Given our aversion to horror games, it shouldn't be surprising to hear that we went into Downward Spiral: Horus Station with quite a bit of scepticism. Fortunately, it turns out that 3rd Eye Studios' game isn't what we'd call a fully-fledged horror game, even if it definitely has some of the same themes and fundamental plot points as Alien: Isolation. Both games let us explore an abandoned space station with rooms and corridors so dark that a pin dropping to the floor could make your heart skip a beat or two.
Some of this is because we played Downward Spiral: Horus Station in virtual reality. It's also possible to play on your screen, but VR makes it a lot easier to really feel isolated and immersed in the atmospheric environments. The aforementioned space station is also completely lacking artificial gravity, which means that exploration takes place in a weightless environment.
This is an experience in itself when wearing the HTC Vive headset, and it would seem the developers know this, given that they've added the option to play the entire game without having to crawl around in fear of enemies. You'll instead often find yourself gliding majestically through huge rooms, using your hands to push away from walls in the direction you want to float towards. Either that, or you can drag yourself along walls, floors or roofs like Spider-Man. One of the first tools you get is a grappling hook that just happens to resemble Spidey's web shooters. Using the grappling hook you can pull objects towards you, but if you hit something heavier than you, you'll float away instead.
That's pretty much the game's core gameplay mechanic. Downward Spiral: Horus Station has very little dialogue and the narrative is mainly taken care of through the environments and via computer screens that give just a bare minimum of context. The goal of the game is to find out what happened in the station by searching for power cells to open new rooms. Now and then, however, you'll have to fight some drones that want you dead. That said, for most of the time you'll spend with this game you'll only have your own mind for company.
At times it's easy to get stuck because you don't know what to do next, but the developers at 3rd Eye Studios have done their part in scattering clues around the station. You'll eventually get there by paying attention, and this creates a feeling that the story you're a part of is not really being told, rather it's more like it evolves around you and your actions.
It's a little refreshing to play a VR game that's obviously not afraid to confuse you. We have to admit, it's a little annoying to go back and forth between rooms you've already visited, at least in the beginning because you're moving so slowly. Fortunately, this problem disappears as soon as you get your hands on a handheld jet engine.
However, we still missed the option to gain momentum. The laws of physics aren't exactly what they're supposed to be here, and you can't rotate far enough to the point where stuff is upside-down. I guess this is to make the game more comfortable to play, and it probably is a good thing for those easily nauseated, but we would've still liked the option to change this. Just for some anti-grav fun.
Despite this, we've had a lot of fun exploring the Horus Station. Much of this can be reduced down to the control method and the great atmosphere. From our experience, the station isn't very varied design-wise, but it looks like the devs have drawn a lot of inspiration from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Oddyssey. That's not to say it's an ugly game. It's actually quite pretty, especially in VR. This, combined with great sound design, makes the game very immersive. The fact that the objects and tools you're holding in your hands make noise when they come in contact with something else is an incredible little detail we rarely see in VR games, and our biggest squeals of delight happened because of this.
It's the small things that really make Downward Spiral what it is. Early in the game, we found ourselves in front of a long, glowing corridor. Our first thought was that it wasn't completely safe to travel through given that it looked like a furnace. Before venturing further, we went back and found the body of a poor bloke and pushed him in, hoping we would see if it would get fried in there. The result was perhaps a little anticlimactic since it wasn't too hot, but it still ended up as a relatively unique experience. As a VR-game, Downward Spiral: Horus Station is on a solid level in terms of interactions with the world, which for us is a must rather than a plus. Still, the developers should be praised for making it feel so natural to shake hands with a floating, lifeless body.
This aspect doesn't really hold up if you choose to play without VR goggles. It's possible to play all of the eight chapters on the boring flat screens of the past, but for our part, it's VR all the way. Playing this with a mouse and a keyboard is a lot less intuitive and just not as fun, but it's cool to have this option, and it would be a positive thing if more developers gave us the choice.
We weren't sure what we felt about Downward Spiral: Horus Station when we were right in the middle of it, but now we just want to finish writing and go back for another look. Downward Spiral: Horus Station is an enjoyable game that might not have the most varied enemy designs with different drones wielding machine-guns and laser weapons, but there's something magical about floating through this abandoned station looking for answers and new targets. Something magical that's well worth experiencing if you don't mind a few technical hiccups and restrictions.