When any media product attempts a game-changing twist, that moment will almost inevitably come to define it. As such, the revelation must balance three goals: fitting smoothly into the ongoing narrative, recontextualising all that has come before, and making a memorable statement of its own. Only through confluence of these factors do the notorious upheavals found in The Sixth Sense and Fight Club gain their force. In gaming, the plot device is a favourite of narrative adventures, appearing in titles as diverse as Tacoma, The Fidelio Incident, and Perception to varying degrees of effectiveness. The latest project built in this vein is The Station: a speculative-fiction story less satisfying than it may have been because it is overburdened by traditional gameplay ideas.
Story gating is essential in any mystery title, but the processes by which content is locked away should be logical and fitting. The Station does not hold to this philosophy. Instead, the unnamed protagonist is, at times, forced to engage in busywork that manifests the fourth wall more effectively than any sluggish or imprecise controls ever could. Compared to the elegant solution of Tacoma, which built locked doors into its story and central AR mechanic, The Station feels clunky. The title regularly throws up random puzzles and less-than-clever riddles as obstacles. These gamified interactions may have been forgivable were they reserved for ancillary information or required more than following the most obvious of clues to solve, but they do not display either the restraint or quality to make them feel worthwhile. Thankfully, the controls are smooth enough to ensure that such barriers to progression are more burdensome than they need to be, and the story (for those to whom it appeals) is intriguing enough to convince the player to persevere.
A set of brief, narrated still-frame images set the scene; for the first time in history, an intelligent alien civilisation has been discovered. The primitive, violent nature of the species causes contention within the government, yet a crew of three scientists is sent hurtling across the universe aboard an undetectable space station to study the creatures on their home planet of Psy Prime. However, the Espial goes dark only a short period after arrival—communication and cloaking alike failing. Players step into the shoes of a recon specialist sent to uncover what went wrong.
Much of The Station’s story feels rote, particularly in the wake of last year’s Tacoma, which used a similar premise and subplotting to tell of a far more profound series of events. Clandestine relationships and could-be corporate sabotage are hinted at through audio and text logs dotted throughout the environment, but these narrative threads feel perfunctory. These side stories are treated with such little care and attention that they seem as though the writing team knew of no better way to forge a connection between player and character than through trite, done-to-death stereotypes. Predictably, then, the three individuals lack the memorableness of even cardboard cut-outs, meaning the attempt at engagement falls far short of its goal. Furthermore, the intended humanisation of these unmet, faceless characters detracts from the far more compelling mystery of what happened—and is continuing to happen—aboard The Espial. Compounding the problems with the pacing is that, as the game draws nearer its conclusion, the dripfeed of information becomes imprecise, leading to a garbled, unclear presentation of events entirely unlike the clean retellings woven in many similar titles. Even the effort to mount tension in the closing moments creates more confusion than anxiety, leading the final twist—compelling though it may be—to feel more like an embrace of shock value than a recasting of everything to that point.
That said, the developers are wise enough to realise that revealing such a surprise without foreshadowing would be dissatisfying. To go in-depth would be to spoil too much, but the environment is a remarkable achievement of design subtlety. The Espial does not feel as intimate and lived-in as Tacoma, but the station remains infested with personal spaces and artefacts locked away from the potentially prying eyes at the other end of the security cameras. Each room has a clear purpose, and the spartan, industrial approach to architecture and interior design gives the entire location a cohesive feel. Moreover, the developers are able to retain a sense of unity even as players step into areas more chaotic—clean lines always prevail. Unlike many drama adventures, The Station contains moments when the environment comes to life. Objects move, lights flash, and things go bump in the night, and in such moments the understated approach to audio comes to the fore.
The ambient sounds are the true highlight of the aural experience, outshining the other elements by a wide margin. The voice acting, in particular, is a let down. Each character speaks with undue solemnity, their words slow and weighty, regardless of whether they are making a defining statement or supposedly engaging in a more lighthearted conversation. As such, speech never sounds entirely natural, creating another difficulty in engaging with the personal subplots mentioned earlier. Thankfully, the developers do not rely heavily on dialogue, instead letting the visuals do the talking. Meanwhile, the score is understated, contributing to the atmosphere of the game without ever truly defining. In this vacuum, the environmental sounds, limited though they are, shine through. The minimalist approach lends each sound strength, which, in turn, helps to elevate the game ever so slightly.
The first age of so-called walking simulators is long past. The design foibles that led to such projects being so widely decried have been ironed out, but the genre is still struggling to find its feet. In such a situation, The Station is no revolutionary. Many aspects of the game help to give it a unique identity, but the gameplay is too reliant on established ideas to allow it to stand out from a crowded field.