An Arctic base in the middle of nowhere, enveloped in a freezing coldness and pounded by piercing snowstorms. It feels like icy nails are drilled into the skin. A group of polar explorers who survive a helicopter crash after having followed a distress signal faces this shivering desolation. As if the cold, dark gloom isn’t enough, there’s something sinister lurking in corner of the eye – or is it in the mind’s eye? Cold, hunger and fatigue take such a toll that it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. Survival horror adventure Distrust from small Russian developers makes it no secret that it’s inspired by John Carpenter’s science fiction horror classic The Thing (1982). The game has no narrative or flashy presentation, just its harsh surroundings in and out of Arctic base where you have to escape from. The coldness is as real as it can get as the developers come from Siberia. They should know how it’s like living below zero!
At the start of the game, there are only three survivors to choose from to form a team of two to hit their icy escape room. There’s no co-op play so you control them both by switching between them. More characters are unlocked as you go and fulfill different conditions, like collecting all available tools or cooking five different foods. Each survivor has their own strength, one stands cold better while other doesn’t need to eat as often as the rest. The Arctic base is divided into six zones where you have to escape from one after another in a linear fashion. The exits have different conditions to meet, like overpowering generators to short-circuit an electric door, or hitting levers in a correct order. Finding a password from the pocket of a director’s jacket sounds easy in comparison but in practice, the harsh conditions make every route a challenge of the fittest. Distrust is a roguelike so maps, building layouts and assets within are randomized on each new play.
The game lays out clear ground rules. You have to take care of three basic conditions of your survivors; warmth, stamina and satiety that affect each other. Coldness makes you more tired, and tiredness makes you hungry, and when you’re starving, there’s not much stamina for activities. If you can take care of all three, things can go pretty nicely – until you run into an unexpected trouble. To keep it warm, each building has its basic heating, as long as you remember to close all the open windows and fix the broken doors. You can get more heat by lighting up furnaces with coal or wood. Generators, run by oil, provide light, not only to see the surroundings better but also provide safer sleeping conditions. In presence of delta waves, anomalies start appearing (aliens all but in the name) whenever you sleep and you have to shoo them away. Some are vulnerable to light and some to heat. Of course, a bullet is always an effective send-off ticket, that is if you happen to find a gun and ammunition to it.
You want to search through everything, crates, shelves, nightstands, cupboards and piles of rubble, to find things to make most out of your dire situation; wood and coal, food and medicine, and tools like spades and crowbars. There are several ways to open locked doors. Keyring might have a key to fit in the lock but it takes time to find the right one. Lockpicking takes less time while brute-forcing with a crowbar is the fastest way to get in. Spades makes it easier to clear off snow stacked against door. You can do it by hands, too, but it takes time and lowers both the body temperature and stamina. Axes and saws turn crates into wood to fix doors and beds with, or thrown into the furnace. While you can gnaw frozen vegetables or sip cold canned soup, heating them in an oven brings more nutrition out of them to keep hunger further away. Should you get ill from a spoiled food or after smoking a cigarette (you want to smoke as it unlocks one survivor more), pills fix that, as long as they’re clean. Bad pills can either heal up or make you worse.
To be honest, a couple of first sessions didn’t impress me that much. The tutorial that teaches essential survivor skills froze (quite fitting for the game’s theme!) every time I tried it, so I had to learn everything by the experience. As a console conversion of a PC original, the point-and-click interface needed time to get acquainted with. The viewpoint doesn’t center onto to a character you change into but instead needs a right-stick click. It might seem like a minor nuisance but it’s still there. Also, I was suspicious whether the gameplay loop would stand its course or was it just a system upon system just for the sake of them. In short, would it be just a chore to plow through the icy horrors of Distrust again and again?
However, the more I played, the more the game opened up, and I started appreciating all the neat little touches. To move a character, you don’t need to use the isometric game view but click a spot on the map screen for a character to run onto. I also liked details such as survivors putting down their flashlights when they perform actions. Distrust isn’t something you will finish in your first go at it, either. Rather, it takes cue from classic video games where you progressed farther by each go until you could dream of mastering it. Distrust has a lot going for it to grant replay value, from randomized playing areas to unlockable characters and different endings.
When declining survivors start hallucinating, it’s where the fun starts. The perception of reality is distorted through visual and aural filters, like everything turning into black and white, sounds muting off, or disturbing voices, such as mad laughter or uncontrollable humming, bursting out. You can delay the inevitable doom with pills, med kits and adrenaline shots, and there’s perverted fun and dramatic symmetry to be had from a despair you will descend into. When one survivor ends up comatose, it’s a countdown to the failure. There’s some poetic sadness in a scenario when my last survivor fell dead on a pile of snow she tried to scoop away with bare hands.
After a few initial runs, you get focus into your playing, making things go faster as you know what to do and what not. Instead of running into the closest building, you learn it’s better to go first to the exit to check out what conditions are needed to go through it, and then make a game plan out of it. Thanks to the randomization, though, everything can change in a blink of an eye. One zone can be smooth sailing, all according to your clever plan, but in the next you can run into a standstill - the bed you so desperately want to sleep on happens to be in the last building in your route! Heck, the previous zone had beds and sofas in almost every building! And then your survivors will slowly slumber to an everlasting sleep…
In an essence, Distrust plays much out like a board game. Systems are simple but nuanced, and activities, conditions, and their repercussions are transparent. Rules are laid there on the table and you live and die by them. There are also random encounters, like feeling something in the furnace when you’re lighting it up and you have to decide whether to check it out or leave it be. If you want to examine the find, a coin toss ensues and results in a positive or negative outcome. All in all, much like drawing a random event card in a board game. It’s rare that board or card game works as a video game adaptation but when turned the other way around, Distrust would make a brilliant board game to chill out with in cold winter evenings in the candle fire.
Distrust is squarely targeted at someone like me who loved the movie The Thing and even its lesser-known prequel of the same name from 2011 (well, I love everything that has Mary Elizabeth Winstead in it). Maybe it’s exaggerated how fast the different conditions will strike the survivors but it makes a good video game drama. When you eventually get going, the game is surprisingly addictive and moody, with bare-bones execution that still maintains an excellent attention to detail and an effective audio design rising up the hair on your back. The wicked gameplay loop of trying to survive and escape is equal parts fun and frustrating – as it pretty much should be.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.