Need To Know
What is it? A first-person sci-fi game about exploring a spaceship.
Expect to pay: $15
Developer: The Station
Publisher: The Station
Reviewed on: Intel i5-3570K / Nvidia Geforce 1070 / 16gb RAM
Link: Official Site
I suppose it's my job to tell you what The Station is, but first let me tell you what it's not. The Station is not a horror game. Not really. There are no hideous monsters chasing you, no closets to hide in, no messages scrawled in blood on the walls, and certainly no weapons. It's not a game most would play because they want to be scared. Despite that, and even though I played it at noon on a sunny day in a brightly lit room, The Station scared the piss out of me several times.
Maybe it's because it's dark all the time, or because opening a door sounds like 10,000 ambulances crashing down a concrete staircase covered in tin foil. Maybe it's just the setting. With the possible exception of the deep sea, deep space is the best place for horror—doubly so when you also happen to be orbiting a planet inhabited by violent aliens.
That's The Station's setup: three scientists are sent aboard a stealth spaceship, the Espial, to observe and catalog the civil war of a newly discovered alien race. Not long after the ship arrives, a technical malfunction disables its cloaking systems and the aliens catch the scientists spying. The ship goes dark and a recon specialist—aka you—is sent in to salvage the situation, or at least assess it.
The Espial is very Dead Space-y, and the premise is more than a bit like Tacoma. But before I bury it under comparisons, I should point out it's special in its own way and focuses on rarely touched themes. Yes, it's a narrative-focused experience about patching up a spaceship while scouring it for documents and audio logs, but it never feels derivative. I went into it expecting to play a glorified janitor sent in to clean up a no-doubt terribly exciting mess that's long since concluded, but it quickly becomes clear the mess is very much ongoing.
These suits were made for walkin'
First impressions aren't great. The voice acting in the opening cinematic is stilted, and the first thing I do after boarding the Espial is pick up a power cell and plug it back in to open a door. Great, can't wait to do that another 100 times, I think. But then I head into the ship's main lobby and happen upon an audio log from one of the crew, who are all well-voiced. Next to the log is a table covered in playing cards, and a text log confirming my suspicion: someone got their ass beat at poker (or space poker or whatever it is), got salty and decided they're playing 52-pickup instead.
Within five minutes, I've been surprised and I've laughed through my nose. The Station gets yet another unexpected reaction out of me when I turn around and see a person in a spacesuit on a walkway across the room. I look at them, they look at me, and my eyes go wide as saucers. Are they one of the aliens? So they have boarded the Espial. Wait, or are they one of the crew, and if so, why all the sneaking around? Whoever they are, I'm not as alone as I thought. At this point, my sprint and crouch buttons gain new meaning: evidently there are things to run and hide from. That's more than enough to light a fire under me, so I head for the ship's innards in search of answers and scientists.
The three missing crew members are Mila, the captain; Aiden, the engineer; and Silas, some kind of science guy. Your main goal is to find all of them, but they also have their own short stories embedded in the environment. In your pursuit of each, you explore different parts of the ship, solve different puzzles and collect different things. It's fun to find clues, but the puzzles are still insubstantial. The crew is far more interesting.
As I amass logs and recordings, I get a real sense of why these three took on this crazy mission, and more importantly, who they are. Like that poker blow-up, there are playful interactions scattered all over the place. Aiden hiding things from Mila, Mila leaving snide remarks about Silas in reports, Aiden falling for jump scares. Some of my favorite moments come from exploring their bedrooms. It's amazing how much a person's room can tell you about them. From their decor to their knick-knacks, they're all dripping with personality and help fill the gaps in the logs and records.
Unfortunately, these interesting rooms are far outnumbered by grey hallways, and navigating them gets old fast. There's color and life tucked away, but the Espial is generally a blob of samey spaces. I routinely lost track of where I was, yet didn't feel the need to consult the map because The Station plays itself a lot of the time. There's generally only one path forward: the closest room you haven't been to. If you can spot the open door with blue lights among the locked doors with orange lights, you can bumble your way forward with no effort. And while there are bonuses to find, it's often more of a sightseeing tour than an exploration.
That said, The Station is saved by its short runtime and an ending that stuck with me. I polished it off in just over an hour—meaning the drab bits didn't really have time to grate—and the last five minutes were the best part. It's only as long as it needs to be and it goes out with a bang, which are the bones of any good story.