Don’t let the dull title of The Station fool you, this is an indie sci-fi game with lofty ambitions. Being ‘mostly’ self-funded and developed by a veteran team (with the same dull name) I had high expectations. Publicity material has claimed that “What you discover will challenge your view of surveillance, imperialism and moral law” which is an incredibly steep task; let’s see if the Station manages to hit the height it hopes to.
The game opens with a simple looking slideshow explaining the context of the story – humans have found a planet with sentient life but the aliens are currently fighting a planet wide civil war. Different ideas on religion and politics are thrown around while arguing over whether to make contact, with the decision being to send 3 people up in an undetectable space station/ship to monitor the aliens and see if whether making our presence known to them would be a good idea. Unfortunately, as can be expected, we quickly run into a few clichés. Halfway through the operation, the station ‘mysteriously’ shuts down and becomes visible, leading to a race against time to discover what happened before the aliens find a tin can full of ‘aliens’ floating around their planet. This is where we come in, a recon specialist sent to investigate and hopefully recover the crew without leaving any evidence of our intelligence gathering operations.
Gameplay comes in the vein of Gone Home type exploration but isn’t as intuitive as the other sci-fi game based in that genre, Tacoma. You will spend all of your time walking around a ship experiencing the Augmented Reality system where text messages and audio logs from the crew will be accessible through orbs that float around the rooms.
Puzzles help to take this from a hands-off experience to more of an actual game. There are only a few, not all compulsory, but I found them refreshing if not simple. They tend to be self-contained, usually you need access to another room by fixing a robot or finding an access bracelet, and everything you need to finish the puzzle will be available in one area – although there is one exception to this but the game makes it very clear you need to go somewhere else to finish it. I got stuck on only one puzzle, where I had to collect tools, but the very last one eluded me. It wasn’t necessary to finish the story so I cracked on with the game and started a new playthrough after to see exactly where it was. Well it turned out that in my first go it had actually phased through the floor making it impossible to find. For a better experience I would want more puzzles of varying difficulty.
Not being a strong advocate of this style of game, I was surprisingly hooked. I was really drawn in by the mystery and I wanted to know exactly what was happening, being more drawn in by the story than the scraps of papers you could read. I ploughed through the short story in less than 1 hour 30, but others have noted around a 2-3 hour playtime if you take your time.
The look of the station reminded me of the first Halo game, just with much better textures. An overzealous bloom effect is the only downside to the graphics but this can be turned off in the settings. However strong graphics are good if the engine can actually cope with them. I ran into crippling framerate drops throughout the game. Most tend to be short lived so you just have to grit your teeth and wait for them to subside. Unfortunately they are particularly bad at the very end of the story because so much is happening on screen. At the final stretch, the game crashed twice needing a reboot and on the 3rd time all of the walls disappeared and all I could see was objects and space. It wasn’t until the 4th reboot, as frustration was reaching its peak,I was finally able to finish it with just the framerate problem and nothing else. And guess what, the climax is disappointing. The whole game relies on ‘mystery’, and although it does give you answers the finer details are never explored.
The station itself is not full of information. There are extra scraps of paper that tell you a little more about the characters and the odd detail about the planet such as different species of fish, but it didn’t feel like there was really a lot for me to discover or learn about that wasn’t dealt with in the storyline. I had a thirst for more but I quickly abandoned a second playthrough after realising I had actually seen everything there was to see. It felt like there could be different endings, maybe finishing all the puzzles could lead to different answers, however that was not the case.
Although it has not been marketed this way, it is very almost a horror game. There is a strong sense of atmosphere with uncomfortable ambient sounds and feelings of impending jump-scares. In fact I did find one, but it was a very self-aware, tongue in cheek moment with a note from a character (more like the developer) poking fun at the intended victim of the prank. It is likely that horror was used to add interest but was never the intended style.
The Station feels like part of a bigger game, like an exploration element of Dead Space or Prey, the downtime puzzle side of a sci-fi action game. There could be a lot more to see and a lot more to tell but the limited scope, lack or replay value, and a boring/obvious ending ruined what could have been a great experience. I enjoyed playing through the game but the emptiness it created sort of ruined everything I’d liked about it.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox One code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.