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Environmental Station Alpha (PC) artwork

Environmental Station Alpha (PC) review

"An unassuming title that is perhaps the greatest game of its kind since Super Metroid itself."

Environmental Station Alpha (PC) image

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There's simple but powerful joy to be found in exploration, the little accomplishments of finding points of interest isolated from the beaten path. Many video games have sought to capture this emotion in the form of complex level design. In relation to 2D games with exploration elements, two series come to mind, with Metroid offering labyrinthine alien environments and Castlevania presenting sprawling Gothic locales. Of the two, Metroid is remembered for less for its combat but for level design that works in conjunction with ability progression, with return trips to previously explored locales encouraging the player to fully realize his environs by utilizing new equipment earned through the completion of some sort of challenge. Both Metroid and the more combat-focused 2D Castlevania titles have earned their fair share of imitators over the years. Among these is Environmental Station Alpha, whose contextual ingenuity makes it a standout title that achieves a level of greatness comparable to that of its inspiration.

We play as a reconnaissance robot sent to investigate Environmental Station Alpha, a research outpost built onto a planetoid with ruins and a diverse ecosystem. The outpost has entered communication blackout, and it's our job to figure out what happened to the place and neutralize any hostiles. Almost immediately, we have a confrontation with the station's defense system, which drops us deep into the heart of the station. Time to explore!

Environmental Station Alpha (PC) imageEnvironmental Station Alpha (PC) image

Environmental Station Alpha certainly draws inspiration from Super Metroid's school of design. Players explore alien and mechanical environments, combat enemies (boss fights are a highlight), and obtain health boosts and other upgrades. One aspect that ESA does much better than Super Metroid is the controls. In addition to physics that help jumps meet the perfect balance between being weighty yet utilitarian, double jumps, dashes, and perhaps my favorite grappling hook in a 2D game make moving around the station a joy! This movement translates well to the fast-paced combat, which is tense and demanding of skillful use of your abilities. Most vitally, the fluid movement expedites navigation and backtracking, with the help of fast-travel teleporters placed around the intricate map.

ESA's environments are varied and interesting, which is good since that's kinda in the title. The volcano, aquatic, and underground desert sectors recall fond memories of Super Metroid but have their own originality and are accompanied by a forest, a derelict spaceship, and more. Progress through the areas, see obstacles you cannot pass before obtaining some gadgets. Simple. However, ESA is unpredictable at times. For instance, reactivate security protocols to open certain areas, but, oh no! Previously inert sentry turrets will now shoot at you! Dynamic level design makes returning to familiar areas fresher and more engaging than simply mowing down old enemies like grass. The level design accommodates the game mechanics not only in reaching new areas, but in making treks through explored ones brief yet worthwhile. The map is densely packed with secrets; recall how in Super Metroid, there would be little empty spaces in even fully explored areas of the map, just some spaces that had no rooms to go to. Here, we have a map that is not only massive but also densely packed with secrets! If there's a gap within the outline of the station in the map, you've got to keep looking for a way to get there if you want to see everything!

Environmental Station Alpha (PC) imageEnvironmental Station Alpha (PC) image

On the matter of level design, a misconception must be cleared; Metroidvanias are vaunted for being non-linear, but this really isn't the case most of the time, even with the best ones. Sure, you get to run around a large place, but you gotta to to this spot to get an item to get to this spot and so on. Metroidvanias are more like hallways full of locked doors behind which lie keys to other doors. You start off with one key and must find the right door to get another key, and so on. There's nothing wrong with this when done properly (don't make us run back and forth to extreme ends of the hallway to progress), but it's hardly nonlinear unless one considers optional areas or exploits game mechanics to perform sequence breaks -- visiting areas and causing events out of the developers' intended order. Environmental Station Alpha lets the player dabble in both! Aside from the sizable optional content, the level design lets us just skip huge chunks of the game. If you know what you're doing, you can just completely ignore entire regions of the map! This, along with the furiously fast movement mechanics, helps make this game an ideal speedrunning challenge, but you'll want to see everything since it's all so good.

