Game Reviews

Downward Spiral: Horus Station

Cutting edge VR in Zero-Gravity


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Do you remember the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey? You know the one. “Open the pod bay doors, Hal." Yeah, that one. Well, as cliche as it may seem, Downward Spiral Horus Station is a lot like that, and for more than just the obvious space parallels.

downward spiral hallway
Downward Spiral Horus Station is full of Kubrickian atmospheres

At first glance, the game’s story ultimately feels long, slow, and a bit bland. But it is not just narrative that matters, it's what the game attempts to do. 2001: A Space Odyssey was met with both critical acclaim and unapologetic contempt. What cannot be denied, though, is what it attempted to do through cinematography and screenwriting. It pushed the boundaries of what was considered standard practice at the time and set new cinematic presidents. Likewise, Downward Spiral Horus Station should not be judged solely on what is offered by the story, but by the game attempts to do. Horus Station deconstructs the first person shooter game, and rebuilds it in a 0 Gravity, VR experience and it's clear that they are working on the cutting edge of VR gaming.  

What 3rd Eye Studios does, at least conceptually, will definitely be a point of reference for VR and sci-fi games to come. That being said, I need to preface that I did not play it in VR, and my opinion is based on what I experienced during my standard playthrough, how that would/could translate through a VR headset, and written from the perspective of traditional video game review.

Graphics

Frankly, Horus station does not offer anything groundbreaking in the world of graphics.

Horus Station door
Realistic and simple 3D environments lend themselves well to the zero-gravity VR gameplay.

It provides a fairly standard realistic 3d sci-fi environment. However, that is not to say that the environment isn't enjoyable to look at and be a part of. There are often windows that overlook an enormous nearby planet, expansive storage rooms full of disabled robots, or interestingly-lit sci-fi tunnels and passageways that provide an excellent point for immersion and/or  a captivating visual display.

What sets the aesthetic apart from other first person adventure games is its VR compatibility. Everything in Downward Spiral Horus Station is clearly designed to be experienced in VR. From weapons and items hovering expectantly in front of you in your selection menu, to interacting with the ships auxiliary controls, or simply experiencing floating down a long, illuminated sci-fi corridor. It was clear from the very beginning, and throughout the entire game, that VR lends a whole new layer of entertainment and value to the game that is missed without it.

Sound

The sound in Downward Spiral Horus Station, like the graphics, are mostly unremarkable.

There are a series of beeps and clicks and whirs coming from various parts of the space station that you’ll encounter from time to time but as a whole, you're mostly left in awkward silence. The reason i say it's unremarkable is again, because i did not play it in VR. I feel if i’d played it through in VR, the silence and various noises in the ship would lend to a more immersive experience, instead of monotonously floating through a labyrinth of indistinguishable hallways in silence.  

There is also a soundtrack of sorts which granted, is neat, and is timed appropriately to play at points of interest or danger, but it doesn't typically last long and leaves you once again in mostly silence.

Controls

Game controls is honestly where i had most of my trouble.

In Horus Station, you are free to float about in 0 gravity, grabbing onto and pushing off of walls, ceilings, floors and so on. You’ll also find in your journey a few left hand ‘weapons’ which allow you to either grapple and pull yourself to a selected destination within range, or puff about with some sort of burst propulsion device. They work for the most part, but can definitely be clumsy at times.

My biggest issues by far with Downward Spiral Horus Station controls are:

First, my grappling gun just didn't seem to work a lot of the time. My hands were steady, target in range as indicated by a green light in your crosshairs, floating in a straight line toward the object, FIRE! - click. Nothing. Over and over I would try to escape a dangerous situation or just try to get from one wall to the next and nothing. This happened to me mostly in co-op story mode, so it could be a bug there, but it was frustrating nonetheless and I wound up using my hand thruster as much as possible.

Second, there does not seem to be a lean, peak, crawl, or any such function to allow you to move once you’ve grabbed on to a surface. Too often i was attempting to get to a button, open a door, or lean out and shoot an enemy, and I was stuck just out of range or behind an object, with my only recourse being to push off from my position or grapple to a new one, where a simple ‘lift up’ or ‘lean out’ button would suffice.

My last, and final problem with the controls was that for some reason, if you're facing a direction, and attempt to look toward another, the crosshairs of your weapon will move with ease, as is the case in any first person shooter. However, in Horus Station your hands don't follow your crosshair at the same speed when moving up and down, and you have to wait (an eternity) for your hands to catch up to your crosshairs for you to be able to shoot the target. This ultimately leads to extremely mobile and very strong enemy drones flying about, blasting the hell out of you while you awkwardly wait for your hands to catch up to your crosshairs so you're not shooting some unintended direction while you look directly at the target.

DS promo image

I get that astronauts move slowly due to the nature of a 0 gravity environment, but your horizontal hand movement is the same speed as your crosshair movement so I'm not entirely sure why their vertical movement isn't. If the slow movement by the developers is a choice they are set on keeping, slightly less mobile and volatile enemies might be something to consider given the handicap imposed on the player.

Now that I’ve concluded my movement rant, we can continue.

Fun factor and replayability

Horus Station’s fun factor is a tough call. It's easy for me to say that I did enjoy a lot of what the game has to offer, and I can see the VR implications, and I do ultimately consider it an innovative indie title for what it attempts to do. However, having not played it in VR, I can't say the game is too terribly fun to play.

It was a bit stale and really didn't have much to offer in the way of puzzles, action, story etc. The game consisted essentially of a very linear campaign through a derelict space station, while you attempt to find the button or item you need to open the next door, which was often found in the room you are currently trying to move through or floating around in the room just before it.

Once you moved beyond that point, you were presented with the next prompt to find the next disk, button, or doorway you need - rinse, repeat. I can't imagine more than one playthrough being worth your time, however, 3rd Eye studios has also, and I think most excitingly, equipped Horus Station with 2 multiplayer modes: Deathmatch and Horde. Very unfortunately, I was never able to connect with anyone else playing these modes, but I am very excited to try again. I spent some time floating around the multiplayer maps, pew pewing at nothing, and just admiring the scenery. The maps are beautifully designed, and some pulled right out of rooms in the story mode. The idea of floating in zero-G, shooting at other players is exciting, especially if they introduce a ‘lean’ or ‘lift’ button for your character.

If you’re interested in Downward Spiral Horus Station, and take anything from this article, it is to play it in VR if you have the option and definitely give multiplayer a shot. They may very well add just enough to this game to make up for what the story mode lacks and take what is by most metrics a ‘meh’ game to something stellar.

 

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#indiegame indiedev virtual reality VR #gaming gamer game review

Russell Haynes

Russel Haynes runs his own review site and is active on social media. Also, he's a super nice robot. 

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