On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor near Pripyat, Ukraine exploded. In the weeks, months and years that followed, some 600,000 civil and military personnel were brought in to contain the catastrophe — the Chernobyl liquidators. Estimates put the number of immediate deaths around 50, but several thousand liquidators are thought to have later died in the aftermath.

The reality of Chernobyl was brought back into the popular consciousness in 2019 with the massively successful HBO miniseries. In that show, the first episodes hold an underlying sense of dread as the disaster unfolds before becoming a critique of the true cause of the tragedy — mainly, the broken bureaucracy of the Soviet empire in its waning days.

Chernobyl Liquidators Simulator taps into the same vein, foregoing the mutants and monsters of previous videogame visits to the site in exchange for a grounded experiential horror from the perspective of those caught up in the response.

The demo opens with a cinematic repurposing of historical Soviet footage — parades, sputnik, and who’s-whos — accented by a bombastic musical score and ominous, stylized text. 

We believed in ideas, strength, culture, science, progress,” it reads in part. “But one day we had to pay.”

There are some grammar issues and the exact message is confused, although it certainly sets a tone. The use of “we” is also interesting, both as a way of bringing the player into their role as a Soviet citizen but also as a location signature for Polish developer Live Motion Games. 

A date card and a short cinematic of helicopters flying towards the reactor smoke cloud comes before a soundscape of dispatch calls with translated text over a black background — it seems ripped right from the HBO series. The game proper starts with a first-person perspective view set behind the wheel of a truck pulling up to the site.

The game itself — or rather, the brief demo that took me about 45 minutes moving at a leisurely pace — operates like a fairly simple platformer. In this prologue, the player is one of the firefighters first on-scene, moving and leaping around the crumbling power plant while putting out fires and keeping track of water, health and stamina gauges. The office environments explored are littered with objects and small details, sometimes offering readable notes to give more context to the event.

However, despite this attention to detail, some connective tissue is missing in that there’s no death sequence. The character will just suddenly teleport to the nearest checkpoint if they succumb to danger. Wayfinding is also extremely simple with short distances between markers, although given this is a prologue meant to introduce the game, it could just be a tutorial-ism. 

Also missing is some connection to the character the player inhabits. No backstory is given, although this could be a deliberate choice to attest to the anonymous everyman heroism of the liquidators. The game even makes a point of forcibly stopping the player to endure coughing fits and even vomit at one point — reminders of the character’s eventual doom.

The gameplay mechanics are solid, if not particularly enthralling, but the setting and its potential as a tour through a layered historical event is a strong draw.

The Steam page’s description hints at a more complex engagement with what happened in the full version: “work hard to contain the radiation, help the people and conspire with the government” reads the main synopsis. Or, in the fuller write-up, promises that the player will “make extremely difficult choices, moral and otherwise” as well as “learn the hard truth behind the cover up operation conspiracy.”

I want to play that game and can only hope the full release of Chernobyl Liquidators Simulator delivers — it’s definitely one I’ll be keeping an eye out for.

— Stephen Cook

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