Not long ago, I took a tour of The Station, an indie title now available on the Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Steam. This atmospheric, first-person exploration game places you aboard a malfunctioning orbital research station in hopes of finding out what’s gone wrong and whether the crew can be rescued.
The backstory of The Station is rooted in navigating a hypothetical: What if—in the early stages of deep-space exploration—a sentient alien civilization was discovered, but in the midst of a planet-wide civil war? Contact between our species could answer millennia-old questions about life and our place in the universe, but is it worth risking safety and security in attracting their attention?
Part of a cautious compromise, a stealth research station was placed into orbit over the planet, manned by a three-person crew. Halfway through the mission, however, nigh every major system on the station catastrophically failed. The Espial now floats helplessly, and obviously, over a hostile world.
The first phase of a panicked response, you—a reconnaissance specialist—arrive to determine the current status of the station, the circumstances of its malfunction, and the feasibility of a rescue.
To set aside the setting and visual richness of The Station is to set aside the overwhelming bulk of its being. As a game, it’s simple and it’s short—very short. While the length of one’s first playthrough will vary dramatically based on their desire to explore, a focused replay can be accomplished in only an hour. One gets the most out of the experience by taking it slow and appreciating the details.
If you’ve played other Unity games in the past, this may feel familiar. Beyond movement and camera control, the only mechanics are either confirming / cancelling interactions or examining objects. Nearly everything in the game can be picked up, examined, manipulated, moved, and placed back down—though barely anything has a use or reason to do so. The result is effectively a “rifling through people’s stuff” simulator, but that is essentially your stated mission.
This concept of playing with things (speaking for myself) retained its novelty for an embarrassingly long time considering how swiftly I came to the disappointing conclusion that there probably weren’t any Easter eggs to stumble upon.
For example, I noticed early on that every fire suppressor in the game could be picked up, and so I immediately set about trying to start a fire. A nearby clothes dryer seemed promising, but despite filling it chock full of booze and cleaning chemicals, I could not put the station in further jeopardy.
Similarly, after noticing that dozens of books were lying around—most with discrete titles and covers—I set about collecting them and accumulated a personal (and pointless) lounge library. (Ironically, one of said books did find later use.) Why humor such dalliances? Because, frankly, The Station is gorgeous. One could arguably spend multiple times the length of a focused playthrough wandering around taking in every little detail and clue as to what has taken place.
Speaking of the Espial‘s fate—the mystery does not run terribly deep. A few casual observations will likely be enough to plant the seeds of suspicion with the ending merely bringing them to bloom. Going out of the way to find audio logs and dig through the crew’s belongings did more to flesh out the absentee cast—and there are a few sentimental revelations if you’re willing to assemble them.
A Lost Opportunity?
Between the environmental immersion, simplistic controls, and focus on manipulating objects, I kept returning to the idea that this could be for VR walkabout adventures what Myst was for point-and-click puzzle adventures: simple, beautiful, memorable. Unfortunately, The Station seems to have no obvious, intentional focus on VR utility.
Now, I’m usually not one to lament the loss of a gimmick, and virtual reality—after decades of interesting demonstrations but limited applications—is in my opinion only just catching on as something that has wide-spectrum potential for fun.
Whether that then undermines or highlights this sense of a lost opportunity is nebulous.
Typically, it goes without saying, but—for me—a score reflects a game’s achievement of its own ambition and potential. An exaggerated example: one should not decry a game celebrating the renaissance of 16-bit chic over dated visuals. In a word, scores have caveats, and today caveats are important; personal preference and expectation will play a central role in more subjective evaluations.
The Station is short, simple, and sweet. It’s atmosphere-heavy and narrative-light; exploration-rich and challenge-impoverished. However, the attention to setting detail and aesthetic are top-notch, which (for those who come in expecting little more than an immersive walkabout) does much to alleviate the brevity and superficiality of the intended path. It would have benefited from a bit more to do, and a bit more challenge in the doing—it’s lean—but by no means is it incomplete.
Moreover, it is mechanically polished and performs with grace. Aside from some awkward control customization, I personally experienced no glitches or performance hiccups.
So long as you know what you will and will not get from The Station, it’s worth the visit.
~ Final Score: 7/10 ~
Review copy provided by The Station for Steam. Screenshots taken by reviewer.