When PAX East rolled around this year, I found myself with an invite due to friends having a spare ticket. Now if you know me, you know I have been to this event once before with family, and I didn’t have a lot of fun. My brothers were not really interested in checking out the events of the convention so much as making a run through the dealer floor and hitting all the shops. However, I thought I would give it a shot again between knowing my friends do this differently and really needing a good convention after how badly Anime Boston went. (Seriously, I do not think I'm going back in 2017.)
I could not be happier to be proven right. I had a blast going about from booth to booth about the different games, checking out what more unique items were out there, and even spent time chatting it up with a few developers of games that caught my attention prior to the event. This would be one of those games.
A few days before the convention, Gog.com showed off the trailer for this title, so when I saw it on display, I had to stop in. I left with a collector’s edition available only that weekend (and in fact one of 150 total made as I found out later…). Now before you ask, yes, I bought the game on my own so outside of a brief conversation to ask about what it was and a sales pitch to pick it up (since it launched that same weekend), I was given nothing at all. But that’s ok, because I was on the verge of picking it up anyway, so I thought “why the hell not?”
Why not come in and see if it lived up to the fascination?
Story: The cold war never happened. As such the space boom, no longer fueled mainly by the need of governments to compete in a space race, only sped up as the US and Russia teamed up to get further out and return with the resources the heavens promised.
As such, mankind reached unheard of heights, including space stations through the solar system by the year 1995. At this time, a research team for the Rama corporation went silent on Station M, a research facility on Saturn’s moon Titan. And this is where you enter the story. A fresh recruit to the company, your job is to go repair the communications link, but a freak storm means you can’t leave just yet. Trapped, you enter the station to find it empty and no idea what happened to the 5-member crew that was stationed here. Best find out, if only to prevent it from happening to you.
From this rather ominous start, you will explore the now abandoned Station M, searching for clues about what happened and ways to access deeper and deeper into the facility. However, it is completely up to you if you want to pursue this plot. P.O.L.L.E.N. is very much about letting the user figure out everything for themselves, including the story, which compared to the spoon-fed stuff released today, is really rather refreshing. However, it also means a lot of the story from this point on can easily be missed if you are not trying to put the pieces together, and even then it’s more then possible to misunderstand something and get it wrong.
But at the same time, what you find is rather intriguing and to say much more is to ruin the ending… but if I have any issue with the story that would probably be it. Where I would the absolute end of the game fairly satisfying, the “cinematics” before you get that one last scene wears out it’s welcome as it tries to pull off what should be reserved for tributes to the hyper-space scene in 2001: a Space Odyssey (which I will fully admit I lost my patience with as well).
Graphics: P.O.L.L.E.N is a first person adventure that was written with the Unity engine, but that would surprise a lot of people who play and not just because the game doesn’t tell you until the end credits. Rather the game looks shockingly clean and well detailed for the reputation the engine carries (admittedly because since the home version is free, it being the choice for a lot of home projects that just don’t have a lot behind them in the graphical fidelity department). Almost everything is carried out damn near perfectly in the looks department, with the exception of the few places there is foliage, a tribute to the level of attention to detail given this game.
And detailed is definitely the name of the game, going so far as to even have working timer and readable counters in the tape decks you will find throughout the game. I can say very little against just how good this game looks.
Sound: Offhand, you will notice this game has very little in the form of music for you to listen to. A few scenes put a little bit of background music in place to alert you to something going on, but overall this is an ambiance game with very little background music to get in the way.
That is not to say that there is nothing though. Throughout the game, you will find tapes that for the most part are audio notes and records left behind by the crew as clues for you to listen to as you play through the game. However, there are a handful one of the crew left behind of full on hair-band metal from bands he is a major fan of, which you have the option to play in any tape player on the base, giving you choice to your variety here.
And those notes are actually very well done. From the factual and sterile medical notes to the desperation dripping ones from the scavenger in the decrepit areas of the game everyone fills there roll and even seems just a little bit believable. It proves a nice touch both for a vehicle to help tell the story as well as set the tone in the environment itself.
Sound effects are also pretty good, varying from water running to things being clanked around (thrown, kicked, dropped, your call really) to the hum of machines to even such small details as the tape-decks auto-rewinding the tape you just played, the sound effects paint a very good audio picture.
Gameplay: P.O.L.L.E.N. is very much what many people call a “walking simulator.” You have no real enemies to speak of and very few ways to get yourself killed. In the place of these traditional challenges, this game offers a small space station to fully explore where you and play with just about anything you find. As a result, the game becomes a lot more believable in feel then many other games out there.
But exploring is not the only goal. When you arrive, there is no one on the station, and your goal is to find out why. The game will not hold your hand about this, leaving you to figure out literally every detail for yourself through objects you find and interact with. And while there is no combat, that interaction is very detailed, as there are no doors you can not ultimately open and nothing you can not pick up, spin, investigate closer, or even throw. The world is yours to manipulate on your way to the conclusion of the game.
And that is not to say there are no puzzles at all. In fact, I would say there are several throughout the game. They are relatively simple, but the open nature of the world requires you often to find them or the hints you need to understand them. There is nothing to point them out leaving only a few to be obviously puzzles from the moment you lay eyes on them while the rest may require you to realize you need to use something to do something else to proceed.
The only regret it’s the way this game ends. I found the whole package interesting and the mystery behind it intriguing, so to see it end within a few short hours with an obviously last “find 3 items” puzzle as it’s final challenge was a little disappointing.
Bugs: I can not say this game ran flawless, but it did not have any serious bugs either. Rather, what I found were a few physics issues here and there where I would be bounced around because I was not on a surface I should be, or even odd jutter as the engine loaded something it didn’t expect me to go to. (This was particularly noted during the vent section of the game.) But overall, it ran very well.
Overall: P.O.L.L.E.N. is a very interesting title which can definitely keep the player engaged. While at it’s core it is a walking-sim title, it has the right balance of intrigue, mystery, and even a dash of creepiness to keep you wanting to see just what it’s all about. Simply put, if that description appeals to you, you will enjoy the trip. Sadly, however, it is very short and very much a one trick pony. Once you’ve seen your way to the end, there is literally zero reason to go back and play again. As such, I would recommend the title if, again, that description strikes you as interesting, it would be worth your time to pick it up on sale or when it drops in price, but you might well want to wait till then. If, however, you need action in your gaming diet, stay the hell away. To put it bluntly, this game was not made for you.
Source’s Listed System Requirements:
- Windows 7 (64-bit edition)
- Intel Core-i3 3.3ghz/AMD Phenom II x4 3.0 ghz
- 4 GB RAM
- Nvidia Geforce GTX650/AMD Radeon HD 7870
- 8GB hard drive space
- AMD FX 8350 (8 cores) running at 4 Ghz
- 16 GB RAM
- NVidia Geforce 960 GTX with 4GB VRAM
- Windows 10