Wot I Think: Environmental Station Alpha

Environmental Station Alpha [official site] is a Metroid-alike pixel platformer that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, right up until I didn’t any more. And yet, I find myself recommending it. Here’s wot I think:

For how long does a game need to be good for it to be a good game?

I have had a tremendous time with Environmental Station Alpha (ESA), engrossed into its Metroid-a-like exploratory platforming, enchanted by the vivid nature of its extremely low-fi pixel presentation, playing it in my spare time after playing it during my work hours – always a good sign. But now I’ve reached a point where I don’t consider it any fun at all. According to my save file I’m 39% of the way through. So is it a good game?

I think so. And for a fiver, I’ve had many, many hours of entertainment getting to this point. But is it good enough, to reach a point in a game I’ve been loving where I simply can’t carry on? It’s tricky to resolve.

I’ve come to the realisation that the term “metroidvania” is a pretty unhelpful genre definition, since Metroid and Castlevania are games that play quite so differently. Metroid is more focused on platforming, Castlevania more on combat and its RPG elements. What usefully unites them is the means of progress – revisiting areas in an ever-growing map with new abilities and the capability to access new places. Anyhoo, ESA is very definitely in the Metroid camp.

You play… a blob of pixels, visiting a space station that’s been abandoned, in an effort to learn what happened there. Thus begins the 2D side-scrolling platforming, in which you progress through distinct rooms to find new power-ups and skills, to reach a series of specific target areas, uncovering the plot as you go.

And it’s put together so very proficiently. The fine balance of Metroid games is often underestimated by those wishing to emulate them, but Arvi Teikari and Roope Mäkinen demonstrate a rare skill of precision. Much is simply blocked off by coloured blocks that can only be passed once a particular weapon or skill is found, but more natural environmental barriers also come into play. Adding, say, the joyous hookshot to your repertoire completely redefines how you approach any room, and of course the early addition of the always great double-jump sees so much more come into reach.

So yes, it passes that essential test of grappling hook/double-jump, that automatically makes any game up to 30% better. (Pay attention, Civilization.) And the movement is, well, perfect. Normally these games are slightly let down by platform edge detection, or slightly glitchy swings, or clipping corners – none of that here. That I’m only now realising how flawless the movement was is the best sign – I was never frustrated nor impeded by the controls, and that’s a rare treat.

The boss fights are also, rather amazingly, not awful. Early fights require quickly realised approaches, then it’s just a case of applying skill… to a point. But we’ll get to that once my opening enthusiasm is spent.

The layout is slightly imbalanced. Teleporters and save/healing points are for the most part ideally placed, but for the NW area of the game, where they’re oddly spare and require a little too much retreading. And I would love to see the in-game map show which areas are blocked by, say, red, gold and blue blocks, so that you can see which areas to head back for once the means to pass them is in your arsenal.

But yes, like I say, it’s an extremely skilful delivery of the genre, constantly offering that sense of progress as new tricks mean old areas are more easily thwarted… Until it isn’t.

I switched the robot defences back on. I had to. It was part of the progress. And at that point, the game’s no fun any more. All those old rooms that I only ever need to pass through to get to new bits are suddenly ludicrous death traps, tiresome to navigate, weakening me before I reach dangerous new territory.

And the boss fights – suddenly they’re incredibly difficult, requiring so many goes to defeat. And when I finally do, oh, it was the first of two stages. Not only do I have to beat that first stage again, but with most my health left for the even trickier second. And, oh, no, come on, it has a third.

So, I’m done with Environmental Station Alpha. And I’m okay with that.

It’s worth mentioning that during playing I contacted the developers a couple of times, because I’d become stuck in an area without the necessary skill. They’re fixing such things on the fly, with regular updates tweaking the game to remove exploits (accidental or deliberate). And they also tell me they will soon release an “easy” mode, with toned down enemy damage.

I’m not convinced that’s going to fix the game’s later issues. I’ve found the difficulty, until this point, pretty much where it should be. It’s a tough game, and that’s a good thing. But taking a bit more damage isn’t going to stop this suddenly becoming so fiddly and over-complicated.

Of course, such a hike in the challenge might be exactly what others are looking for. As much of a genetic abnormality as it might be, there are those who long for near-impossible boss fights and the like, and I imagine they will grumble the game is too easy until the point where I’ve given up. For me, making areas I’d previously mastered quite such a chore to get through is too big of a set-back, especially when the boss fights have become impassable barriers. (Confession: I cheated to get past the last one I encountered, because it was sodding impossible.)

But I’ve had such a brilliant time with ESA until now that I find myself happily recommending it. Five pounds is a great deal for the pleasure it brought me over the last week.

Environmental Station Alpha is on Steam for £5.

