Rating: Mature for blood, violence, language
Score: 7 out of 10
In "ZERO Sievert," set in a fictitious post-apocalyptic part of Russia, players take on the role of a hunter charged with investigating dangerous areas in a bandit-, monster- and radiation-filled zone.
The goal is to enter the danger zones to complete missions, acquire loot and extract yourself safely. Between missions, you'll be in a bunker where you can interact with nonplayer characters (NPCs) to acquire missions, as well as build a home base for sleeping and crafting.
"ZERO Sievert" is a top-down, single-player, pixelated shooter that entered Early Access about one year ago, and has sold more than 100,000 copies since. It's the work of an Italian indie developer, CABO Studio, and is in active development (with patches coming about every two weeks).
There are other games with "enter dangerous zone, get loot, extract" mechanics ("The Division" and "The Division 2: Dark Zones," for example); but one might also say, "Hey, this sounds a lot like 'Escape From Tarkov'" and you'd be very right. "ZERO Sievert" is sort of like "Escape From Tarkov" (a multiplayer first-person shooter game) and "S.T.A.L.K.E.R." (a first-person shooter survival horror game) had a baby.
Backstory time! All three games draw inspiration from Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 movie "Stalker," a Soviet science fiction movie about exploring a hazardous wasteland filled with unexplainable, horrifying anomalies (and presciently, made just a few years before the Chernobyl reactor explosion).
"ZERO Sievert" borrows mechanics from both of these games (the scientific anomalies of "S.T.A.L.K.E.R.," throwing metal bolts to trigger them, animals going berserk, and the presence of otherworldly monsters created by radioactive fallout, such as ghouls).
Players can drop into one of five zones (forest, makeshift camp, mall, industrial area and swamp) to run missions. It should be noted that as this game is in Early Access, it's not yet complete, and it appears that eventually there will be eight zones for missions.
Each of the five maps is procedurally generated each time players drop into them, which adds a lot to each area's replayability and allows zones to be farmed repeatedly, with mission locations, landmarks and extraction points changing with each run.
The gameplay loop in "ZERO Sievert" is satisfying, as there's the randomness of each run, and the randomness of finding the loot needed that draws you back in, with the environment (through dangerous, radioactive anomalies) and NPCs posing a constant, very real threat. The sound design should be praised, too, as you'll often hear (and be able to identify) enemies nearby from the sound of their footsteps.
There's also a unique aiming mechanic, where despite the game being top-down, with a bird's-eye view of the map, when it comes to loot, animals, enemies, etc., your hunter can only see what's in his field of vision. Turn away from an enemy or loot box, and it becomes invisible. This makes exploration significantly more dangerous, especially when night falls and the only illumination is a light on your gun.
This is a player-versus-environment, or PVE game, without co-op or multiplayer modes. In games like "Escape From Tarkov" and "The Division," the big threat to extracting safely is other players, but here it's the NPCs, and the artificial intelligence controlling them is good. Animals often hunt in packs and will attempt to swarm. Human enemies, such as bandits, will try to hunt you down, often going around buildings to try to sneak up behind you and alerting their friends.
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"ZERO Sievert" is a challenging game — very challenging — even on its "rookie" difficulty settings. It's important to be very careful early on, as hunters start with limited healing items and poor armor. Any encounter can be mission-ending quickly.
The good news is, depending on your settings, death can be as painful or pain-free as you want. The three modes (Rookie, Survivor and Hunter) change various presets (and can be tweaked further). In Rookie mode, upon death you only lose what you gained in the current mission and failed to extract. You start back over at the bunker, with all weapons and ammo restored. Pretty painless death, although at times rage-inducing.
The default on Hunter difficulty means loot is found in the world and everything in your inventory is lost on death. Even on Rookie, "ZERO Sievert" presents a significant challenge and is pretty unforgiving. If you enjoy a stress-free gaming experience, this likely is not the game for you. If this does hit you in the sweet spot, it's definitely a game worth keeping an eye on for its full release or for picking up on sale.
After more than a decade as a reviewer, Jason Bennett has an unhealthy love for rogue-like survival games and terrible puns. Questions or suggestions? Reach out to him at