Indie Wonderland: Environmental Station Alpha

A few hours in

Y’know, some people say exploration is terrible and overrated. They’ll say things like, ‘What if you run into lakes of acid? Or giant pillars of green stone? Or impossible-to-pass security doors? Or homing murder bats? Or a giant, terrible Queen Beetle, The First Of Her Kind, determined to grind your robot form into so much metallic dust?

To that, I say, eh. That can happen.

You know how it goes. You’re just walking around, then suddenly the ground gives way and you’re fighting for your life against a monster bug that should not be.

But without exploration, would we find the health-boosting Life Tanks that keep us up? Would we find the Data Diskettes that shed increasing light on the disaster that happened on this station? Would we find upgrades like the Jump Boost, that suddenly and irrevocably open up paths formerly locked to us?

Nay, I say! Nay, we would not!

And that’s why exploration is the greatest good and we should do it always to the best of our ability, amen.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this little peek into the thought processes I entertain while I work on designing my prototype board game, tentatively titled Exploration Game, which focuses on how cool it is to find things. I don’t know why those thought processes reference Environmental Station Alpha so much; I should probably prune some of that to keep the IP lawyers off my back. But serendipitously, it works as a good segue: like my imaginary non-existing proto-game, Environmental Station Alpha, a real game that actually exists, is also a prime example of how cool it can be to take fate by the horns and find your own way around unknown places. And occasionally an example on how that can be not fun. It’s a creature of many facets, this game.

As exemplified by this boss fight, which very literally has three facets: A yellow one, a green one, and a red one.

Okay, okay, enough babbling. I had to get some residual weirdness out of my system, blame 2017. I’ll put on my serious hat now. At this point, I’ve played Environmental Station Alpha for about five hours, give or take. This has involved a lot of running around in low-fi corridors, fighting monsters, finding paths, grabbing powerups, and hoping against hope that I could make it to the nearest health recharge station before the homing bullets hi- nope, dead again. Ah well. According to the title screen, those five hours put me at 48% completion, meaning about half of what Environmental Station Alpha actually has to offer. I had a fairly decent time doing so. Not sure how likely it is that I’ll get to the other half.

Five hours is plenty of time to forget watering your plants, it turns out.

Something very interesting happens when I try to write or talk about Environmental Station Alpha, and that something has to do with the art style. You’ve seen it at this point: A hyper-pixelated aesthetic that makes 8-bit games look expansive while simultaneously managing to pack quite a lot of visual information in its limited palette. It’s not really my jam, which is noteworthy in its own right; guess I finally found a game that’s too pixel-heavy even for me. But by and large, it’s… mostly fine. There are some issues, particularly in areas where the limited graphics palette interferes with gameplay, but we’ll get to that later. That’s not what I’m talking about.

But whenever I recall Environmental Station Alpha, particularly its art style and overall aesthetic, I get the thought in my mind that this game must be small. ‘Look at this cute little thing,‘ my subconscious almost seems to say, ‘this must be some game design student’s Masters project! Something about the limited palette, heavy pixel leaning, and very low resolution keeps tricking my lizard brain into thinking that this game can’t be all that much.

Which is 100% wrong, because Environmental Station Alpha is large. I won’t go for needless superlatives, but ten hours playtime for a game like this (extrapolating from current data) is absolutely nothing to scoff at. What’s more, Environmental Station Alpha is dense: It packs a lot of enemies, challenges, options, and environments in its tiny frame. They say not to judge books by their covers, and I guess Environmental Station Alpha is that lesson coming home to roost: Big things can even come in packages that you can count the individual constituent squares of.

Which, I stress again, is in no way a dig against the pixel art style, or pixel art in general. Look at what cool things they managed to do with this!

Mechanically, my first instinct is to call Environmental Station Alpha a Metroidvania. But let’s not beat around the bush here: Environmental Station Alpha isn’t ‘a Metroidvania’, Environmental Station Alpha is Metroid. Specifically, NES Metroid, the very first one. Not 100% literally, but damn near close enough. Consider: In both games, you control an otherwise uncharacterized orange robotic-looking figure through a dark, mostly abandoned technological installation. Both games have a strong focus on wayfinding, platforming, and collecting upgrades; gunplay combat is present not as a power fantasy or a kinaesthetic pleasure, but strictly as a survival tool against increasing odds. Both games feature secrets, optional health upgrades, screen-filling bosses, and coloured security doors that you can only open with the right upgrades. Throw in some hints of a malevolent AI causing all problems behind the scene, and some sprinkles of an ancient civilization whose temples you traverse to get more power, and it’s hard to see how Nintendo’s IP lawyers haven’t spent the last two years building a case. Or they would have, if Nintendo hadn’t so obviously stopped caring about the Metroid license. But that’s a whole different article.

