In space, only your co-op partner can hear you scream, in this moody new science fiction mystery thats great in VR.
People may not have realised it at the time, but the 1970s was a golden age for offbeat sci-fi. Apart from Star Wars in 1977; there was also Alien, the hugely atmospheric Ridley Scott horror; John Carpenters brooding Dark Star; Tarkovskys near inscrutable Solaris; and 2001: A Space Odyssey just squeaking in ahead of them all in 1968. They set out the blueprint for modern films about space exploration, ushering in a more used, weathered look to sets that made them infinitely more engaging and realistic than the boring, shiny perfection that preceded it.
As a newer medium, video games arrived with all this detail firmly rooted in the minds of players and creators, but its still a refreshing change to find games that reference the formative years. Downward Spiral: Horus Station is one of those games, its environments, lighting, and sound design all calling back to the classics of retro futurism. From the clicks, servo noises, and whirs that accompany even the simplest operation to the cavernous, shadowy interiors of its larger spaces, Horus Station is a love letter to 70s science fiction.
Its also a very lonely place indeed. Apart from your own ragged breathing, in single-player mode you wont hear or see another living human throughout the course of the game – although you will need to navigate around plenty of floating corpses in space suits. In co-op mode its all a bit more light-hearted as you work together to solve two-player only puzzles and engage in the usual banter that takes place when exploring and shooting up killer robots with a friend. It will need to be with a friend though, because we had no luck whatsoever using online matchmaking.
While the sense of isolation is perfectly well crafted played on a TV everything is heightened in VR, which is undoubtedly the best way to explore. Its also the most effective way to experience the games standout characteristic, the fact that the entire story is told in a zero-gravity environment. Throughout the game, from your first faltering attempts to grab and push yourself off pieces of scenery to the climactic puzzle, your feet wont touch a deck, and floating through the games often vast interiors is one of the singular pleasures of playing.
Starting by pushing and pulling yourself along corridors manually, you soon pick up a suction cup grappling hook that lets you tow yourself around, and not so long after that find a little jet device that looks like a DustBuster and allows you to fly free. It feels great, and in larger rooms, especially those with a view of the enormous planet below, creates a unique atmosphere that complements the silence and stately pace of your motion.
In another brave design choice theres no text or cut scenes, no video diaries left behind by former crew members, and no dialogue of any kind. The idea is that the environment tells its own story, and while this is a pleasant change from more prosaic narration techniques, the information in Downward Spiral is so sparsely presented that youd need to be a mind reader to unpick any sense of plot from the minuscule interactions with clone dispensers and power terminals. Equally, the moments when youre suddenly adrift across ancient ruins on an alien planet, or floating gently through an underwater scene, remain unexplained when the closing credits roll.
It can also start to feel repetitive. Despite being broken into eight acts, set across multiple parts of Horus Station, each section has the same set of hubs and rooms and although there are differences the feeling of déjà vu is constant. It also regularly convinces you youre accidentally retracing your steps, which without a map can be a problem. Not for long though, because in almost every case you are in fact heading the right way; the games rigorously linear but well thought through level design funnelling you in the proper direction.
Aside from selecting VR or TV mode, you can also choose to turn off gun fights, reducing your interaction to exploration only. Its not a good idea. Turning Horus Station into a walking (or rather, floating) simulator robs it of its small moments of tension; not to mention the weapons, all of which look like the sort of solidly built equipment you might find on a working space station, feel and sound brutal in action. The fights arent hard either, your inevitable deaths at the hands of various sized drones resulting in you respawning nearby with no other penalty to pay.
All is not perfect on board Horus Station though. As an indie game, it lacks the polish of bigger titles, creating some minor irritations. Theres no smooth rotation, meaning you can only use clunky step turns; the large black banner announcing youve found a collectible takes up the very centre of your viewpoint and stays onscreen for what feels like minutes; and even when playing with the Move controllers you need a joypad connected and powered on in order to continue. None of them is game breaking, but they are symptomatic of a title at the very edge of its development budget.
Theres a lot to like here, from the infrequent but hugely effective stabs of synthesiser music to the overall sound and visual design, its a consistent vision and a feast for the senses of anyone who enjoys their science fiction with a bit of texture. Its also a tremendously courageous choice to leave the conventions of story so far behind. That it doesnt totally work is understandable given its constraints, and despite the emptiness and repetition the sensation of drifting weightlessly through its beautifully realised structures will stay with you for a long time after removing your VR headset.
Downward Spiral: Horus Station
In Short: An ambitious and unique approach to video game storytelling, but one that never quite escapes the limitations it purposefully imposes on itself.
Pros: Exquisitely observed retro-futuristic details abound, and the sense of drifting weightlessly through huge rooms never loses its wow factor. Its also very cheap.
Cons: Although floating feels good, it slows exploration to a crawl, and when theres not much to do and environments are repetitive it can start to feel stale.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed) and PC
Publisher: 3rd Eye Studios
Developer: 3rd Eye Studios
Release Date: 18th September 2018
Age Rating: 12
By Nick Gillet