In Downward Spiral: Horus Station, someone might possibly, theoretically hear you scream
"Co-op changes the dynamic of the game,” 3rd Eye Studios CTO Veli-Pekka Kokkonen assures me. “You actually feel that you share the same space with another human being. And that is really powerful.” I’m not sure I hear him correctly. I just ended my roughly thirty-minute demo of Downward Spiral: Horus Station, in which there wasn’t another (albeit digital) human soul in sight.
“It’s unfortunate we weren’t able to co-op together,” Asia Business Lead Patrick Chu unknowingly echoes when he reenters the room. “As soon as we're in there waving hands [at each other], it clicks.” Apparently, the attempt to co-op with the previous demoing journalist led to a crash, so I ventured through the titular station alone.
Heading to PC, PS4, PSVR, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift Touch, and Windows Mixed Reality, Downward Spiral can obviously be played both in VR and on a traditional screen. As I’m not typically prone to motion sickness, I opt to experience things in the full 360 degrees.
The demo begins with little introduction. Starting in a handhold-filled dark room, I use my motion-tracked hands to grab any surface in the abandoned station, propelling myself forward in zero-gravity. After awkwardly bouncing through corridors both vertical and horizontal, I find a cable-shooting gun that smoothly pulls one toward any near-enough surface. As it’s easy to clip through corners, railings, and other geometry when climbing about Horus Station, this instantly becomes my main means of transportation. My grasping hands serve as precision tools for handling door-opening levers and buttons, and later, hiding from those who might harm me.
There’s no dialogue in Downward Spiral, and Kokkonen and Chu stress the narrative is meant to be communicated via environmental storytelling rather than spoken exposition. Displaced, everyday objects and realistic motes of dust drift through my view as I float and grapple through the abandoned station. Red lights flash, large screens communicate vague error dialogues. Something bad clearly happened here, though I can’t be sure what. I drift toward a terminal with a glowing button. Above the screen floats what looks like an inactive robot…which I’m pretty sure will attack me if push the button. I press it anyway since there’s nothing else of note in the room.
The robot instantly kills me. I wake up in another small room (which are around every corner, as respawn points). Outside, I immediately find a bolt-shooting pistol, which likely served as a sort of nail gun before the unspecified catastrophic event. I reenter the room with the deadly robot, gripping a wall to peek around its corner and take aim. I close one eye and aim down the virtual sight… and destroy the robot after two or three shots.
Much of the rest of the demo plays out the same: I grapple and skulk, either getting the drop on or being overwhelmed by little zapping robots. I press glowing buttons and turn yellow levers, progressing linearly to the next rooms, which often increase in size but rarely in complexity, and seemingly never in story-richness. Eventually I discover a large, many-sided chamber, each side with a locked door. After finding the one accessible path, pressing a button and returning, I’m faced with a massive robot at the chamber’s center, far larger than the bolt gun fodder I’ve been facing.
I hesitate to shoot. “Maybe this one’s friendly?” It just sits there, silent. I float toward it... and it zaps me and I die. Okay, so, this is a stealth section. Cool. I free my hands from my guns and crawl across the floor, hidden by the short barrier between me and the metal monstrosity. I eventually find the exit... but I’ll need to pass in front of the enemy. I zipline along the floor and toward the door, praying I’m not noticed. I succeed. As soon as I hit a switch and begin to float outside the station, the demo ends.
I try to imagine these 30 minutes as a compelling, conventionally two-dimensional experience, and I can’t. To be fair, I’m unsure of how the game controls in 2D, as I didn’t get a chance to ask. Without the novelty of VR, I imagine pushing one’s self from walls with a controller would be at least a little boring, if not entirely tedious.
Meanwhile, it’s easy to imagine the game’s co-op potential, because that’s most of what Kokkonen and Chu discuss following the demo. Not only can cooperating players communicate through realistically static-laden voice chat, I later learn, but “all of the puzzles can be scaled” to support two players. The two tell stories of players improvising basketball games (with a wall-mounted hoop that I did use as handhold at one point) and making each other laugh with in-game shadow puppetry. There’s also a PvP mode for so-inclined players, in which they hunt each other throughout the station with the aforementioned repurposed tool-weapons.
With both co-op and VR functionality feeling essential yet optional, it’s difficult to recommend Downward Spiral: Horus Station to everybody. Got a VR rig but nobody to play with? You might be in for an interesting 4-to-6 hour solo experience, assuming the game’s understated narrative proves to actually exist. Are your friends urging you to play with them, even though VR makes you sick? Hopefully you’ll have similar luck and find the emergent fun of two-dimensional cooperation to heighten your enjoyment.
Regardless of your preferences or hardware setup, you can check out the title’s 2017 prologue, aptly named Downward Spiral: Prologue, on Steam now for two dollars. If you’d rather wait for the full game’s reviews to drop, that wait won’t be long, as Horus Station launches sometime this spring.