24 Comments

  1. Ooops says:

    Your reviews are getting stranger by the minute. That’s a good thing by the way. :-)

    • WibbsterVan says:

      Doesn’t seem that weird to me. There have been a fair few games where something has happened part way through to change the extent to which I am enjoying playing, one of the main ones being the difficulty level, which can frustratingly spike.

  2. Greggh says:

    Instead of increasing difficulty/adding new mobs halfway past the game, why didn’t the devs just invert the whole Space Station¹?? *trollface*

    ¹ in fairness, that was a GENIUS idea the first time around (AFAIK, ’twas Castlevania SotN)

    • Tacroy says:

      Honestly it makes a lot more sense for a space station than for a castle.

  3. Robert The Rebuilder says:

    If the next Civilization game comes with double jump, I will know who to thank :)

  4. killias2 says:

    I use the Metroidvania terminology as a utilitarian shorthand, but it has its problems. Honestly, we need to resurrect the abandoned idea of the “action adventure” genre. Games like Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania Symphony of the Night, etc., have more in common than not, yet Metroidvania creates a false divide simply due to camera perspective. Of course, you have another set that basically thinks every game is an RPG, and that needs to be checked as well.

  5. valrus says:

    Gorgeous pixel art there, but it sounds like difficulty is haphazardly applied, which always puts me off in a genre that depends on careful experience design.

    The first time you do a challenging section is fun. Beyond three times: not any fun. There’s no new satisfaction to getting through that (say) precision spike obstacle course, once you’ve done it half a dozen times and just want to see if there’s now a wall you can break with your new ability upgrade.

  6. li says:

    That’s reminiscent of Cave Story, which is so good that I did the ‘easy’ part of it a few times (4 or 5?) but unfortunately I will never finish it, because after having reached the surface, it’s just too difficult.

  7. Kefren says:

    Why would anyone want a double jump? Surely just the ability to choose how high you jump would be better? Seriously confused. They only make sense if you have little rockets on your feet or something.

    • Premium User Badge

      Skabooga says:

      Yo server, I’ll take that person’s double jump if they don’t want it.

    • Spacewalk says:

      It’s more of a method to change your direction mid-flight than to get extra height on your leaps. Think of it as a kind of safety net if your ill-timed excursions into the air land you in more trouble than what you were trying to avoid.

      • Kefren says:

        Ah, I can see a practical use, though I’d still find it immersion-breaking. My background is Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins, Sacred Armour of Antiriad etc on the C64. Screw up the jump and die.

        • Spacewalk says:

          Funnily enough Super Ghouls ‘N’ Ghost on the SNES had double jump, probably the best implementation. Also funnily enough it seems to make the game appear harder in some places. Either that or I’m just terrible at GNG.

          • Kefren says:

            Perhaps because, once they implement a double-jump in that way, some jumps/puzzles will demand its use, which might be more complex than the jumps in games that don’t have it? Not played it, so I could well be wrong!

  8. DaceX says:

    This game does , in a way,pay a great homage to the whole Metroid series, or at least to the 2D titles. The art looks like a more detailed version of the original Metroid, with the enviromental changes seen in Fusion, while the gameplay feels like the arguably most popular third entry.

    Especially the second part is quite rarely done. Your actions on the station actually matter, basically reanimating a giant organism, including the awakening of a myrriad of new hazzards, which makes the title of the game so fitting.

    And while navigation becomes increasingly difficult thanks to this dynamic, NONE of those new obstacles are instant death (you can get squished by certain blocks, but they never come suddenly, and are quite sparse)

  9. Ejia says:

    I think it’s great that other people are making Metroid and Mega Man games since Nintendo and Capcom seem uninterested in doing so.

    • Kempston Wiggler says:

      ^THIS.

      Metroid especially doesn’t have anywhere near enough imitators/clones/homages in PC land. This is the best one I’ve yet seen.

  10. Baines says:

    After seeing the difficulty complaints, I could guess what the Steam forums would look like.

    And indeed, I was right. Mixed in with the complaints about some bosses being annoying are various people counter arguing that the game needs to be made harder. I haven’t seen dismissives like “git gud” yet, but there are posters who certainly seemed have been thinking that while writing their posts.

  11. blind_boy_grunt says:

    “I switched the robot defences back on. I had to.”
    That part confused me so much i had to reread the part before that to see if i missed something. But i don’t think i have. I think a commenter explained it, but just from the text it is hard to get what is meant (for me).

  12. morbiusnl says:

    reminds me of Exile.

    • SquidgyB says:

      I felt compelled to log in to say much the same. I’m actually going to buy it for that reason alone…

  13. yuriks says:

    I played this game to full completion (as of the current update, anyway) and I’ve had a blast with it. The level and boss design are of a quality I hadn’t seen in some time, and they nailed the atmosphere too.

