These two fantasy sets from Ukrainian producer Dark Alliance (a brand of Red Box apparently) are unique in many ways. The subject is very much related to a popular global culture icon of Ukrainian origin and as such these sets will be reviewed with more scrutiny than other sets from that range.
When reviewing a set called 'Stalkers' one not familiar with popular culture background may expect a sprue of creepy individuals harassing and observing other people. That would certainly be an interesting set to see but this is not at all what 'Stalkers' are about. To understand the meaning and the genesis of this term we need to reach back 50 years from now.
In 1972, a science fiction novel was written by the Strugatsky brothers - Arkadij and Boris - called 'Roadside Picnic'. The story describes a mysterious occurrence of areas on Earth where even the laws of physics become contaminated - the 'Zones'. These areas are heavily guarded by the military to protect the rest of the world, and those who venture inside to seek riches are called 'stalkers'. In 1979, Andrei Tarkovsky made a movie called 'Stalker' based loosely on the Strugatsky’s novel.
On Saturday, 26 of April 1986 a historic catastrophe struck the Ukraine Socialist Republic, particularly the area of Chernobyl. The event triggered many political and cultural movements and events and affected entire pop culture in many ways. Those who ventured into the Exclusion Zone (mainly for looting) were called 'stalkers'.
Fast forward to 2007, and a Ukrainian game development studio creates the 'S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - Shadow of Chernobyl' computer game. Based very loosely on the Strugatsky’s novel and Tarkovsky’s movie (the Zone, the anomalies and the artefacts remain but the nature of the Zone is different) this computer first-person role playing game became a great success - and one of the most notable Ukrainian contributions to global popular culture for years to come. The story of the game revolves around the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone struck by a mysterious cataclysm around the year 2012. Stalkers roam it in large numbers (estimated at several hundred individuals), group in factions and create a complex political environment. Three official games were made by GSC Game World, a huge number of independent modifications (some better than some games), and as of time of writing this (2020) the next instalment - 'Stalker 2' has been confirmed by another studio.
In short, 'Stalker' is a globally recognized cultural icon. This is what these sets are supposed to depict. So how do they do?
Both sets contain the Dark Alliance’s standard amount of figures - 12 unique poses on a sprue, 4 sprues in the box, 48 figures in total. When reviewing each box a certain regularity can be observed. For each 12 poses 3 are game-related, 3 are generally useful but not game related, 3 are balancing between useless and 'general sci-fi' and 3 are a complete 'freak-show' that does not make sense at all or just landed in the box from a completely different game/movie/story.
Set 1 begins with 3 figures more or less familiar from games and related artwork. The first figure is wearing a suit apparently comprising of a leather jacket and trousers with knee and elbow pads on them. There were several types of suits in games and this seems to be a very entry-level one - hooded jacket with additional pads, knee and elbow pads, military trousers and a gas mask that resembles a GP7V Russian gas mask, although with customized filters. This is all acceptable for a character like this. He is holding some variant of the AK rifle (difficult to say exactly which one), carries a basic Russian-type backpack (not mentioned in the game but pretty similar to the 'meshok' backpack) with some kind of blade transported on his back - this is slightly less realistic but still acceptable. The pose is not the first choice to use for a 'stalker' as it shows him being alarmed on the march/watch. It is not the worst pose though, and definitely not the worst in the set.
The second figure in the first row is the most iconic representation of a stalker, with many artworks depicting this very setup. A long coat worn over a hooded jacket and trousers with many customized elements added - actually another suit available for a player (although not in the first game). The mask he is carrying is a Russian GP-5 which was depicted in the games as well. While this figure is carrying a weapon (some type of AK rifle with solid butt stock), it is portrayed as traversing the Zone with a backpack, guiding others, hunting for 'artefacts' (unusual pieces that defied the laws of physics). An almost perfect representation of this genre.
The third figure is a more militarized stalker and we can easily guess he is from 'Mercenaries' faction - a well equipped group of stalkers that are rather unfriendly to the main character, working for rich clients from outside. This figure is pictured kneeling, shooting an AR-15 rifle, wearing a ballistic helmet (similar to an M-84 PASGT which was also realistic as 'Mercenaries' were able to obtain Western armament with ease). His gas mask may be a derivative of a 'Bulldog' one but it is hard to be sure. One could have some doubts about what this figure has attached to his back, but this is a fine and recognizable piece anyway.
The second row begins with a towering individual carrying an M-134 Minigun with a larger ammunition box from the M23 subsystem carried on the back. This is just as magnificent and intimidating a figure as it is useless to the subject. The M-134 Minigun is not really a first choice for a portable support weapon as it is heavy and has an insane rate of fire (even on the lowest setting). It was never available in any game. The operator is not using proper body protection - he has his entire arms exposed, as well as head and airways. His vest does look a little like a Blackhawk Omega vest. He also sports a spectacular Iroquois haircut which is hardly believable for an individual in the Zone - both showing it off and properly maintaining it. The facial features are astonishing, the whole character looks like Arnold Schwartzenegger from 'Predator' and the weapon itself is also nicely made so this figure will probably appeal to many tastes - but it has nothing to do with the Stalker series.
Next to the Minigun figure we have a moving and aiming/shooting figure that looks like a modern PMC, special forces or mercenary. He is wearing a baseball cap, modern combat trousers, a tactical vest (could be a plate carrier) and holds a PDW (personal defense weapon) that is probably a custom weapon based on the AR-15. On his back there is a large tomahawk/hatchet, a tool that was used by several units in recent wars. Next to him there is another, similar figure shooting an M4 rifle and wearing a slightly different equipment set including a large kukri blade attached to the belt. Those two are generally very vivid and useful poses for anyone looking for modern special forces, PMCs or mercenaries… but again, have nothing to do with the subject.