Now we must address the matter of the graphics. Environmental Station Alpha has some of the most primitive graphics I have ever seen. The 8-bit style actually may have fewer pixels onscreen than most 8-bit games it emulates. However, ESA more than makes up for this with something more important than technical quality: art direction. Crude as the graphics are, every pixel in ESA seems to have been placed in deliberation in order to create a world teeming with detail and beauty. Excellent lighting, fluid sprite animations, wonderful use of color, and fantastically designed environments and enemies prove yet again that good art direction is more important than technical muscle. I'll take a game like this over a "triple A" game with an ugly filter, desaturated colors, motion blur, and such.

Environmental Station Alpha (PC) imageEnvironmental Station Alpha (PC) image

As far as atmosphere is concerned, ESA's soundtrack is an integral factor. The composition is solid in its own right, but it excels in adding to the mood. Each major area has its own theme, helping lend each area its own personality. In addition to being well-composed, most of the tracks are relaxing and subtle, giving an overall pleasant feel to most areas. Other underlying themes of the music are foreboding and mystery, giving the game a distinctly futuristic and alien feel, a suiting fit. The sound effects all carry weight and give impact to jumps, attacks, and enemy deaths, crafting a stronger connection to gameplay.

It is this strong sense of atmosphere the drives the game, but the plot, tenuous as it is, doesn't hurt, either. Exposition is relayed sparingly via logbooks and such, while sparing us the "I hear something approHFJKRHL" messages one usually finds in derelict stations in games. ESA eschews a traditional narrative in favor of cryptic lore and foreboding. Some of this stuff gets quite unsettling, in a good way. As I detail the endgame and beyond, skip to the semifinal paragraph if you don't want spoilers.

Although this game went the extra, extra mile and possesses multiple endings, they are rather short and not exactly cheery. For instance, the normal one involves human civilization being destroyed. That won't do. Most of the other ones are pretty morbid, as well. The happiest one involves you becoming a member of the space God Hand or something and then blowing up the universe? Actually, that's pretty neat, I guess. What is cool is the hidden areas along the way, including the most grotesque imagery I've ever seen in such a game. If you want to see this or any secret ending, however, you must master this game.

Environmental Station Alpha (PC) imageEnvironmental Station Alpha (PC) image

Aside from upgrades, one can find information disks with concept art scattered about. These give you details of the locations of souper seeckrit upgrades and codes to access souper seeckrit areas. To add to all this, this game has lots of cryptology, the science of decoding. The player may find messages of some alien language accompanied by the Eye of Moloch. One line from Not Sam the Eagle Muppet is given in both English and ESA-ese, allowing the player to decipher alien hints leading to more content and unsettling areas! I managed to solve the language and make good progress, but some of this stuff I just can't see anyone finding unless one locked them in a room with nothing to pass the time with save for this game. And, hey, there are worse games to spend a lot of time on!

Whether or not you go for the hidden content, you'll get your money's worth with Environmental Station Alpha. Few games out there are so polished and synergetic in their design; many works are good at many things, but only the best achieve the harmony found in ESA. The music works with the environments, the environments work with the level design, the level design works with the game mechanics: no element is in conflict with another element. Every element by its own is sufficient to compel the player to complete the game, but having everything work in tandem like this in addition to having tons of content is what makes Environmental Station Alpha an experience that is difficult to forget.

Environmental Station Alpha (PC) imageEnvironmental Station Alpha (PC) image

By the way, this whole 14+ hour game was designed and programmed by pretty much just one guy. Just throwin' it out there.


Follow_Freeman's avatar
Community review by Follow_Freeman (December 28, 2017)

When he isn't in a life-or-death situation, Dr. Freeman enjoys playing a variety of video games. From olden shooters to platformers & action titles: Freeman may be a bit stuck with the games of the past, but he doesn't mind. Some things don't age much.

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