    Regarding the difficulty spike, the game does shift gears at some point to much more difficult bosses. This isn’t helped by the fact that there’s a power-up for your weapon that is quite possible to miss and makes some fights much more tractable. This difficulty increase turns out to be a hump, however, since at some point in the late game you get a power-up that trivializes all the combat in the game.

    With good reason, however: After the regular ending of the game, it changes gears again and becomes something much more akin to La-Mulana. You are now tasked with solving lots of riddles and puzzles to unlock the secret final area of the game. It’s a pretty dramatic change, but the puzzles are just obscure enough that they remain solvable and fun.

    My only real complaint is that after all the trouble you go through (and the puzzles are quite the trouble) the “secret” ending could be more satisfying. Instead it is pretty ambiguous and doesn’t really resolve anything. Maybe this will be addressed by the developer in an update.

  14. still_dreaming_1 says:

    Spoilers: one boss name.

    I agree the genre ‘action adventure’ should be used more. The term metroidvania seems too specific and will encourage people to continue making unoriginal games that do nothing more than borrow from Metroid and Castlevania. However, it is extremely useful as a name since it very quickly tells me a lot about a game, and it gives me a term to search on if I want to play more games like that.

    ESA (Environmental Station Alpha) reminds me more of Metroid than Castlevania, but it took a lot of what worked best in both, and improved upon both. Even though the SOTN formula made for a very satisfying difficulty/improvement/progression, it is somewhat cheap. No matter how poorly you play, eventually you level up enough to get through an area without dying. It never forced you to get really good, so never really knew if you “earned” your accomplishments. Not allowing you to level up, the Metroid games had a missed opportunity to improve upon that formula. This is where ESA succeeds.

    One part of difficulty is not dying. You want it to be hard enough that you will often not survive the first time through a new area. You want to force the player to learn/improve in order to pass an area/boss so they can feel they are honing a skill and the game is not just taking it easy on them. You want them to learn something and improve during each new attempt until they finally succeed. You don’t want to require so much perfection that it becomes too frustrating. So far ESA does that really well. But as of right now, I am only at 38% and just defeated the “overgrowth” boss, I really can’t say if I agree with the reviewer about the difficulty increasing too much. I think I combine being an experienced and competent player without being super skilled or enjoying extremely difficult enemies.

    As far as the difficulty of solving puzzles / finding new secrets / finding the next section to explore, this should be balanced in a similar way. Even when I was having a hard time finding the next section I needed to explore, I could always at least make progress in some way during each play session, even if it was just a slight power-up. I don’t agree the game should just mark each type of progress blocker on the map. That would feel too much like the game was holding your hand, almost telling you exactly where to go next. Instead I wish it allowed my own markings and notes on the map.

    So far no bosses were too difficult, and one was too easy. I for the easy one, I had more power-ups than they were anticipating. When I was stuck for a while, I kept re-exploring the entire map, finding lots of obscure power-ups. I wish the game showed a completion percentage of currently possible to get power ups and unexplored passages. If you are fighting a boss, and you have less than 100%, you would know you can explore and find other power ups before fighting the boss. Then they could balance the boss difficulty based on assuming you have about 95% (or whatever number works).

    I really like the graphics. If they were more pixelated or outdated in some way, the game would be very ugly. If they were more less pixelated, it would leave less to the imagination, require more perfection to look just right, and not let the great artistic style shine through as much.

    I like the way when you first get the hookshot it seems really lame, but then you learn all the tricks and sometimes feel like a free flying monkey!

    Here are some of my more minor thoughts that don’t really affect the game that much. I like the music, but it mostly fails to set the mood as well as it could, being too upbeat for that purpose. There were times when I decided it was more advantageous to run away from enemies than to fight them. One section in particular always ends with a hoard of enemies on my tail, creating a sense of scary, but exciting suspense. But all it really did was make me wish the game played with that element more. Perhaps it will as I progress. Being a robot makes this game feel less personal and more detached.

    If the game does get significantly harder, my opinion could change. Even if it does get harder, I will try to keep making progress or learn something with each few attempts. If I can’t get past a boss, I will leave and try finding more health power-ups. As long progression continues, I don’t expect I will lower my opinion of the game.

    It is not as enjoyable as playing the old Metroid games or SOTN for the first time. I think it comes down to a combination of not having any real innovation, not having an engaging story, and not creating much suspense or surprises. I am happy I still have more to experience in this game, I am not ready for it to be over yet.

  15. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    John, was that strapline supposed to say “Samus Metroid But RiDley Good”? Otherwise I’m confused.