P·O·L·L·E·N is a first person puzzle-based adventure exploration game developed by Mindfield Games, an independent developer based in Helsinki, Finland. The game is currently fully released on Steam at the price of $24.99 and announced to be available on the PS4 platform later on. Pollen boasts its specialty in immersive virtual reality experience and suspenseful atmosphere altogether with optimized support for the Oculus Rift on release, the HTC Vive and motion controllers in future updates.
“This is Saturn HQ. You have your first task as the new technician of Base M”
The world of P·O·L·L·E·N took a sharp deviating turn from the history we know today where the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy survived his assassination attempt in 1963, the space race became a hugely successful cooperation between the USA and the Soviet Union years on, and the Digital era was something closer to the original Atari Pong instead of the device you’re using to read a video game review right now. Based on the technological and research patents made public by both governments, four business giants formed the “RAMA Industries.” United, the organization’s goals are to pursuit outer space exploration, research and colonize planets for natural resources.
According to the answers you decide to give to the retro card puncher interviewing machine or basically a desktop version of a Fallout Pipboy at the beginning of your journey, you are either a male or female technician assigned with a task to re-establish communications link with Base M, a RAMA research station on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. A simple straight-forward looking job, that is until Amanda Pohl, one of the research crew on Titan contacted you via the conveniently functional comms link you rebooted. After some cursing mix with self-introduction, you were close to at least some understanding of the situation in Base M when your obnoxiously merry boss or namely, the Saturn HQ barged in on the ongoing conversation and unintentionally jammed the radio signals from Amanda and the researchers just to tell you to go do yet another insignificant task. Judging from the broken interrupted conversation, Amanda seems mysteriously frustrated, angry and anxious to transport all their precious research data away. You complete the nonsensical task in no time and continue to head towards your post at the research station under a turbulent sandstorm, protected only by your space suit. In the suit’s helmet, a light indicating incoming transmission light up and you hear one of the researchers named Lem reporting his status to Amanda and the others. Suddenly, the misty red sky thunders with a flash of a weird bright blue pattern of light, cutting off communications once again whilst the surrounding storm heightens its intensity from loud gusts of the wind to violently slinging rocks at your visor, forcing you to run for your life, frantically clicking around unknown levers and buttons on the airlock only to finally find yourself locked inside a hauntingly empty facility.
The story of the P·O·L·L·E·N game is in my opinion, a double edged sword. While it is one of the best-crafted aspects in my experience, some part of it is probably one of the reasons why I definitely wouldn’t give a perfect score. The bad part is that it’s almost noticeably hurried in its later segment of the production. It’s clearly not dismissible after playing through the whole thing, however, telling anything right now would be downright spoilers so let’s keep that in mind and move on to the good part of the story. From the point where the player enters the research station onward, most of the information about who, when and what happened both pre and post-incident are from their belongings, written notes and tape recordings which are notably plentiful. If you’re that guy or girl who reads everything in a Bethesda game, then you’ll surely enjoy exploring Base M. In the game, the player will usually interact with Karen’s messages in a dimension called Dark World. Being a missing technician from the team and stranded in the exact same place where she has been working in, she sought for answers and a way out while leaving her thoughts in a trail of crumbs style. Here’s the best part, the memoir crumbs are wonderfully made in details, carefully tucked into natural yet intriguing places and the quantity of them made it all even more realistic. Self-portraits of Karen in temporary camp sites can reveal her mental state and health at the time, various books left lying around give us an idea about her hopes and fears, and her Earth bound message drafts were to me, some very eerie and amazing touches in the experience. Not to mention that each of the Base M inhabitants all have their own back stories, past and relationships hidden in closets, written behind Polaroid photographs and almost everywhere. The story of P·O·L·L·E·N is uniquely told because it is never actually told. The story is rather simply there for the players to explore and investigate completely on their own and that’s what immersion is all about.
“Guys… The lights are flickering a lot.”
From your first moment touching down on Titan’s rocky surface, the infinitely creepy corridors and remains of Base M to the gorgeous hydroponic system plant farm infested with bees, indeed, P·O·L·L·E·N’s visual elements are absolutely stunning and very much memorable as a star among the futuristic retro design category (a little bit too) similar to the popular Alien franchise and Creative Assembly’s AAA game title, Alien Isolation. The beauty of this indie, in my mind, lies in the player’s ability to travel between two dimensions via objects infected with the supernatural entity. The light world is the regular extraterrestrial research station and the dark world is an exact copy of the same station except the fact that it's stuck in a void and disconnected from the rest of the universe. It basically means that the player is invited to explore both the alternative advancement of mankind in its space journey and the remnants of its destruction simultaneously which is such an ever so awesome of a game concept. The developer is also thoughtful to eliminate most of the conventional gaming user interfaces like a mini-map and leave you with a near helpless amount of minimal flashing button indicators located in your helmet and built-in tutorials as in what key to press and how to move an object around, allowing the first person perspective to be free from any distraction and add even more to the game’s immersive experience. As one of the focus worth delving into for several hours consecutively (exactly 3.8 hours for my personal single run-through record,) P·O·L·L·E·N is undoubtedly a piece of futuristic retrospective visual art ironically created in the digital form of modern gaming entertainment.
Sound and Atmosphere
“The thing in the lab gives me the creeps.”
