The first day on any new job can be a bit of a nightmare, but that’s especially true for the astronaut hero of P.O.L.L.E.N., from Finnish developer Mindfield Games. When you're sent out on a routine mission to re-establish communication with a remote base, you really rather not find the base eerily abandoned and have the fate of mankind land on your shoulders, all before you've had a chance to break in your new spacesuit. This scenario does make for a compellingly-realised vision of classic sci-fi horror exploration, however, although it’s filled with more big ideas than it knows what to do with and narrative pieces that don't always mesh particularly well.
It may sound like the story is set in the distant future, but in fact events take place in an alternate 1995, one where the attempted assassination of John F. Kennedy failed, the Cold War turned instead to warm co-operation, and the development of anti-gravity technology propelled us to the further reaches of the solar system by the 1980s. It's not all good news, though: computer technology is lagging behind, with even the most optimistic of futurists predicting it'll take until 2020 to put a PC in every home. We can put research bases on Saturn's moons, but the computers there still use punch cards.
Leading the charge in interplanetary exploration is Rama Industries. Despite a catastrophic accident on Europa that killed all but one of the researchers there, the discovery of a mysterious entity (imaginatively entitled "the Entity") on Titan was just too tempting to resist. A team of five researchers was sent to investigate, but all contact with them has now been lost. That's where you come in, a humble new recruit sent out on your first mission for Rama. Just go to Titan, they said, sort out the broken comms. How hard can it be?
It was never going to be that easy, of course, and the first clue comes after your suspiciously simple repair (flicking one switch) brings the radio back to life. When practically the first thing you hear is, "Phil, they didn't listen. They sent someone!" it's hard to feel welcome. After coming all that way, too! Based on the radio chatter, the team are clearly worried and up to something, but before you can find out what, HQ cuts in and you hear no more. Typical. Still, your next stop is the main base, so you'll be able to find out then, right? Well, yes, eventually, but along the way you'll run across yet another alternate universe, mysteriously disappearing bees, and a whole lot of locked and blocked doors, all the while uncovering the Entity's secrets and playing every cassette tape on the base, often twice.
In keeping with the retro-futuristic plot, the Titan base is like something straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Moon. It's a very 1960s vision of the future, all gleaming white minimalism with block colours on the walls and floors to identify different areas. It's at once utilitarian and elegant, with rounded corners aplenty and a seeming desire never to use a rectangle where an octagon would do. The surfaces all have a convincing texture, too, from metal grating walkways to a more rubbery finish on the basketball court and corrugated metal doors. Add in various effects such as glowing lights, haze and shadows, and an environment that could have been simple, dull and blocky instead comes across as interesting and full of character, looking startlingly realistic at times.
Contrasting with all that sleek modernity, the handful of computers you find (fridge-sized behemoths with reel-to-reel tapes) and vintage tape recorders the base personnel all use for research logs and diary entries really remind you that you're not in the future at all, but rather in the near past. The base feels thoughtfully conceived, with a design and layout that could actually function in the real world. You may be stuck there for most of the game (apart from a couple of brief forays outside), but at least it's a varied place, with everything from a hydroponics lab to recreational areas, a reactor control room and the inevitable network of vents to crawl through.
The sound design is sparse but effective. Much of the time you're simply surrounded by the hum of the base's systems, your own clanking footsteps and an occasional sharp intake of breath. Everything you interact with also sounds right, from the thump of a book hitting the deck, the click of tape recorder buttons or the whirr of machinery. The rare times music is used, it's a subtle ambient highlight to events, such as underscoring your joy and awe at reaching Hydroponics (and the only greenery on the base), or your throbbing dread at suddenly being thrust into the dark. That said, one of the crew is also into heavy metal, and a few of his cassettes contain complete songs that you can listen to in rooms with tape recorders. The voice work is restricted to occasional recordings and radio messages left by the five-man crew, but is nonetheless well done. Much of it involves research reports and the like, read with a professional detachment, but there are also quite a few diary entries by a crew member named Karen. Her actress in particular has done a great job of conveying the character's mix of fear and determination.
P.O.L.L.E.N was designed to be played in virtual reality as well as the plain old flat screen monitor I used, and that's clear from the off. With no preamble, you're dropped into the latter stages of an automated job interview-cum-tutorial presented in a 3D view with no obvious user interface. You're sitting in a tiny booth, with the current interview question on a screen in front of you and answer buttons below that, but you're also free to look around, read the posters on the walls or take a closer look at the punch cards that are recording your answers. To interact with anything (such as those buttons), you have to swing round to look squarely at it, at which point a hand icon will appear showing that you can click to press it. There's nothing so immersion-breaking as a mouse pointer here!
Movement occurs via the standard first-person combination of WASD keys to walk and mouse to look around for non-VR players. Left-clicking on the object you're looking at will either pick it up or use it. Objects you pick up hover right in front of you, allowing you to either rotate them with a mouse drag, or carry them somewhere for use. There is an inventory, but it only accommodates certain types of objects, such as keys or cassette tapes. If something can go in your inventory, left-clicking again will put it there; otherwise, you'll unceremoniously drop it on the floor. Carrying things is a bit awkward: because your character is focused on the object, the rest of the room around you is blurred, and because it's right in the middle of your view, you're often reliant on the hand icons to know when you're in the right spot to use it.
Pressing Tab brings up the inventory, presented as a grid, floating in the air in front of you and divided into areas by object type. There's a spot for every possible item it can contain, meaning that it slowly fills up over the course of the game, which was curiously satisfying to my inner collector. There are also keys to zoom your view in/out, activate your spacesuit's flashlight, and read the object you're holding. (I didn't usually need that last one, as just holding an object gives you a good view. However, it did help with deciphering the crew's handwriting at times.) All the keys can be reconfigured if you wish, and there is support for gamepads as well as (naturally) VR controllers.Continued on the next page...