Contrary to what Mass Effect and Star Trek would have you believe, space is a dark and lonely place. Astronomical objects and other celestial bodies exist in a sea of an infinite vacuum, the size of which is largely unfathomable. Survival in space is the ultimate endurance trial, one that astronauts must undergo rigorous training and studying to prepare for. What happens when things go wrong and the only thing separating you from the cold, infinite void are four lanes of glass? As a PlayStation VR owner, I have been blessed with not one but three video games that simulate the experience of living in space. My dreams of a space-based, sci-fi future carried on the shoulders of Wing Commander and The Expanse are likely not to come to pass, thus making VR a valuable means to live out those dreams. Downward Spiral: Horus Station joins the ranks of interactive adventures alongside Detached and The Station, both of which involve exploration of a space vessel of some kind. Where the aforementioned games managed their storytelling in a straightforward way, Downward Spiral borrows a cue from From Software by letting the world tell its story, leaving little to the player to parse out.
After The Station, I longed for a game that would let me freely explore a space station and put me in charge of maintenance duties - all without enemies getting in the way. However, The Station ended too soon. Detached, a contender for space-born repairman simulator of the year, didn’t follow through with its enticing first hour. Downward Spiral becomes a happy medium, offering a huge space station that needs to brought back online after some unknown disaster crippled it, leaving its crew dead, essential systems in disrepair, and security robots rogue. Brought in with no memory of preceding events, a vision of Egyptian ruins marks your arrival to Horus Station, a sprawling research station orbiting a nearby planet. Familiar narrative cues, like character interaction and audio diaries, are non-existent, leaving the player to figure out on their own the purpose Horus Station and your role in it. Any semblance of a plot is left to environmental storytelling that is painfully obfuscating, saving the grand and somewhat surreal reveal for its seventh and final act. Until that time, you’re left mostly alone to wander the station in search of the means to bring everything back online. I mean, what else are you going to do?
Downward Spiral is built on the foundation of zero gravity exploration in a setting that looks easy to get lost in. Like the USG Ishimura, Horus Station may seem huge but the journey is strictly controlled through a system of locked and unlocked doors that guide the player along a specific, mostly linear direction. That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to go often off the beaten path and take a look around. Getting around the vessel feels comfortable and natural as you progress through major station hubs inserting batteries, connecting corridors, and interfacing with computers to open up more areas to explore. Zero gravity traversal is cool but also problematic depending on your chosen control system. Downward Spiral supports PSVR and non-VR, and I’ll say right now that VR is how this game should be played. Without it, the DualShock makes getting around in zero-G far more frustrating than with the PlayStation Move wands. Traversal is physics-based, meaning you’ll grab onto and launch yourself from surfaces, furniture, and railings to get around and the DualShock is terrible at replicating it. Mapping the analog sticks to your arms doesn’t feel good or natural. The PlayStation Move wands are compatible and a substantially better way to play because they afford the immersion of actually reaching out to pull levers, grab handles, and my favorite thing in the world, push all the buttons and switches on computer consoles (which give off the most satisfying, ASMR-inducing clicks and chunks).
As a derelict, Horus Station is an uncomfortable place to be in because of the crushing isolation. Very few areas of the station run at full power, leaving hallways and large open hubs drenched in a red emergency lighting. There’s very little audio outside of an ambient score created by musician Ville Valo, and in a particularly nice tough, all sound muffle and mute whenever you leave the station for a space walk. You’re also not alone as rogue machines attack you on sight, forcing you to defend yourself with a myriad of space-age weaponry. Die, and you’ll respawn inside nearby service passages to try again. To be honest, I wasn’t a fan of combat. The design of the different guns are cool but trying to shoot down robots while floating around in zero gravity wasn’t as fun as it sounds. That’s why I love that 3rd Eye Studio gave me the option to turn it off altogether, turning the game into a Gone Home-like experience set in space. Interacting with the station usually involves flipping switches and inserting fuel rods to open up locked doors that lead further to the current objective. You’ll encounter some light puzzles from time to time as you try to hunt down passcodes needed to unlock different areas. Not having to worry about large sentry machines that could vaporize me in one shot (except for one forced encounter) gave me all the time in the world to really soak in the Horus Station and all the charms a corpse ridden derelict charm has to offer. And as I discovered, wandering a seemingly abandoned space station is far scarier than being attacked by crazed security bots.
A lot of that tension and fear has to do with the game’s aesthetics. It only takes a few moments to deduce where the developers found their inspiration in the visual design of Horus Station. The quadrilateral hallways punctuated by various service tubes and wall panels, the circular service tunnels that lead to packed living spaces, door handles that make a satisfying, bass-heavy *thunk* as you pull them down, large computer panels with interactive buttons, switches, and knobs, and the retro-futurist inspired interior design brings to mind the Nostromo, one of science fictions most infamous space vessels. In one part, the game was one HAL-9000 computer away from replicating a key scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it was easy for my mind to wander over to 2014’s Alien: Isolation because the visuals feel so ingrained in Ridley Scott’s movie’s production design, leading me to wonder what a VR Alien game might be like (a thought that immediately made me want to pee my pants in fear). The graphic design is easily my favorite thing of the game.
Downward Spiral: Horus Station is an atmospheric game that feels like the video game equivalent of Aram Khachaturian’s exceptionally melancholic Adagio from the Gayane Ballet Suite used during the Discovery montage from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I never knew exploring and interacting with derelict space vessel in VR was my jam - and it totally is now. Downward Spiral features six acts, each taking about a half hour to complete (longer if combat is enabled). Should the isolation prove too overbearing, grab a friend to play cooperatively or competitively because if there’s one way to fight the existential dread caused by severe loneliness, it’s trying to shoot someone in the face with a space gun. Downward Spiral: Horus Station does not require a PSVR headset to play but you’d be missing out on so much without it. Even with combat turned off, it’s an enjoyable atmospheric adventure that puts you inside the helmet of an isolated engineer forced to solve the mystery of his existence against the backdrop of an unknown, space-born disaster.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.