Downward Spiral: a story lost in space

One of the first video games my other-half and I played together was Alien: Isolation. In our first few weeks after meeting we realised we shared a love of gaming and science-fiction so the title being recently released was a fortunate coincidence.

Instead of spending our Christmas together watching festive films and roasting turkey, we spent most of it creeping around the Sevastopol space station in search of Ellen Ripley with nothing but a tub of Quality Street for company.

Since then we’ve played several sci-fi games as there’s something about exploring an abandoned vessel which is weirdly appealing. STASIS, a title I received after backing the Kickstarter campaign, had the hairs standing on the back of our neck with its dark atmosphere. Tacoma left us feeling an emotional connection to its characters and their situation. And most recently, SOMA kept us questioning what it really means to be human for weeks afterwards.

As my other-half was there to take care of the controls, we didn’t play SOMA on its Safe Mode but this is something I would have considered if I was tackling it by myself. As someone who doesn’t have the greatest hand-eye coordination and enjoys video games for their narratives more than anything else, having the option to remove the threat from the creatures encountered and for that to be a genuine way to experience the game is something I’m thankful to the developers for.

That explains why I was intrigued when I received a press release about Downward Spiral: Horus Station by 3rd Eye Studios. A title that claimed to ‘lure players through a lost vessel abandoned by its crew’, it contained ‘gameplay options to tailor the experience’ including a mode that removes combat for those who prefer ‘a more relaxed, contemplative experience’. It was now available for PlayStation VR – something I knew Pete would be interested in – so I reached out to Lewis at Plan of Attack, who kindly sent me a review key.

The release’s unique selling point is its take on zero-gravity action. Rather than have the player walk simply around in magnetised boots, the developers drew inspiration from how such movement actually works: you need to grab onto something solid and then propel yourself forward by pushing away from the ship’s interior. The controls therefore move your character’s hands rather than their feet as they grasp surfaces and find themselves in near-constant motion.

As I’m one of those unlucky individuals who suffers from nausea when using virtual reality, Pete donned our PlayStation headset so we could start up Downward Spiral in VR. Sadly this didn’t last for longer than thirty-minutes: he found himself slightly queasy and the sick feeling in his stomach was enough to convince him to remove the device. I should point out however that I think he’s in the minority here, as the articles I’ve read about the game all seem to mention how well the VR movement works!

We then switched to the standard flat-screen version and the controls were handed over to me. Pushing down the left-stick causes your character to hold onto the nearest surface and releasing then launches them in the direction of their gaze. It sounds fairly easy but it took me a long time to get to grips with it, so much so that I made the decision to switch to Explore. There was no way I was going to be able to evade enemies or handle the combat in Engage mode if I couldn’t navigate the environment with some degree of ease.

Downward Spiral, Horus Station, space station, hands, grappling rope, jet tool

Fortunately we came across a grappling hook around 20-minutes in and this made manoeuvring a whole lot easier; and later on, a handheld jet tool added a small and much-needed speed boost to our movements. Although these seemed to work far better than using our character’s hands there was still no way of rapidly moving around and everything felt incredibly slow. It was frustrating to be stopped short of our intended target because we’d accidentally brushed up against an object and sent ourselves flying in the opposite direction.

The overall goal is to get the power back on and realign the ship by connecting each of its areas back together. This is completed through a series of tasks such as finding keycards, pressing buttons, pulling levels and inserting batteries – often after pushing a floating corpse or two out of the way. There are never any explicit instructions but television screens found in most rooms display what you need to do next, and the maps on the walls guide you on where to go.

Sadly, these tasks never really feel like puzzles: more like small jobs which need to be completed in order to progress your route through the station. There’s very little challenge throughout the gameplay and after finishing a job, no big revelation or reward to show you you’re heading on the right track. If it wasn’t for the completion screen shown between one act and the next, I’m not sure we would have realised we’d met the objective needed for each stage in the game.

A story must be cleverly written for a non-combat mode to be successful; with no action to pull the player through the game, it’s entirely reliant on the plot to maintain their interest. Although we didn’t experience it for ourselves, I can see how SOMA and its Safe Mode would have handled this perfectly. The flashbacks, recordings and emails found throughout the underwater research facility gave sufficient detail to keep the narrative moving, but still contained enough secrets to have the player piecing together the meaning of the story for themselves.

Downward Spiral, Horus Station, space, planet, stars, arms

Making the decision to remove all dialogue and cinematics from your project is therefore a very brave one and I can applaud 3rd Eye Studios for taking a risk with Downward Spiral. The title’s official website says that ‘players will have to piece together the mystery surrounding the derelict space station entirely through observation and interpretation’. On one hand this works as the complete focus on visual storytelling without any character interaction adds to the abandoned and lonely atmosphere.

On the other however, it leaves so much open to interpretation and there’s a danger that some players may not grasp the tale the developer is trying to tell. Having no definitive story unfortunately makes the title feel somewhat aimless. There’s a constant sensation that more is going on back down on Earth than you’re able to decipher and it’s extremely intriguing, but it’s then disappointing you don’t have the opportunity to learn more about what’s happening in the world outside the Horus Station.

Some of the eight acts come and go without much occurring and it’s only really in the first and last where there are any important narrative points. There are brief visions which reference walking through ruins on the surface of a sandy and windblown planet, along with floating up through water towards a light at the surface and these add to the mystery. But although gorgeous and a nice break from the more sterile environment inside the spaceship, they’re never explained and left us feeling slightly empty.

The co-op, eight-player PvP and PvE modes along with Deathmatch, Horde and Survivor challenges may hold appeal for some, and it’s possible that the Engage mode with its combat would have been more satisfying than the relaxed Engage. But it’s the plot I’m ultimately looking out for when promised a game that’s going to deliver ‘a story that’s discovered, not told’ and unfortunately, it’s just not obvious enough for most players.

Downward Spiral: Horus Station doesn’t do anything wrong as such; it just comes across as more of a concept than a full release. There are some glimmers here of a fascinating story that sadly got itself lost in space.