Only saying ‘Environmental Station Alpha is a lot like original Metroid‘ isn’t super valuable from a critical perspective, which is too bad, because otherwise I could cut out for an early lunch. All the same, the prime reason I share this here is to establish an easy baseline for what kind of gameplay experience Environmental Station Alpha can be expected to provide. At this point you might be thinking of irregularly-shaped rooms in thematically coded and coloured areas, such as The Lava Place and The Ice Place and The Water Place; A limited play world at first, that organically opens up as you find powerups geared towards movement and combat; Limited direction and a focus on the player exploring and figuring stuff out for themselves; And rolling up into a ball and blasting opens cracked blocks. Okay I’m being facetious with that last one, but even then only a little bit: Among Environmental Station Alpha‘s powerups are included a charged shot, a heat-proof suit that prevents environmental damage in the ‘lava sector’, a suit that lets you move freely through water, a double jump, and even a grapple beam hookshot that lets you swing from almost every environmental object.

The hookshot is actually really cool, and more akin to a Spiderman thing than Metroid. It conserves motion based on the length of the chain, and once you figure out how to combine it with the double jump, you can start reaching a lot of previously ‘impossible’ areas.

I’m actually totally okay with this. There’s a saying in Dutch that ‘good examples lead to good imitations’, and even if imitating Metroid wasn’t the developers’ plan here, they’ve nevertheless managed to hit a lot of the same good spots. It’s fun to explore the station, especially early on, when everything is new and uncertain and you keep running into things that you know you’ll be able to deal with one day. Outright guidance is limited, but Environmental Station Alpha is one of those games that’s very decent at presenting the illusion of uncertainty: You think you have no idea where you’re going and you think you’re figuring stuff out as you go, but in reality, the game is funneling you down a small number of paths at all times. I was really confused the first time I fell into Queen Beetle’s lair. I couldn’t work out to how to hurt it; had I sequence-broken the game by accident, did I trespass somewhere I shouldn’t have? But in retrospect, going into Queen Beetle’s lair was literally the only thing I could do at that time. Well, that, or run up against one or two paths I had no way of dealing with. Again, especially early on, Environmental Station Alpha is good at hiding these constraints from you, and providing that satisfying feeling of ‘I did this, I worked this out all by myself’.

Another example: Early on, after defeating Queen Beetle, you can get into the lava area, where you constantly take damage over time from the heat. The game has hinted at a heat-resistant suit at this point, so you might figure you’ll need that to get through. But since the hookshot is on the other side of this place, I figured I’d just try running through it. I made it after three tries, barely — and felt so cool for managing. Later, of course, I understood that this was the only way forward: You *have* to dash through the lava range at this point. The heat suit doesn’t come until much later.

By and large, navigating the station and figuring your stuff out is decent fun. It’s not flawless, for a couple reasons. For one, this is where the graphics get in the way of gameplay: It’s not always equally clear what is background and what is fore. Sometimes this is intentional, such as the various secret passages you can walk through or blast open — I’m not a great fan of that sort of thing, but it works as a concept. In other cases, though… In one forested section, a terminal will tell you that ‘some branches are thick enough to stand on, and you can visually tell these apart from others’. Except that’s a lie. The only way you can reliably tell the branch types apart is by landing on them. You can imagine how much fun that is in a challenging platforming series. There are often very little clues to indicate if any element is physical or not, especially since some of the same textures are used interchangeably for both. The game would be better to navigate if this was more consistent.

See, like this. Are these rock spikes passable or not? Dangerous or not? Also, why does this game have such a preference for making creepy giant faces everywhere?

For real though!

Two, the lack of explicit tutorials is fine, but this does mean that you have to figure out every option of every movement thing yourself. As an example: I discovered only through sheer luck that swinging on the hookshot can let you bypass wind currents, which your character otherwise can’t fight. I had no idea! Had I not known, I’d have had no idea how to get to the next plot-critical section of the game. It’s a fine line that Environmental Station Alpha treads here: It’s all good fun if the player discovers stuff for themselves, for reasons mentioned above, but you need to have a backup plan in case they don’t — which I don’t know if this game has.

And three, the controls are just… a bit odd? The four main action keys are X for jumping, C for shooting, and then Z and V for the ‘abilities’ — one of which is the hookshot, sorry, I spoiled that for you. Z, X, C, V. Now try training your fingers to hit the exact right one of those four buttons at a moment’s notice. You’ll need to, in a challenging game like Environmental Station Alpha. It doesn’t work for me; the basic WASD is too engrained in my fingers. I can’t tell you the number of times I hookshotted when I wanted to laser-shoot. I appreciate that of all my complaints, this one’s probably the silliest — and yet, I kept coming back to it over and over. I’m not going to hold this against Environmental Station Alpha too much, since you can rebind the keys. But as a default layout, it does get in the way of intuitive controls a little.

One area of the game where the strange controls can come home to roost a little more explicitly is during the game’s many boss fights. From giant beetles, to haunted statues, to monster jellyfish, you get the general idea: You enter a larger-than-normal room, the doors close, and you sigh and try to remember where the last save point was again.

I don’t even know what’s going on with this design.

Boss fights are an established part of the Metroid formula, I respect that, and done well they can be cool set pieces and memorable tests of necessary skill. Environmental Station Alpha‘s boss fights are… a bit hit or miss. Some are fine, like the aforementioned Queen Beetle, which ensures that you understand the basics of movement and combat before moving on. Or the haunted statue and the tomb spider, both of which you can only beat if you understand the finer intricacies of the dash attack. I’m not saying I beat all of those on my first try, hell no, but I generally understood what the deal was and I had a good idea of what was expected of me for victory. That I lost to the haunted statue the first time was almost strictly the result of me not hitting the buttons I wanted to hit, which (again) I’m willing to blame on the default control scheme. The controls, definitely not me. I’m good at video games.

