The beauty of Downward Spiral: Horus Station is in its mechanical premise. In space, there is no gravity. Therefore in space, WASD does not work. In space, you’re gonna have to find an alternate means of forward momentum.
It was this idea that first drew me to Downward Spiral: Horus Station. I’ve played a lot of games set in space, but few, if any, addressed the navigational challenges of zero gravity. The concept opens up new obstacles in an exploration-focused environment, offering a thought provoking spin on how the player interacts with their surroundings. But is it enough? Can an entire game be built on it?
Downward Spiral: Horus Station is split between seven chapters, covering several sections of a mysteriously abandoned space station. As you carefully make your way through its empty rooms and corridors, piecing together clues on how to reconnect its many department hubs, the question lingers: why was the station abandoned, and why has it been shut down?
The game’s navigational novelty is a great feature in terms of pacing, especially in a tentative atmosphere. Players must cling and grip to the wall, then release, drifting in the general direction they need to go. Certain tools, some of which make travel easier (like a grappling device) can be added to the mix, creating a unique back and forth as the player adapts and improvises between using the equipment at their disposal and their own natural trajectory. It is challenging but also instinctual.
The team made a significant point to reduce the amount of immersion-breaking narrative devices seen in other games, like audio logs and diary entries, which means that figuring out the objective of each chapter and what course of action to take will rely heavily on observing their surroundings. Luckily, 3rd Eye Studios has done a fair job of using visual and audio hints to draw the player to the next area. I found it easy to navigate through the levels based on what the flashing lights or station status screens were telling me. It felt a lot like playing Myst, in that both games require an active role in interpreting the environment and do very little hand-holding when it comes to puzzles or objectives.
But while the pedigree of the design team is promising, especially in terms of lead designer Greg Houden’s primary background in film, here’s where the lack of specific experience in games development may have backfired: without some key game design conventions, it can be hard to figure out some of the conclusions they want you to draw in a specific scenario or environment.
For example: at one point in Chapter 3, while trying to hook up an engineering station hub to another section of the ship, the solution to an environmental puzzle was a bit obtuse and even broken. In what looks like an oversight, I was able to steer a large wing of the space station into the room where I was located, passing through the player character’s body. The puzzle also required that I use a control panel, which was confusing initially due to the sheer number of dead buttons and useless switches and monitors on nearly every other control panel on the ship. It took me awhile to figure out what I was supposed to be doing, and then once I did, it took far too long to implement it. Audio cues helped somewhat, but in general I was aggravated by how difficult it was to connect the dots.
I later got past that part to Chapter 4, where I encountered what seemed to be an oversight in the level design. In one section, I used a wrench to open a door, but had to circle back when I got lost later. When I returned, the wrench was missing from the door and also no longer in my inventory, preventing me from reaching an area I’d previously been able to access. The next time I signed into the game, I was suddenly back at the obtuse Chapter 3 puzzle that I’d gotten stuck on a day earlier. Once I completed the puzzle again, I was told I’d completed Chapter 4 (???), and moved on to the next, only to find it was completely different from the puzzle I’d experienced when playing that same section before.
In that sense, the game, for me at least, highlights the difficulties in critiquing a medium where the piece of media in question is fluid and subject to post-release changes. How do I judge a game that improved and reinvented itself literally while I was in the middle of playing it? Do I start the whole thing over? Do I dock them points for making me redo a section I thought was poorly designed? Do I criticize game flaws that no longer exist, or do I praise the developers for their ability to implement necessary updates quickly?
I’m not sure where I land on that yet, but I will say that I’m placated by the developers’ commitment to polishing the final product; there’s too much merit and potential here to write Downward Spiral: Horus Station off completely. I intend to keep an eye on the studio for the long term, because while this is an imperfect game, it’s also the debut effort of a team that has a lot of the right elements in place, and I expect we’ll see better things from them as they find their footing in the aftermath of this project.
And until then, the game is still solid enough to be worth a playthrough, especially at its price point and if you’re a fan of VR. While I’m still not sure splitting the games into chapters was necessary, it works to provide a bit of a break between lengthy sections spent meandering through airspace, which helps ensure the game’s main gimmick doesn’t become too stale. Downward Spiral: Horus Station is drifting in the right direction, even if it sometimes loses its grip.
Downward Spiral: Horus Station was developed and published by 3rd Eye Studios. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for PlayStation 4, with VR support for PlayStation VR, Oculus Touch, HTC Vive and Windows Mixed Reality.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.