The Station review
Aboard the Espial, a space station cloaked in orbit around a war torn planet, something has gone wrong. The crew are missing but as you arrive to commence your investigation, you get the uneasy feeling you’re being watched. So begins your experience in The Station, a first-person, 3D exploration-based game that may be short on overt plot and puzzles, but oozes atmosphere and suspense as it slowly doles out its underlying mystery.
The eponymous station is – or was – operated by a team of three. After nearly all the systems mysteriously shut down, you were sent as a recon specialist to meet up with the team and assist in repairing the malfunctions before the station can be detected by the aliens below. When you get there, however, none of the crew are around. Your main objective from this point on is to discover what became of them as you fix the various station systems. Clues as to what happened are unveiled through audio recordings, emails, chat logs, and written pages of notes scattered about the environment, which serve as bread crumbs to encourage further exploration.
As you progress, you learn things weren’t that harmonious on the Espial. From a failed romantic relationship, to descriptions of a secret room hidden somewhere, to hints that the corporation that built the station may have more control over its fate than publicly admitted, it seems as if there was much more going on than meets the eye. Unfortunately, just as it feels as though these various threads are starting to come together, the story ends rather abruptly, leaving many of these mysteries unresolved. To its credit, the game does attempt to put a twist in once the station is inevitably discovered by the warring race below. However, there are a number of overly obvious clues scattered about, so you may find, as I did, that you’ve already guessed the twist before it arrives.
That said, the story of the station is ultimately not what’s important here. Instead, the focus lies squarely on the atmosphere the game projects. You quickly find that the Espial has suffered some sort of disaster. Power is out in certain places and some doors can only be opened by manual override. As befits a space station in such a state, when you reach new compartments, their doors grind open, presenting darkened rooms whose lights only turn on when you step inside. That childhood fear of something hidden in the dark is enhanced even more with the occasional glimpse of a space-suited figure sneaking out of sight around a bend in the corridor or ducking out of a room behind you when you could’ve sworn there was no one there. The clever use of lighting throughout really heightens the sense of place as you investigate.
The audio side hasn’t been neglected either. Distant echoes, the rumble of a shaky station, and even the occasional jump-in-your-seat panicked cry from an unseen source all ratchet up the tension. Music is scarce, with the game relying mostly on its very well implemented ambient sounds, but when the score does join in, it ramps up the mood even further. Taken together with the visuals, this is definitely a trip to be experienced with the lights turned off and the sound turned up.
While exploring, you’ll visit such varied locales as a cavernous cargo bay, the sterile, gleaming medical center, the cluttered engineer’s cabin, and a glass-floored conference room with the alien world displayed below. Most of them are visually distinct in some way although a few, like the bridge and locker room, fall into the generic “space station setting” category. Background animations are rare to non-existent in most scenes, which makes the appearances of the space-suited figure all the creepier. All in all, a lot has been done with the locations on offer here.
Accessing all these destinations may require a bit of leg work. Obstacles blocking your progress consist primarily of locked doors. While some of these can be manually opened via a nearby switch, many require having the correct key or restoring a damaged system found somewhere else in the station. Depending on which areas you explore first, you may discover the keys or the damaged systems before you find the doors they unlock. For myself, I stumbled upon and completed nearly half of these puzzles before locating the doors they were associated with (yes, I counted).
Most of the puzzles are very straightforward, involving flipping a switch or returning a power cell back to the receptacle it was jarred loose from. However, some require more intricate actions to overcome, such as recharging and replacing multiple power cells in engineering, or rebuilding and reactivating a damaged repair robot needed to correct a fault in the environmental systems. Yet even these aren’t too difficult, with the necessary items to solve them always close at hand.
As you move through the environment you’ll find many items – pages of notes, tools, coffee mugs, etc. – that can be picked up and examined. A small dot in the center of your display changes to the outline of a circle when you’re looking at such an object. Holding down the left mouse button will pick the item up to carry with you, while holding the right button will allow you to turn it and examine it from different angles. After you’ve picked something up, it’s simply a matter of walking to the spot where the object is to be used and the game will do the rest, like when you need to return tools to their respective slots in a futuristic tool rack. Step close enough to the rack while carrying such a tool and it slides forward into the appropriate slot by itself. A few items, such as various personnel keys that you find, are added to your small permanent inventory but these too are applied automatically to open doors when appropriate.
Moving through the station is done either with the standard first-person keyboard and mouse combination or a game controller. While the option screen shows the button mappings for each method, they cannot be changed, so the default WASD keyboard configuration may prove uncomfortable for left-handed players. As far as gamepads go, the mapping screen suggests the developers expect people to play with an Xbox controller, as does the game’s actual performance. Other controllers may have better compatibility, but my Logitech Cordless Rumble Pad 2 didn’t work properly in either right or left-handed configurations. In right-handed mode I could move forward, backward, side-to-side and turn, but I could not look up or down. In left-handed mode I could move side-to-side, turn, and look up and down, but not move forward or backward. At least I had no difficulties navigating via the keyboard and mouse controls.
At times the size of the station can become a bit disorienting, especially as corridors tend to look the same and several locations are large enough to have multiple entrances. Fortunately, you are provided with an Augmented Reality Menu, a sort of heads-up display that is revealed or hidden with a tap of a button. The ARM gives you access to a map that updates as you explore, showing where important locations are and how to get there. It also allows you to replay collected audio logs, view both active and completed tasks, and see the small inventory of permanent items you carry with you.
While this is a very handy device, when activated the ARM appears in front of you like a billboard in the 3D environment. This means that you may have to back up or rotate left and right in order to see the part you’re interested in. In some instances, such as if you’re standing too close to a wall, you may have to move in order to open the ARM at all.
Reaching the end of my trip through the Espial took a little over two hours. Although on the shorter side, the length felt appropriate for this type of game, a creepy exploration through darkened chambers. Attempting to sustain the tension much longer would likely have made the experience feel watered down. Even so, it would have been nice had the game at least resolved the central mystery of why the station’s systems failed. Unless I missed a critical audio log or email, it does not.
The Station is all about allowing yourself to be enveloped in its world. The crisp 3D visuals and audio mesh together to create a truly impressive environment. Those interested in experiencing in-depth storytelling or puzzle-solving will find little of either here, and the ending comes a little too suddenly with many unanswered questions. However, anyone looking for a brief, suspenseful trip to an atmosphere-rich sci-fi setting will be well rewarded.
Short on both puzzles and in-depth narrative, The Station is all about atmosphere. If you’re a fan of immersive sci-fi exploration, turn off the lights, turn up the sound, and enjoy the ride.