The deafening roar of Titan’s raging storm and the distinctive lack of sound behind the airlock door of base M clearly demonstrate the P·O·L·L·E·N team’s so-called “real-time binaural soundscape.” Every clanking and beeping noise makes you repeatedly remind yourself that the genre of the game you’re playing isn’t officially horror and there’s nothing to be afraid of. Alongside the amazing sight-seeing, the delicately astounding sound works, nice and relevant new-age cosmos original music, eerie atmospheric ambient, and realistic sound effects that made me hate to be strolling around on metallic floors with heavy space boots. My personal preference here, however, doesn’t exclusively limit to sounds but also silence. Instrumental music is only rarely used in certain parts of the story to introduce the player to an unexplored part or suspenseful revealing and the ambiance is stealthy for the majority of the player’s time on Titan. It’s most often slightly turned up to build up an emotion and then faded away almost unnoticeably. The peculiarly uninhabited living area already has its powerful attraction to curious uncharted explorers with a taste for first-hand discoveries especially in the absence of scripted soundtracks telling them whether if they’re headed to a space toilet or the most important room in the game. Mindfield Games knowingly use this perk cleverly and mostly stays out of the player’s way and I do appreciate that a lot. Combined with the collectible rock music cassette goodies, notoriously a favorite set of belongings to a particular researcher and the excellently performed voice acting, I think that it is fair to conclude that P·O·L·L·E·N’s ear candies are among the details deserved to be praised.
“I’ve managed to break into every room on the station in search of anything worth salvaging.”
Dumpster diving the space research station garbage chute, sifting through closets after closets of personal properties in the living quarters, these invasive behaviors are awarded in P·O·L·L·E·N with the rarest hint of a character’s past background and ubiquitous additional tidbits about the game’s alternate universe.
I find myself constantly comparing P·O·L·L·E·N to other atmospheric games such as ADR1FT game by a developer named Three One Zero and Firewatch by Campo Santo because I think the big question here is, “does it actually has gameplay or is it a story-based walking simulator?” Well, it depends on whether or not did you spend more time on the Riesa, an arcade mini-game in a particular location in Base M than the average play through time which I must remind you that a completely thorough play is significantly different from just generally finishing the story. There's an achievement for beating the high score in Riesa but other than that there are no real challenge, enemies or penalty risks to the player, ultimately classifying P·O·L·L·E·N as a walking simulator with an intriguing story, rich exploration environment, and some simple puzzle solving elements. This doesn't mean you won’t have fun during the experience. It’s rather like enjoying an interactive movie that the camera guy keeps bopping up and down, you won’t be required to divide and manage your attention away from the strange incident and the unfortunate tale of the characters involved in order to learn more about them.To put it simply. the game has a basic yet complicated mechanics. It doesn't give out any clear directions at all. Do not expect an actual objective or even a note, however, a big clue such as an instruction on how to re-wire cables is an obvious hint that you should really check out some cables. After spinning around and going through the same shelves multiple times, just being clueless at puzzles, I learned that in P·O·L·L·E·N, the priority objective is figuring out what happened and spending half an hour on reading the medical information of every personnel in Base M would be considered totally on track. Now to the practical aspect, there are no better keys to the physical obstacles in this game than your speculation skills, problem-solving sense and literally keys. You need to tinker with things, hold up an item and inspect it from all angles, push random big red or yellow buttons just to see what happens and put A and B together to make it through to the end. For example, a door that looks similar to other airlock doors is missing a part. Recall how this type of doors function and restore the broken one to its normal state to proceed. Simple, right? Well, this example doesn't include the fictional breakthrough technology of anti-gravitational science. In the game, some players will be proud of his or her completed cassette collection and some will be more content successfully reactivating the nuclear reactor. Although extraterrestrial enemies or evil laser gun wielding opponents are non-existent in P·O·L·L·E·N, the game isn't an open sandbox for you to forever roam around in. There is an ending to be achieved but you just don't need to rush there.
In the end, P·O·L·L·E·N is a game that will take you out on an outer space adventure. There are mysteries everywhere and characters that you have to put together yourself piece by piece from whatever clue you find lying around in base M. The story, the visuals, sound and atmosphere gave me an impression of being sucked into a magical suspenseful science fiction novel. The environment in claustrophobic rooms which made up the research station is filled to the brim with details and quality retro designs with love from the Mindfield team. Information is barely a thing the developers put onto your plate and speculation skills will definitely help you to extract more from what’s in plain sight. However, as it is a fairly short walking simulator game with a particularly poorly done sequence and the full price of $24.99, the game isn’t exactly perfect and some consideration is advised before purchasing. I did personally enjoy the P·O·L·L·E·N experience nevertheless but sadly, such a niche way of storytelling might not appeal to everyone.
All in all, I gave P·O·L·L·E·N the score I personally think it deserves derived from two very fundamental factors which are the basic qualities such as the graphics, sound, art and design and ability to play without hindrances like bugs or signs of an incomplete product and next, the enjoyment factor which covers any entertainment aspect of the game whether if its adrenaline rushing action sequences, extremely detailed map designs or just simple character lines that inspire certain emotions in the players. While this indie did near perfect in the engineering outlook, it is very lacking in playing experience. Mindfield really has shown their admirable effort in the game. You can see the neatness of every nook and cranny in details put into the game's retrospective look and the background story & history involved to enhanced the immersion of it all .the story and experience of the product feel almost as if it is an unfinished novel. Vagueness and obscurity are awesome for a mysterious adventure exploration but the story doesn't advance much further than grabbing curiosity and putting on a show for an introduction in the beginning. I felt genuinely hyped up around the first ten to twenty minutes into the gameplay but after going through four or five audio recordings, I expected things to escalate or a change of pace at some point but sadly, P·O·L·L·E·N is more of a VR playground environment rather than a game with great story dynamics.
| + An amazingly well-designed game in general|| - Lacks the story dynamic and progression|
| + High quality graphical and audio assets|| - The game is only a couple of hours long|
| + Intriguing storytelling technique|| - It has limited replayability|
| + Well-crafted Immersive atmosphere|| - It badly lacks gameplay feature|