the graphics are full of animations, so too is the soundscape full of ambient effects that give each area of the ship its own character. The Groomlake's PA system also cuts in regularly with cheerful automated announcements that only help to underscore just how wrong everything is now. When it does come, the music is good too, varying between hauntingly sad and urgently surging. The lullaby John and his wife sing to their daughter during a flashback stuck in my head for days and makes me cry a little even now.
The voice acting, like the music, is sparse but reasonably effective. Object descriptions are given only as text, leaving the voices for when John is talking to himself or to one of the small handful of people he encounters on the ship. The acting itself is mostly good, with only the occasional line coming off a bit flat, but it is perhaps a bit over-serious. Obviously everyone's in the midst of a disaster, but the actors often convey that by delivering each line slowly and with great emphasis, as if this is the most earth-shattering thing they will ever say. As understandable as that is, it's hard to take seriously at times and can drain all the pace out of tense moments.
The interface is a nicely streamlined take on standard point-and-click. Since you meet people so rarely, there are only two actions: look at and pick up/use. Hovering over a hotspot brings up its name near the cursor and a more detailed description in the lower-right of the screen. If all you can do is look, the cursor changes to an eye; if you can interact as well, it becomes a grasping hand. Because the description is always visible in the corner, clicks can be reserved for interaction. The only slight fly in the ointment is that walking (or running, if you double-click) over to an object to interact with it doesn't always work: more often than not, I'd move across and then just stand there, with the cursor stuck in an in-between state that showed the hotspot's name but not its description or the grasping hand. Moving the cursor away and back again sorted things out, but it can be an annoying little speedbump in an otherwise slick system.
The object details deserve special mention, because they read more like passages from a book than typical adventure game descriptions. For example, hover over a locked door at the beginning of the game and you're greeted with, "The white paint has been flaking off for some time, exposing the rusted metal beneath. A red hologram floats silently in the air beside the door, pulsing to indicate the door is locked." As evocative as that is, it's also mostly redundant as you can already see the corroded door and the red hologram for yourself, and guess the rest. Most of the descriptions are like this: beautifully written, adding little to what the gorgeous graphics have already shown you but complementing the atmosphere nonetheless.Continued on the next page...