Others… The aforementioned Scrapper Unit is fine it its first ‘phase’, wherein it behaves pretty much as you’d expect. But I’d never have beaten the second phase, where you’re suddenly expected to attack terminals to the side instead of the main boss, without looking it up. And the less said about the plant boss Overgrowth, the better. I must have tried that sucker like eight times before I finally lucked through; I knew what I had to do long before that, but bad dice rolls and inaccurate controls were against me. So far, there have been more decent bosses than bad bosses, but I have no way of knowing if that ratio stays good over time.

Warning: Bad Times Zone Ahead

I could discover the Good Boss/Bad Boss ratio if I played more Environmental Station Alpha, but like I said, that seems unlikely. I’ve already indicated that the controls don’t always agree with me, and the graphics sometimes hinder gameplay, and the bosses tend to be a coin toss. All the same, in the early hours, the exploration gameplay was fun enough to keep me going. But then there’s the operational phrase: The early hours. Initially, Environmental Station Alpha puts down fairly engaging Metroid-style gameplay, and I won’t deny I had fun with it. But as the play hours went by, I more and more started to notice that the game couldn’t really keep a hold of my interest. I was, bluntly, getting bored.

I could write another four thousand words about why Environmental Station Alpha couldn’t seem to hold me, but the longer I think about it, the simpler it becomes. Exploration games in the Metroid vein are fun because it’s cool to overcome obstacles, it’s cool to discover new places and drive the story, and it’s cool to come back to places you visited earlier with new tools that recontextualize what you thought you knew. But Environmental Station Alpha increasingly falls short in all these areas. It’s cool to overcome obstacles, but Environmental Station Alpha‘s obstacles don’t really change as much, or as quickly, as you think. There are cool things, like when turning on the power not only activates previously-locked doors, but also previously-harmless turrets; I thought that was a clever inversion. But by and large, halfway into the game, I only still have one way of dealing with enemies (shooting) and two ways of dealing with platforms (double-jumping and hookshot shenanigans). It’s cool to return to old places and unlock new secrets, but Environmental Station Alpha is pretty bad at helping remember where anything is. The map is functional in an odd way: It will tell you where all the powerups you’ve ever collected were, and it’ll tell you the boss rooms of all the bosses you killed, but it won’t tell you which exists you didn’t take yet are guarded by red doors. That’s all I need to know! I can open red doors now, I want you to tell me where those fuckers are! But no. You’re free to use the map teleporters to zip all over the place, but whenever you’re stuck for the next plot-critical beat, the only option that’s reliably open is to travel all across the map and rub your robot dude against every part of the map you haven’t already completely explored. And in some cases, that’s not even enough: Environmental Station Alpha loves its secret passages and its unmarked exits. And it’s cool to discover new places and drive the story, but…

You could offer me a thousand dollars right now and I wouldn’t be able to tell you Environmental Station Alpha‘s larger story. And I did pay attention. It’s something about the station AI falling prey to a virus? And everything going haywire? And our robot is trying to… do… something? Escape? Fight the AI? Fight the virus? Find the remaining humans?

A virus is definitely *involved*.

It was this realization most of all that made me bounce off of Environmental Station Alpha. I play games like these to discover the next interesting thing. But if nothing I discover is interesting, what am I even doing with myself?

Final thoughts

I don’t generally read other reviews while I’m trying to put my own Indie Wonderland together. But when grabbing links for this one, I browsed the Steam store page for Environmental Station Alpha and read this review by user WonderCrab. I’m glad I didn’t do that before writing this whole thing, because they put more or less the same thoughts on paper as I do in a fraction of the words; I’m pretty sure I can even identify the exact boss they gave up on, because I was damn close to stopping at that particular boss myself.

In the end, Environmental Station Alpha is a decent game. I keep coming back to that word: decent. It is what it is, which is a spiritual descendant of Metroid with a unique art style and particular gameplay stylings that work very well about as often as they work poorly. It’s a good game if you’re jonesing for this type of gameplay, and if you enjoy challenging exploration and don’t mind the occasional frustrating boss fight, I have no doubt you’ll play all the way to the end before even realizing the weekend’s over. Content-wise and work-wise, it definitely justifies its eight dollar asking price. All the same, I’m a professed fan of this genre and I just got tired after a while: The aggressive lack of player guidance, unclear mechanics, odd controls, and occasional Do-It-Again-Stupid boss design slowly ground away at my motivation. I might return to the station someday, to confront the evil AI and find out what’s actually at the heart of all this (my money’s on aliens). But for the moment, my little robot avatar is just going to have to be content with sitting where they are. Welcome to Environmental Station: Alpha, recruit! Hope you brought enough packed lunches.

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Jarenth is adamant that robot explorers would totally bring packed lunches. What if they get peckish? Suggest lunches that a robot explorer would eat on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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