Downward Spiral: Horus Station is a sci-fi adventure that puts you aboard a vast, abandoned space station that was cleared out of all life after military-grade robots turned on the station’s human inhabitants. There’s a lot to admire about the full release of Downward Spiral—an expanded universe first seen in Downward Spiral: Prologue (2017), a 20-minute taster that released on Steam in fall of last year—although after playing through the campaign, which features first-person shooter elements and can be played in single player or co-op mode, I left feeling unclear about what Downward Spiral really wanted to be, making it a jack of all trades, but master of none.
Downward Spiral: Horus Station Details:
Downward Spiral is an atmospheric adventure built around the very Kubrick-esque Horus Space Station, a staggeringly large multi-sectioned craft replete with flickering CRTs and an environment clearly inspired by 2001 Space Odyssey (1968). I call it an ‘atmospheric adventure’ because the star of the show really is the station’s eerie atmosphere, in part due to the game’s soundtrack created by former HIM frontman Ville Valo, but a liberal sprinkling of lifeless rag doll bodies along the way doesn’t hurt either. Also, the space station is an awesome showpiece for the team’s design chops, as its interiors offer shimmering glass, high quality textures and lighting that puts it on par with many AAA games visually.
As a shooter-meets-adventure game hybrid, Downward Spiral’s default campaign features guns. You can also play the game without guns and enemies, treating it as a zero-G ‘walking simulator’ (or floating simulator), but for the full experience I dove into standard difficulty mode with guns in single player. I haven’t had a chance to play either the online horde mode, or deathmatch multiplayer, so this review will concentrate on the meat of the game. I’ll be heading back in after launch, and will update accordingly.
As a first-person shooter, Downward Spiral makes a few missteps that can’t be ignored; by not offering a clear way to aim most of the weapons, it leaves you to do guesswork as you blast away at the aggressive bots with things like your semi-automatic bolt gun, fully automatic assault gun, and a shotgun that can wipe out a baddies in a single devastating blow. While I liked the variety of weapons, I would have liked them more if aiming was consistent, and sight pictures were more clear in the guns without scopes or laser sights. The flatscreen PC/PS4 version of the game makes heavy use of an on-screen reticle, and I’m not sure enough attention was paid to how you physically shoot the gun, as lining up the sights oftentimes resulted in a miss when aiming at targets. This could be chalked up to user error, but everything is really quite dark, making whatever sights there are nearly invisible to me in the first-person. To add to the confusion, your guns don’t always go where you point them, something I would guess is due to the way physical objects like your gun, body and hands interact together. This made me rely on the shotgun most of all, because spray and pray was the only logical way of going about it.
Inventory management is a mostly seamless process however, letting you store key items and weapons, and access them by either selecting the item directly in the black overlay-style inventory, or switching between your empty hand and your last chosen gun, or one of two maneuvering devices – an automatic grappling winch and a hand-held air booster.
These maneuvering devices are fundamental to moving around station, as the zero-G locomotion scheme that lets you grab onto something and propel yourself forward by pushing off the interior of the ship—similar to the way you move around in Lone Echo (2017)—decidedly takes a back seat. Moving with the devices isn’t only a superior way to get from A-to-B, but it’s really the only consistent way to do so, as the by-hand method left me feeling nothing short of frustrated at times. Oftentimes I found myself clipping through desks and control panels to reach a button, or stopping short of my target because I brushed up against a wall that I couldn’t free myself from without looking for an opposite wall and using my hook/booster to freedom. By-hand locomotion, while comfortable (more in the Comfort section), just isn’t robust enough to be truly useful for either long distance travel, or short distance corrections, making me rely almost entirely on the devices to get around.
