By Scott Ramage / January 30th, 2019
|Title||Downward Spiral: Horus Station
|Developer||3rd Eye Studios|
|Publisher||3rd Eye Studios|
|Release Date||May 31st, 2018|
|Genre||Action, Adventure, First-Person Shooter|
|Age Rating||T for Teen (Violence)|
Let’s get something out of the way before delving into Downward Spiral: Horus Station. I’m not a VR guy. I don’t have (or want) a VR setup and likely won’t for awhile. Fortunately, 3rd Eye Studios saw fit to make it optional in their deep space adventure through an abandoned space station. Able to be played in a variety of different ways it should, in theory, offer something for just about everyone.
Taking the role of a clone in a spacesuit, you must reconnect and restore power to various parts of the Horus Station. Easier said than done, considering the crew jumped ship long ago and several parts of it broke off or need their power cells replaced. Players must navigate through Downward Spiral in zero-gravity, so traditional movement controls are out the window. Instead, players control the clone’s hands and grab onto or push off parts of the environment. Also available are retractable cables and propulsion guns to glide from room to room. Floating items can be grabbed and thrown while weapons or movement items can be swapped using an item wheel for each hand. The game allows for plenty of time to adjust to this, though in combat it can still be a bit annoying. See, moving at all adds an unusual amount of deviation to each shot. There’s little middle ground between standing still and getting hit constantly, and drifting away and having a much harder time aiming at anything. Even at close range, sometimes shots will inexplicably drift past targets. This also causes the aiming reticle to freak out and not settle on anything.
Combat may not be an issue at all, depending on which mode of play is selected. Downward Spiral: Horus Station has two flavors of Story mode, Explore and Engage, both of which can be played solo or co-op. What’s more, co-op has puzzles which don’t appear in single player. Explore takes all the enemies out of the game, letting the player wander around, solve puzzles, and take in the game’s story uninterrupted. Engage keeps in all the enemies, and by that I mean a small assortment of robots. While I didn’t keep count, it felt like there were five different enemies in the whole game: two small flying droids, one bigger rocket-launching robot, one huge robot, and the final boss. The latter parts try to mix things up by adding cloaking devices to the smaller ones, but they’re easy to track down by following the trail of their shots.
Even when they do score a kill on the player, there’s little penalty for it. Dying causes a near-instant respawn at the nearest clone room. Think the Vita-Chambers from BioShock but more frequent. They’re so numerous that I frequently died, respawned, and got attacked by the same enemies upon drifting out the door. In combat there are a few different weapons to use, all of which are supposed to be tools on the station and all of which have infinite ammo. I can buy the wrench and the single-shot bolt gun for that, but the bolt sprayer shotgun and the sniper bolt gun? Who in the future is so impatient they have to bolt down seven things at once, or one thing from hundreds of feet away?
One thing working in Downward Spiral: Horus Station’s favor is the occasional mix-up in gameplay. While progressing through each part of the station, restoring power causes some larger, one-hit-kill robots to become active. Instead of taking them on, the player needs to stealthily float behind objects or, in one instance, find a way to disable it using the solution to an earlier puzzle. The grapple gun and wrench are quite useful for these. The grapple gun is also great for getting past laser traps. I appreciate that items found earlier in the game don’t become obsolete the moment a seemingly superior alternative shows up. Puzzles also play a role, most of which involve finding a DOOM-like blue keycard and inserting it into a console to open a door. The downside is the items used for puzzles tend to be placed annoyingly far away from where they’d be used. Even with the key glowing slightly, it can be tough to spot unless it’s within ten feet or so. The same can be said for puzzles where a computer changes from an error screen to functioning, with a small glowing button on it that opens a door. If I were walking around on the ground it would be easy to spot. Floating around twenty-five feet above it on the opposite side of a wide open room? Not so much.
