An opening shot pans along the length of a brooding, hulking spacecraft, instantaneously conveying a sense of immense space and intense silence in disquieting hues of grey and green.
It sometimes takes me time to acclimatise to the atmosphere of a new game; time to care about my protagonist, to get used to a control scheme, to feel invested in a story. It doesn’t with Stasis. My character, ripped rudely from a stasis sleep, stumbling to his knees and into a puddle of blood and I’m instantly hooked.
What the hell is going on here?
It’s an undeniably epic opening. I don’t know what I was expecting from this, a seemingly budget game, but this isn’t it.
Describing itself as a “2D isometric, point-and-click horror adventure game”, Stasis is not a game I’d typically pick up. Whilst I love horror, and isometric design, and have played a point-and-click or two before in my life, ramming those themes together feels somewhat paradoxical to me. Horror works best when my view is restricted and I can’t see around the corner – what I’d argue is the antithesis of isometric design. I associate point-and-click with adventure, not horror. I was unconvinced as I booted up Steam.
Turns out my disdain was grossly unfair.
You play as John Maracheck, the aforementioned man yanked from stasis on the Groomlake, a looming, tank-like vessel spinning in orbit around Neptune. There’s no-one else around, and no clue as to why you’ve been pulled so abruptly from your artificial slumber.
And then you spot the blood: thick, cloying, inexplicable blood.
Until some contemporary horror games, for the most part Stasis avoids cheap scares, choosing not to unsettle you with big, bold “BOO!”s, but instead by turning the screws slowly and silently as your footfalls echo throughout the Groomlake, the story quietly unravelling through the blood splatters on the ceiling, the corpses littering the deck, the emaciated bodies slumped in medical bays, kept breathing only by wish and wires.
The atmosphere builds slowly, surreptitiously, silently, thickening the dread as you progress — room by room, puzzle by puzzle — through the story.
But it’s the PDAs you discover — the sparkly, green tablets lying scattered around the ship — that will really add flesh to the bones of this tale, and though the temptation to flick through them without fully reading is great — particularly as some PDAs can take several minutes to read to completion — resist the impulse.
Not only is the lion’s share of the story conveyed through those green screens, but several clues and hints are located therein, too. Would they have been more enjoyable to read had they been better paced? More PDA devices to find with less to read on each? Yeah. Probably. But that’s not a reason to skip ‘em, okay?
Much of Stasis’ charm lies in the tale it tells, and I won’t spoil it for you here. But it’s a grim story, one of corporate greed, neglect, and profiteering before people. The environment you traverse is equally grim. Sure, some of it may feel unoriginal — the green palette, the oh-so-spooky environmental creaks and screams — but for the most part, it feels believable, the audio authentic, the setting sincere.
Maracheck’s voice work is mostly relatable, only occasionally falling on the wrong side of clichéd. I care about him; his mission, his family, his state of mind. I share his confusion, his determination to get to the bottom of the mystery. He’s cleverer than I and significantly braver as he twists himself into a drainage pipe to slither into the next room.
That said, there are times when you’re yanked from the immersion by way of a stupidly dark room or a painfully cheap death (although you’re often awarded Steam trophies as compensation for the latter!). It happens often enough that it felt frustrating at times. You’re running through the ship, frantically scouting for clues, but then Maracheck will stumble into a room and you don’t have a Scooby-doo-clue where he is, nor where the hell he’s supposed to go.
I’d throw my mouse all over the screen, desperately seeking a helpful tooltip prompt, but nope, there’s nothing. It means I’m sometimes forced into making him run into the centre of a room before I know it’s safe, just to find out where the hell he was standing. (Check out the image below to see what I mean!)
Most puzzles are clever without being overly challenging, although a handful are, admittedly, maddeningly complicated. At these times, it’s once again difficult to remain immersed when you’re frantically clicking everything in sight and combining ridiculous things in your inventory just to get a clue, get anything, so desperate are you to progress. But a lot of the puzzles are smart enough to make sense, even when some require us to draw on the creative license of its futuristic sci-fi setting to do so.
The pacing, too, is slightly off-kilter. In some spots you’ll get a fire-hose-to-the-fire of exposition, and in others the horrors of the room remain unexplained, and some character interactions feel overly long. It’s a shame, because everything else the game offers you — most notably the stunning design and unsettling score — deserve better than that.
Final Word: Though grim in both tale and terrain, I nonetheless enjoyed my time on the Groomlake. If you’re a horror fan looking for a game that conveys perfectly pitched tension and terror without overwhelming you with complex combat, Stasis is an understated and unsettling experience not to be missed.