3rd Eye Studios Pushes The Sci-Fi Shooter Genre in a Bold New Direction
Last year, I had the chance to review Downward Spiral: Prologue, Finnish indie developer 3rd Eye Studio’s experimental VR zero-gravity shooter. The game showed flashes of promise. Then again, this was no surprise given the dev’s talent is comprised of industry veterans from such teams as Max Payne and Quantum Break developer Remedy Entertainment and Ori and the Blind Forest creator Moon Studios. Still, while I really enjoyed the game’s setting, which took inspiration from the cult sci-fi flicks of the 1970s, as well as its unique system of traversal, the final product felt like little more than a tantalizing teaser thanks to its painfully brief campaign.
Now, 14 months later, players are treated to the finished product: Downward Spiral: Horus Station. Featuring a five-hour story, sprawling station to explore, and a campaign that supports full cooperative play, it’s certainly more ambitious this time around. But do all of these elements come together to create a compelling gameplay experience?
You’ll Float Too
Downward Spiral: Horus Station is set against the backdrop of the game’s titular space station as it drifts lifelessly in orbit above an ominous Martian landscape. The goal of the game is simple: make your way throughout the massive vessel’s confines and bring it back to life one system at a time. Of course, this is no typical day in the office. We’re talking about a zero-gravity deathtrap filled to the brim with security drones. And these metal menaces would like nothing more than to reduce your hapless cosmonaut to space dust. That said, you’ll need to master the game’s unique brand of free-floating locomotion and precision gunplay if you hope to survive.
I’m not going to lie. Getting around during the opening moments can feel pretty disorienting. You’ll need to grab nearby walls, pipes, door frames, and rails to pull and push yourself throughout the station’s sterile labs and corridors. In theory, it sounds simple enough. But grabbing onto surfaces never felt quite right to me. There were numerous occasions where I found myself stuck on walls. Or, even more often, clawing desperately as I tried to reach buttons or levers that were just out of reach.
Thankfully, before long you’ll find a grappling gun that allows you to effortlessly zip through the air like a sci-fi Spiderman. Using this gadget to glide through debris fields during impromptu spacewalks, or pull hard to reach weapons or keys into your clutches, is a really cool feeling. Is it a bit gimmicky? Sure! But it’s one that makes Downward Spiral: Horus Station feel unique and refreshing all the same.
No Need To Abort
While you’ll spend most of your time exploring the confines of the space station and restoring its systems, you’ll still need to keep your guard up. The ship’s security drones are relentless and frequently attack in swarms. Lucky for you, you’ll find a handful of weapons to help reduce them to scrap metal. Most of them have the same industrial tool aesthetic made popular in Dead Space, and they all pack a pretty satisfying heft. My favorite is a sniper-style weapon with a built-in screen that allows you to draw a bead on enemies from a distance. Believe me when I say the sensation of peering down the scope and blasting a hostile bot from across a cavernous hangar never gets old.
Unfortunately, the enemy types are extremely limited, so you won’t have to switch your strategy up much. In fact, you’ll only cross paths with a small handful of different enemy types over the course of Horus Station’s five-hour campaign. Needless to say, this is a bit of a disappointment.
When everything is working without a hitch, Horus Station’s gunplay is punchy and satisfying. However, the game’s locomotion system has a way of making the combat more challenging than it needs to be. Oftentimes you’ll be attacked by many enemies at once, which makes dual wielding weapons seem like a necessity.
Now, I’m never one to turn up my nose at going full Akimbo. But Horus Station is a rare exception, as it requires you to put your grappling gun away. If you happen to do this while in the middle of an open area, you’re essentially a sitting duck. Trust me when I say that this is never a good thing. Drones like to attack you from numerous angles at once. And it only takes a couple of shots before you’re sent to the nearest medical bay to respawn. The enemies you already killed do remain vanquished, which does make things easier. But I feel like that only serves to make your eventual victory feel like a hollow one.
Adding another player via the game’s co-op mode largely remedies this issue. Having a buddy draw enemy fire while dishing out their own plasma-powered damage is a great way to level the playing field while keeping things satisfying.
Then again, if combat isn’t your thing you can always choose the Explore Mode. This is a more passive experience that allows you to navigate the station without any of the combat scenarios. The thing is the puzzles the game throws at you are very simplistic, and almost always of the “insert object x here” variety. That said, pulling the combat out of the equation takes a lot of the excitement out of the proceedings. Still, it’s hard to fault 3rd Eye Studios for wanting to cater to the more casual audience while still providing a challenging shooter for those looking for a fight.
In terms of presentation, Downward Spiral: Horus Station may not win any awards for its graphical chops. Still, it certainly gets the job done in terms of conveying a mood of dread. From the moment you step aboard the ship, it’s perfectly clear something horrible happened here. Bodies drifting weightlessly down corridors strewn with shards of floating glass. Klaxons flash ominously, illuminating cramped, debris-filled maintenance shafts. It all looks very haunting and believable. Suffice it to say it’s very easy to find yourself wholly immersed in the on-screen action.
Horus Station also performs very well. My review rig was equipped with a GTX1080 and 16GB of system memory. This setup was more than enough to run the game in VR mode on ultra settings with ease. The only hiccups I ever experienced were when opening the door to a new area. Apart from that, the gameplay was as smooth as silk – even with half a dozen enemies on screen. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Further enhancing the atmosphere of the game is a selection of haunting cyberpunk-style tracks composed by Finnish Goth Rock act HIM’s frontman Ville Valo. These arrangements are sparse and saved for the game’s action-packed moments. But they’re all memorable and do a fantastic job of ratcheting up the tension. Personally, I feel the decision to keep the music to a minimum was a wise one. It really works in the game’s favor in terms of crafting a more engrossing VR experience. On the other hand, you may just find you’re humming to yourself just to spice things up as you make the slow, plodding trip from one side of the ship to the other after you’ve cleared an area of enemies.
Downward Spiral: Horus Station isn’t a game without its share of flaws. The zero-gravity mechanics, while novel, are often at odds with the game’s frantic gunplay. I also feel that some more creative puzzles would have gone a long way towards making it much more engaging. Despite these gripes, it still manages to be a captivating journey and a marked improvement over its predecessor. The game’s inventive mechanics, combined with the entertaining cooperative and PVP deathmatch modes, come together to deliver at a title that, while not groundbreaking, does a solid job of scratching that sci-fi shooter itch while taking the genre in an interesting new direction.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: Oculus Rift (Reviewed), HTC Vive (coming soon to PSVR) ; Publisher: 3rd Eye Studios ; Developer: 3rd Eye Studios ; Players: 1-8 ; Released: May 31, 2018 ; MSRP: $19.99
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Downward Spiral: Horus Station given to Hey Poor Player by the Publisher.