Visually, Downward Spiral: Horus Station’s strength is its utility. Its use of red and green lighting to show where the player can go next proves to be quite helpful, especially when drifting outside of the ship. There’s clear inspiration from sci-fi films like Alien and Moon in the design of the station, as well as some of the robots. However, with several parts of the station using the same hub-into-hallway design, it can come off as samey after an hour or two. Also, there are only a few times when the game takes full advantage of the zero-gravity to float through, for example, hallways tilted upward or upside-down rooms. Where it really drops off though is in performance. Often when I’d grab a control stick to dock parts of the station into each other, the hand would grab something in front of the stick and maneuver it with telekinesis. Areas tend to load only when opening the door leading to them, so every time I tried to open one I’d have to wait anywhere from two to eight seconds before it actually opened. This got me killed on at least two occasions. Other general weirdness included the screen going black right before a door opened or textures popping in at close range.
I found the audio to be a mixed bag, both in terms of sound and music. Downward Spiral: Horus Station’s ambience and the sounds of random floating debris clanking off distant walls of the station are rather effective. The sounds of the robot drones, less so. Some sound perfectly fine, but one recurring enemy sounds like someone put a mountain lion’s roar through three or four Audacity filters. It doesn’t quite fit with everything else. There are a few music tracks, some more dramatic than others, most of which kick in when you’re about to deal with one of the larger robots. The catch is that it often plays way too soon, so I found myself looking around for an enemy encounter when it was actually a room or two away. Also, sometimes two music tracks end up playing at the same time because the first one takes too long to fade out. Perhaps if it were better executed I wouldn’t mind the music, but I can’t help but wonder if the game would be better off cutting the music entirely and letting the atmosphere carry it through.
Storytelling for Downward Spiral: Horus Station is done purely through what the player sees and experiences, having no spoken dialogue or lengthy text to read. Random logs on computers occasionally give short reports of things like sector evacuations or power loss. Random knick-knacks float around each room, including but not limited to light sticks, duct tape rolls, duffel bags, dart boards, basketballs, and a radio playing Johan Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube” because the game needed another 2001: A Space Odyssey reference. I felt the found object route of storytelling faltered the most on this front, as several mundane or out-of-place objects appear repeatedly throughout the game. Why are there so many basketballs in controlled environments like labs and station control rooms? Why are there no baskets to go with them? Why are there lucky cat statues all over the place? In addition, aside from the occasional exterior damage, broken window or clone body, usually in the same made-for-the-trailer position upon opening a door, almost every part of the station looks nearly pristine. Whatever catastrophe happened, it didn’t cause much chaos onboard.
This is almost as confusing as some scenes with the player pawing at the air (which the clone does when not holding anything) while drifting past some ruins on a barren planet before cutting to the station. I get it, the station is named after the Egyptian god Horus. It uses an adaptation of the Eye of Horus as its symbol, but there’s a disconnect between what’s shown and what’s going on. Did the robot security drones malfunction and drive out everyone? Is the station as a whole breaking apart symbolic of something more? What in the hell is that ending? Downward Spiral: Horus Station is intentionally vague, but rather than drop hints it seems more interested in making associative leap after associative leap while leaving the player in the dust.
Aside from co-op in the main game, there are two straight-up multiplayer modes in Downward Spiral: Horus Station: Deathmatch and Horde. I can understand the temptation for adding these modes to let groups of people play around with the zero-gravity combat, but there are two problems. One, the combat isn’t good enough to justify it. Two, no one’s playing it. I tried getting matches going for both on several occasions and, of the eight available player slots, I only ever filled one: my own. Since matches don’t start unless a certain threshold of players is reached, I never saw either mode in action.
With the main game split into eight acts, it took me a little over four hours to get through Engage mode. There is some enjoyment to be had floating around a derelict space station for a bit, but in the end it comes off as a game which isn’t bad per se, doesn’t particularly excel at much. The various design pieces don’t quite fit together, but are forced to fit like an impatient kid with a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle. For $19.99, considering how short the game ended up being and the technical issues affecting the experience, I’d give Downward Spiral: Horus Station a chance if there were a decent sale, but a pass at full price.
Review copy provided by publisher.
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