From the moment you step aboard the darkened space station everything feels wrong, ominous and decidedly unnerving. What should be an active research station humming with activity is instead silent and frighteningly still. You can almost inhale your own vulnerability.
The research station Espial was cloaked and sent to spy on an alien planet to gather information on its sentient and highly intelligent population – a race who are embroiled in their own civil war. The question of first contract relies heavily on this small team of three engineers and scientists and the information they gather. But now everything has gone dark, all communication cut off, and your job is to find out why.
The Station is a first person narrative mystery game. Clearly something terrible has happened and the only way to find out what is to shift your backside around the station looking for clues. The world in which The Station is set relies heavily on AR – augmented reality. In your investigation you will find AR notes the crew have scrawled and left for each other, plus audio logs, messages, emails and a few old fashioned paper notes, drawings and letters. Each discovery helps you to understand life on the station, the complex relationships between the crew, their research on the warring race and, ultimately, what happened.
The whole station is yours to explore but getting around it is part of the mystery you need to unravel. Not everywhere is completely accessible. Doors will be lacking power, life support will be absent, and security access will be limited. The puzzle aspects of the game are all about these issues, which pleases me greatly. Puzzles are relevant rather than random which goes a very long way into pushing the story forward and immersing you deeper into this creepy experience.
While you are free to explore wherever you want within the limits of your current access, the game does have an ever-so-subtle structure. It has an intuitive flow that puts me in mind of games such as Layers of Fear, Dear Esther and N.E.R.O. Rather than restricting gameplay in any uncomfortable or frustrating sense, it simply means that as long as you’re reasonably observant and thorough in your investigations you’re not going to be tracking back and forth, up and down, and round and round until you’re dizzy. The game has a beautiful guiding logic and direction that’s in keeping with the realism of your environment and predicament.
Realism probably seems like a strange word choice when we’re talking about a game that’s pure and hard science fiction, but the station itself feels quite real. Or rather it feels like you would imagine a small research vessel filled with three messy humans would be. There’s clutter on the floors, computers on and ticking over, a jacket slung over a chair and tools strewn all about. Many items can be picked up and examined and the more relevant items will be transferred into your inventory. There’s a lot to look over because you’re rummaging through the lives of three people, their private rooms, their workspaces, their equipment and personal items. Your keen investigator’s eye has got a lot of work to do.
The graphics are top notch and the station itself looks and feels pretty awesome – think SOMA and Alien Isolation and you’re on the right lines. Although there is generally plenty of lighting (until you’re suddenly plunged into the pitch black – eek!) the station has a shadowy and somewhat eerie look. It feels unnaturally empty with no people to go with all their bits, bobs and stuff. It’s a little like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture but with zero gravity and robotics. With the lights on, computers running, books open and personal items all around I almost expected to find a person or a ghost just casually sitting there waiting to murder me. Creepy stuff. The ship is also notably absent of noise aside from the occasional beep and whirr. It can be deathly silent until a door innocently and loudly whooshes open and you’ve jumped straight out of your skin and hung your skeleton to the light fitting. Bloody doors. Every time.
Traversing the station is a quick affair with a pretty good walking speed and an even quicker running mechanic. Movement is on the whole smooth and if like me you’re a chronic sufferer of motion sickness, there’s a glorious option to turn off the dreaded head bob. Focusing in on an object and picking it up can be a little fiddly if you’re going for something small or you’re trying to access the AR-style menu. It’s clear that it would be infinitely easier on a PC with a mouse. It’s not a deal-breaker, however, and like most things it gets a little easier the more you do it.
The Station is strictly a narrative game so you won’t have access to weapons, but that doesn’t take away from the feeling of being in peril. The fear comes from the unknown. What’s waiting around the corner? Is there anyone there? The game is genuinely unnerving and I most certainly felt fear right from the start until the very end. Making a narrative game scary is a tall task, but the developers have struck gold using a creepy combination of aesthetics, environment, sounds and even music. Expect the heart to race at several key moments.
Of course the most important aspect of a narrative game is the story, and it doesn’t disappoint. While I would very much like to tell you all about my experiences with it, I don’t want to let anything slip. You’re best off going into the game dark, so to speak, and just enjoy the story in its fragmented form and put the pieces together in your own head. There’s nothing worse than being spoon-fed a story. Every audio log you find, every email you read and so so much of your environment will gradually give up The Station’s secrets – you’ve just got to track them down yourself. Imagination is a powerful tool and you’ll need to use that to fathom out the whole situation and get the most out of the story.
Running at between four and six hours, The Station can easily be completed with 100% of the trophies (no platinum, sorry) in one sitting if so desired. The length of the game does feel comfortable but I’m afraid I loved it so much I wish it had been twice the length. I really could have enjoyed at least another four hours of more rooms, more puzzles and more audio logs. I would have liked an even deeper look at each of the three crew members and their interactions with each other. The Station really did tick all my boxes, push all my buttons and turn all my knobs. When the game ended I really didn’t want to leave the Espial.
A stellar narrative mystery set aboard a darkened research vessel, The Station is an unnerving experience. Great story, intuitive gameplay, satisfying puzzles – It’s two-thumbs-up from us.
S J Hollis Rating – 8.5/10
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