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Review: The Station
Gaming critic James Honke gives the The Station an average review, as the framerates dip and the story lags
I was hugely excited to play The Station. I’m a huge believer in the power of video games as a visual storytelling medium and I love weighty, philosophical sci-fi. I was playing the game in between watching episodes of Altered Carbon on Netflix and reading chapters of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. The Station was a dream come true – an indie game backed by Kickstarter but made by veteran developers that promised a story that would “challenge [my] view of surveillance, imperialism and moral law”. It sounded like mana from heaven. So did it match up? Did it offer me the philosophical yet story-based gameplay I desired?
Err, not quite.
To start, The Station is not just a short experience, it is a SHORT experience. I completed it with some friends and we completed it in a little over 3 hours, and that included spending a solid hour scouring the ship for clues to one of the puzzles. By scoured, I mean we searched every single pixel of that ship, including looking for a hidden room that can’t even be accessed until the endgame. Since the game can best be described as a walking sim (I use the term descriptively, not pejoratively) with puzzle elements, we should compare it to other games in that genre for the fairness. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture clocks in at around 6 hours total and Firewatch clocks in at around 4 and a half, so it does feel short, even for its genre. It’s not even amazing value for your money.
The gameplay is also very reminiscent of ‘Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’ – so reminiscent, in fact, that I searched the credits to see if it was made by the same developers, and I can confirm that… it isn’t. Having said that, the gameplay must have been ‘inspired’ by EGTTR since it’s basically the same – walk around, pick stuff up, press R1 on an orb for story – and it wasn’t that great the first time. This is made worse by the headache-inducing framerate dips that occurred relatively regularly in my PS4 apparent ‘release’ build of the game. Fortunately, you can accelerate beyond an amble, so getting around the ship isn’t too frustrating, unlike the painfully slow movement speed - even with the running function - of EGTTR, and the addition of the puzzles serves to break up the walk and talk nature of the game a little, so it doesn’t become too much of a bore-em-up.
Again, unfortunately, that comes with a rather whopping caveat – the puzzles aren’t really that “intuitive” or “subtle”. Instead, these words serve as euphemisms for ‘simple’ and ‘entirely unguided’ respectively. The game doesn’t signpost what you should be doing and the side objectives disappear under the major story objectives meaning that if you turn off the game and come back later, it’s hard to have a clue what you’re supposed to be doing to progress the story. If the titular Station was worth truly exploring, this might not be too much of a problem, but The Station has a relatively limited environment for exploration that lends itself more to getting lost and walking in circles rather than any real beauty. The puzzles derive any of their limited difficulty from the same signposting issue and I don’t think we spent more than a collective half an hour on the puzzles in the game, of which there are only 3 proper puzzles.
Yet a game like this is not written off by the quality of the gameplay – after all, Firewatch is one of my favourite games and it basically revolves around chatting into a walkie-talkie for 4 hours. Instead, what elevates a walking sim is the quality of the story. So how does the story match up to its compatriots?
Well... The story is OK, I guess. It’s not bad, and starts quite compelling. After the first play session of about an hour, we were intrigued and wanted to play more. But in the middle, I began to get bored – the characters are either deeply annoying and unlikeable or too forced, pulling heartstrings pointlessly without really giving us a reason to care for them. At one point, there’s a big ‘reveal’ that is supposed to be really emotional, but I just felt emotionally blackmailed. The story is supposed to be alive through the environment, but in reality this is a poor excuse for a woefully thin tale that’s barely pulled together by the too-short and too-random audio logs. At the end, it becomes clear why this is the case, as the story has been setting up for a twist in the tail. However, without the story to draw me in and set up the bite, the twist falls flat.
In short, The Station is not a bad game. It’s graphically relatively impressive and in VR, I think it might be a quite decent experience in a market crying out for captivating story games. However, as a regular game without the immersion of VR, it comes across as average in basically every area, with a thin, unimpressive story that twists cheaply at the end, a lack of imaginative gameplay and serious technical issues. If you’ve got steam balance that you absolutely have to spend, stump up a little more and get Firewatch. You won’t regret it.