Review: Environmental Station Alpha

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The layout of a metroidvania can have a huge impact on how it feels to play. Just look at the GameBoy Advance Castlevanias for evidence of that, the more twisting and sectioned off they were, the less people liked them. Environmental Station Alpha is going to feel like that for the first few hours, blocking your paths with a dizzying array of barriers and gaps to usher you along the intended route. It’s pervasive enough that it might seriously frustrate your efforts to explore, and that’s not the only aggravation I ran into in my journey. But if your threshold for that is high, I must admit you’ll get a creative and surprisingly challenging entry in the genre here.

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Environmental Station Alpha was a research base carved out of an asteroid to aid scientists in studying alien biomes. It was a wildly successful venture until a sudden catastrophe somehow killed the entire crew without explanation. The powers that be were content to just leave the place floating derelict, at least until recently when they started picking up a new signal from its spooky halls. To finally get to the bottom of this mystery, they send you, a survey robot, to check it out. Nothing about this mission is routine, of course, and you end up plunged into the very bowels of an abandoned station overrun with loads of inhospitable critters. If you can survive long enough, you might just be able to uncover what happened to the long departed crew, and it may not be at all what you’re expecting.

That’s a bigass if, though. ESA kicks you right into the action with a pair of bosses in the opening minutes of the game, and only ratchets things up from there. Your bot starts with only a few points of health and a very short-range blaster, so until you rack up several upgrades combat is going to be risky and punishing. You don’t even get anything from fighting besides relief and the occasional barrier opening, either. Bosses tend to have long life bars and intense patterns you can hardly be expected to handle the first time you see them. And if that wasn’t enough, the game is rife with traps and hazards you have to brave to progress, like the volcanic zone that slowly kills you that you HAVE to enter more than once before getting the item that mitigates it.

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The direct threats are bad enough, but ESA contains some design decisions that can exacerbate that in a big way. The worst of these are the many, many dead-ends you’re going to encounter in the first few hours of the game, gated off by powers you don’t have, mechanics yet unexplained, or just red herrings that let you see into rooms you can’t access yet. Some can be ludicrously frustrating, like the sealed door I backtracked to after getting the item to open it, only to find another door sealed with a different item right behind it. ESA is more than happy to let you battle through tough rooms and overcome brutal platforming challenges for absolutely no gain, discouraging exploration through a combination of high difficulty and poorly-signposted gates.

I won’t lie, this game felt like it hated me for the first few hours, and I still find myself getting heated from time to time in ways that most platformers don’t affect me. But I kept going, buoyed by the many things ESA gets right. The mystery is meted out to you on terminals and takes several surprising turns, especially as you learn just how varied the biomes on the station are. Several of the upgrades like the hookshot and dash can (and must) be used in very creative ways, giving you unprecedented mobility if you can master them. I also found the atmosphere very compelling, even if it does lift from classic Metroid to a hilarious degree and the pixel art tends to be so lo-res it can be hard to tell exactly what you’re looking at.

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I’m a little hesitant to give this one any sort of strong recommendation, but ultimately I’ve found Environmental Station Alpha to be one of the more compelling metroidvanias in my library. It won’t be compelling for everyone, owing to the steep difficulty curve and how obnoxiously it pushes it. But even as painful as some of those challenges are, I can see they’re smartly designed and make finding your way in this game more gratifying than in most. You’ll need to overlook a lot of shortcomings here, make no mistake, but the highs tend to be a lot higher than the lows are low, and for the creepy sci-fi adventure being offered here that’s good enough for me.

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