Downward Spiral: Horus Station is game that quietly invites players to figure things out for themselves. Tutorial hints and even nods toward puzzle solutions are thin on the ground. For a game that relies on its atmosphere, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Although, from time to time, floating through Horus Station’s sometimes massive environments can feel a little slow if, at any given time, the player runs out of ideas for what to do next or how to progress. This sense of a lack of direction may well be down to the player simply not paying attention. Regardless, those moments are bound to bubble up to the surface at least once in your playthrough.
The upside of this is a game that dares to appreciate the player’s intelligence -- something few titles indie or triple A dare to do these days. The result is a kind of satisfaction, especially in its earlier stages, from going from floating bouncing buffoon to skilled astronaut ship navigator. Some sections of the game will test you to ensure you have at least undergone that process of individual learning.
Downward Spiral offers a very quiet story. There is no dialogue to blatantly explain things to the astronaut. He / she is alone on this battered station, tasked oddly by the station itself, with repairs. What drives the astronaut on is unclear, however a relentless sense of survival permeates their laboured journey. What this “less is more” kind of setup means is players will have to figure things out themselves, based purely on what they see. Like I said, developers 3rd Eye Studios respects your intelligence and expects you to use it to understand exactly what has happened to Horus Station. If a good ol’ ambiguous mystery is your thing, then Horus Station offers it up in bucketloads.
This approach is great if you’re the kind of gamer who is prepared to be patient and push on and on for for morsels of context. Similar storytelling can be found in the Amnesia series, although those games mercifully offer a little dialogue and written documents where Horus Station does not. It is for this reason that Horus Station’s sparsely told story is its best kept secret. To go into any details whatsoever would surely spoil the experience somewhat, should you choose to buy into it.
In the case of gameplay, a lot more can be said without tarnishing your first time experience. As the game begins, the astronaut has no tools or gadgets to get around. It is a trial by fire in zero gravity where most of us will likely bounce around aimlessly for a good ten minutes. My first challenge was to line myself up with a door, clearly my current goal, and float over to it with enough precision to accurately open it. It is this opening moment that, from the get-go Horus Station makes no apologies for what it is. A game that expects your patience. It never directly tells you how its grab, push and go mechanics work -- you have to figure it all out on your own like baby learning to walk.
Not all is trials and tribulations though, as pretty soon, a grapple gun will float its way over to you. While very useful for latching on and pulling towards things (or pulling floating objects to yourself), combat scenarios will remind you of your mortality as the lack of maneuverability leaves you at the mercy of enemy drones. These machines can be shot apart fairly easily with any space faring tools you may find ranging from a nail gun to a laser welder to a no nonsense shotgun. Regardless of how well equipped you may be, if these angry little robots get the drop on you, death comes pretty quickly. Thankfully, Horus Station does not expect you to be a three dimensional John Wick and its respawn system is very forgiving with no load screens and shed loads of checkpoints dotted about the station for the astronaut to emerge from.
Downward Spiral: Horus Station offers a frankly impressive range of ways to play. All of this can be set up from the main menu before beginning. The player may choose to experience Horus Station as it was originally intended for the PC -- in VR. It is possible to play in VR with or without Move controllers. Then, whether you have chosen a classic screen experience or the immersion of VR, players can opt for co-op. An extra brain to help out in these puzzles can’t hurt! Playing with another player won’t add all that much to what Horus Station has to offer but, as we all know, playing anything in co-op automatically enhances the experience. Have a key and the other player is far away? Use that zero G environment, save time and throw it to them! Finally players looking for a more uninterrupted and cerebral experience can even opt to remove hostile drones altogether, simply focusing on the environments and the puzzles within them.
Graphics And Sound
Being a game originally designed for VR, Downward Spiral may seem visually underwhelming to those unaccustomed to the compromises VR tech currently has to make. From a professional standpoint, it would be unfair to scathe the game for its graphics for this reason alone. As a title intended for VR however, its screen offering remains nothing to be sniffed at thanks to smart use of soft texture design. As with all games that lean heavily on environment, lighting is key to establish the mood. 3rd Eye Studios have definitely achieved this with a space station that glows a moody red in shut down gloomy areas, hues of orange radiate from lavish hologram displays and an eerie blue glow can be found in the hangar. Reactive elements like real time shadows and lighting collision on objects are nowhere to be seen however. That’s the VR tech compromise again. Yet Horus Station succeeds in its goal to provide atmosphere, even if it may be a little dampened by loss of player momentum in a challenging puzzle area.
Upon escaping a dangerous area through an airlock, I learned Horus Station’s sound design is of a similar standard. One moment, I went from the confines of a noisy ship, alarms ringing and machines raging. The next, I escaped through the hatch and what was an onslaught of sound was suddenly silenced in the void of space. All the dramatic music stopped as well, not fading out to transition to the next scene; just cut off by the opening of the airlock as I entered an environment where you could barely hear a pin drop. The stark contrast and suddenness of it all had strong impact and it was all thanks to choices made in delivery of sound.
The techno rhythmic soundrack, while written by HIM frontman Ville Valo, can occasionally get frustrating as an unresolved area may relentlessly batter your ears with the same track on repeat. This is a problem many games suffer and, not only has it found its way to Horus Station but it can also sometimes get a little confused. Thankfully, my entry into space example worked like a charm. However, other areas may spit split second ruptures of music at you only to be cut off suddenly. An occasional on/off behaviour in the music that sadly damages immersion levels in the game.
There are a good portion of gamers out there who lament the dying puzzle genre. The triple A market hardly serves them and they must look into the depths of the indie market to try a root a good one out. Downward Spiral: Horus Station is one of those games. Not only is it captivating in VR but for a screen only user, it can offer a puzzle experience similar to the likes of Amnesia with a three dimensional twist. 3rd Eye Studios are to be commended for bringing what was originally a PC VR exclusive to a PS4 screen and headset so quickly after its initial release. Some aspects may suggest it has arrived with PS4 owners a little too soon, with music design and puzzle presentation a little rough around the edges. That said -- if you’re the patient type, Downward Spiral: Horus Station will do right by you.
|+ Moody atmosphere||-- Occasionally unclear goals|
|+ Respects player intelligence||-- Achingly slow paced|
|+ Unique premise for a puzzle title||-- Music design gets confused|