Row three begins with a figure that at first looks at least stalkerish - he is wearing a long coat and carrying a shotgun. He is not wearing a gas mask - upon closer inspection one can see that he is in fact carrying a respirator mask, but not on the face at the moment (the face is visible). This figure however has an absurdly large hat (something never seen in games) and also the suit does not seem to match anything seen in games. This looks more like a post-apocalyptic Wild West general purpose figure - for which it is probably OK. Next to him there is a figure shooting a shotgun from the hip, wearing a strange helmet and unidentified vest. Finally in this row we have a peculiar looking figure - a long coat-dressed, mohawk-sporting, katana-carrying bayonet charger. None of these figures makes any reference to a game, book or a movie.
Row four is a most bizarre one. It starts with a hooded ninja wielding both katana and wakizashi. Next to him there is Lara Croft, the main protagonist of a completely different computer game, here pictured with two pistols aimed at two different targets. The last figure is dressed in long coat, holds a shotgun and a hatchet, sports a hairstyle from the 1980s and has nothing to do with the subject. These three figures can only be placed in a diorama about modern cosplayers on a sci-fi convention or perhaps in a very specific diorama project. They are also an interesting example of Dark Alliance use of what can be called 'heroic' poses - this is a pose where a figure stands on widely-spread legs, with both hands holding some kind of weapon in an apparent show of force (and equipment to the players). Seen before in larger scales like 28mm, this trend has apparently made it to the 1:72 figures realm.
Set 2 contains the same amount of poses and figures - a 12-pose sprue, 4 sprues in a box. The first three figures are very familiar to anyone playing Stalker games. The first two are wearing exoskeletons - an item known from the game, the most expensive suit available, worn only by the most distinct characters. It is a well thought-out design with some real-life equivalents (still in prototype form) designed mainly to drastically increase a users’ load carrying abilities. Some of this load in the case of the Stalker games was the armor of the exoskeleton itself, making it very resilient to small arms fire but also hindered the ability to move quickly. Both figures are good representations of their game equivalents, although the headgear does seem to be more of a free-style then game-based. Both carry support weapons - an M6 Bulldog grenade launcher (an in-game depiction of the Russian RG-6, some names were changed due to copyright) and an M249 SAW (which never appeared in the game but is perfectly fine nevertheless). The last figure in this row shows a typical stalker, dressed in coat, hooded jacket, gas mask, carrying a backpack and aiming with a shotgun - a very well made figure.
The next row begins with an individual carrying a SPAS-12 shotgun on a one-point sling and observing something in the distance with binoculars. This was an important element in all games - careful observation and traverse planning - and the weapon is passable, too. However his suit is not recognizable, looking like a scaled leather jacket with multiple pads attached. It does not have a stalker feel to it, also because of the lack of any airways’ protection. The two figures next to him look like mercenaries, special forces operators or private contractors, especially the last one firing a rarely portrayed Tavor rifle (and carrying a hatchet). Not much of a stalker subject (no means of chemical protection) but fine figures in themselves.
The further we go, the more peculiar figures we have. A person in a long coat and hat, aiming with a scoped revolver in one hand and holding a hatchet in another. A sniper wearing several layers of a coat, with mohawk haircut and goggles. A female sniper shooting an SWD (a recognizable rifle from the game) wearing a tight suit, carrying a wakizashi on her back and assuming an impossible shooting stance. And the final row containing a crossbow-wielding, strangely posed figure in a suit that resembles more some Marvel superhero costumes; a man shooting a compound bow with quiver on his hip and a machete on his back; and finally a male wielding some unidentified PDW, a heavy machete in another hand (with blade serrated on a blunt side), wearing unidentified headgear (tank headphones?) and assuming a heroic pose. These figures are of little use to any modern project and they most certainly do not represent any references to Stalker-related art. They may be of use to sci-fi modellers - they are not badly executed - but there are far too many of them in a topic-related box.
The sculpt is generally very clean with lots of detail. There is minimal flash. Figures are made from soft plastic - this according to some painters happens to be an issue when applying multiple layers of paint, but was not in the case of this reviewer. All figures have natural body proportions but exaggerated elements (haircuts) occasionally tend to stick out and spoil the impression. Dark Alliance has already confirmed that their figures are of good quality and interesting subjects.
The main issues are the poses. Virtually none of the figures is depicted 'stalking' - moving silently, trying to avoid detection. Most do not have basic protection (gas mask, NBC suits or locally made suits recognizable from the game) - this entire setting is happening in a heavily polluted environment that developed its own ecosystem. There are far too many combat poses which is not what stalkers originally did. A figure (or a cooperating pair) holding detectors, throwing an object (an important thing to do to detect anomalies), camping and traversing the country would be far more desirable.
'Stalker' is an inspiring subject for many model makers creating post-apocalyptic scenes. In 1/72, the amount of such figures is very limited. Even so, most of the projects prefer to employ the few existing NBC-suited figures of soldiers (such as the Hungarian soldier from the ESCI Warsaw Pact Troops, some figures from the ESCI NATO Ground Crew or Airfix's NATO Ground Crew sets or even resin sets) rather than use figures from these two sets. With other sets from the fantasy range from Dark Alliance and their overall good quality one can only hope for a third set that would address the limitations of the two described.