The story, which ought to be the star of the show, never really takes off, which begins and ends with my lack of purpose. Here I am on a derelict space station with no memory, no way of finding out what happened and why, and only the singular mission of doing whatever the CRT screens tell me: ‘RESTORE POWER TO THE MAIN REACTOR’ – ‘OPEN DOOR MANUALLY’. Ok, but why? This sort of breadcrumb trail approach, leading you from objective to objective, was my main gripe with the game. While extremely visually appealing, I just didn’t ever get the feeling of truly exploring, or learning about the world ahead of me outside the confines of ‘DO THIS BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO’.
More on the visuals: brief interludes of deserts and underwater scenes are disquieting, gorgeous, but ultimately not well explained either. There’s certainly lots of style in Downward Spiral: Horus Station, but I felt it was lacking substance to really make it a cohesive experience. A story commensurate to the visuals would have elevated Downward Spiral by a large margin, borked shooting mechanics notwithstanding.
What it lacks in narrative, it makes up in a seemingly infinite supply of door levers and small objectives, which soon become an absolute chore. Fetch a key card, press a button, turn on the power, pull a lever so you can fetch the key card, press a button, turn on the power etc. These aren’t really puzzles, but small tasks that you have to fulfill on your one-way trip through the station. At the very least, object interaction is decidedly good enough.
The game emphasizes systematically hunting for one of the two items you need to progress: key cards and power cells to open doors and turn on subsections of the ship. There are timed challenges, but these were more often than not just to open a door before the lever becomes inactive. My favorite part was docking sections of the ship together to gain access to new location, but this was few and far between.
With three and half hours of total campaign gameplay, I found a lot of it was spent slowly navigating the ship and floating from one door to the next, interspersed with moments of robot-killing action. I suspect overall gameplay time would be significantly less in co-op mode since you can split up and hunt for key items and open doors without fear of timed challenges.
While various enemies like laser-shooting bots and giant, powerful drones help spice things up, bosses mostly require at least one or two deaths to understand how to beat. Thankfully you’re given infinite lives to retry, leading me to believe I’m actually a clone. Again, I’m still not sure because the game just doesn’t take the time to explain.
Downward Spiral uses the same basic locomotion concept as Lone Echo, but despite the implied comfort of moving yourself through zero-G, some of my frustration comes from the inconsistency of moving around. There are no dynamic hand poses, which is entirely forgivable for a game that supports many motion controller styles, but it still suspends any belief that you’re actually grabbing onto something. Again, clipping through a control panel and not finding any purchase is enough for me to abandon the notion of using it almost entirely. Another niggle: when you approach a barrier like a wall, you automatically slow down, which in practice created needless hangups if you accidentally brush against something on your way to your destination.
That said, the visual aspect of the game is nothing short of magnificent. I found myself gazing out at the wrecked planet below for a few minutes to take in everything, either from the safety of a lounge with a nice viewport, or in the breathless wilds of space as I went from one subsection to the next. I can’t overstate how good this game looks, showcasing a fine hand in 3D modeling.
Despite its misgivings, Downward Spiral is consistently a very comfortable experience, something you wouldn’t think is possible in zero-G. Like Lone Echo, the user controls their path through the world by pushing off the station’s interior. This has proven time and time again to be an extremely comfortable way of moving around. Although in the game’s zero-G environment, you won’t be able to twist and turn from the standard horizontal view—a knock on realism, but a big plus for comfort.
Both the grappling hook and the air booster are both slow enough to be very comfortable, and while I personally didn’t like slowing down for doors and other barriers, the slow-to-stop mechanic also adds a measure of comfort. I could have definitely withstood a faster pace however, as it times I was left boringly boringly ratcheting from A-to-B.
Because it offers snap-turn as a default (360 tracking setups can choose to turn naturally, but no ‘free locomotion option), the game is very playable while seated, and is also extremely comfortable to use. While there is no bespoke seated mode, it really doesn’t need one thanks to the zero-G environment, which lets you go as high and as low in the area as you want. Just make sure to clear the space so you don’t knock over anything on your desk as you pull door levers in a seemingly infinite supply.