The phrases “credit where credit is due” and “games are works of art” might be the only allies of Mindfield Games and their exploration game today. P.O.L.L.E.N. is visually stunning, intentionally atmospheric and thematically cohesive – but it’s also a game, and the core of a game is generally comprised of only two things: what the player does and the choices they’re given. Despite its many successes as a product, this title’s core is dreadfully weak.
But let’s start with its successes. Watch an intriguing montage explaining how history could have yielded an earlier and unified space age, step foot on Saturn’s moon, Titan, then begin to explore a space station on its surface, and you’ll quickly notice P.O.L.L.E.N.‘s strongest asset: it’s pretty. Mindfield have made excellent use of nearly every technical aspect there is to a modern game. Detailed objects (every single one that can be picked up, at least) fill several shelves, storage containers and living surfaces. Scenes use both pre-computed and real-time global illumination to give the impression that light is bouncing off of everything around the player – which makes a huge difference in a game where so much of the environment is shiny – and the fidelity of the game’s textures made me want to walk right up to every single object and examine each room closely.
Strangely enough, the game’s beauty is the first thing that worried me. I had gotten the impression that this game was developed by a small team, so the detail of the game world stood out like a red flag, saying, “This is all there is!”
P.O.L.L.E.N. uses environmental storytelling. It doesn’t seem to hold the player’s hand; a voice won’t chime in to provide tips and narrative here and there, and the player can’t summon a magic arrow to point them in the direction of their objective. What it does have, and makes use of at every turn, are VHS-looking tapes and tape players scattered throughout the base. Imagine some sort of exhibit in a museum with a descriptive audio loop playing nearby. As the player, you’ll hear several accounts about strange happenings at Base M, one from a woman who has encountered what they call “The Entity” and lives in another time. You’ll enter rooms that are both beautiful and harrowing in their emptiness, and scavenge for clues among documents, photos, and items once owned by those living on-base. Using several of these “exhibits” strung together, accompanied by solid voice-acted audio logs and realistic hand-crafted objects for the player to inspect, the game does a marvelous job of building suspense as the mystery of the Entity is progressively deepened.
Without giving the ending away, I have to admit: something happens. I’m not sure what it is, but the game does lead to something. While it’s objectively gorgeous and creates a remarkable sense of immersion with its environment, though, P.O.L.L.E.N. is one of the least mechanically interesting games I’ve played this year.
In P.O.L.L.E.N. you walk around a space station and interact with things. Think The Vanishing of Ethan Carter meets SOMA, without the fear factor of SOMA‘s diabolical monsters or the clever puzzles of either game. A huge number of small machines respond to button presses: faucets, microwaves, intercoms, etc. Most are simply functional to provide realism and atmosphere, however, and don’t actually help the player along. Every little object has impressive detail and can be picked up, inspected, and thrown – which makes for a wide array of storytelling opportunities, but as a primary mechanic makes for a very shallow pool of play possibilities. To be blunt, one can’t be good at P.O.L.L.E.N.
To be fair, this game is clearly not for the player who fits the completionist “gamer” stereotype, so it’s not trying to appeal to the part of the player that wants challenge. In under four hours, I was able to inspect every room on the station until I was happy with my progress, and finish the game’s story line. I found it particularly ironic that isolation and social deprivation are big themes in P.O.L.L.E.N. (a woman’s audio logs demonstrate their negative effects) but I never once felt oppressed by my being alone on the station. Maybe the shortness of the game prevented loneliness from developing. Moreover, the Entity is described as a dangerous mystery, and several deaths are directly linked to it, but I never once felt like I was in danger. The nail in the coffin in terms of the game’s design is that it offers no meaningful choice to the player. The player can choose to meander around the station until they’ve reached a progress point, or they can quit.
Retailing at £18.99 / $25, P.O.L.L.E.N. just doesn’t seem to offer enough content or mechanical diversity to justify a full-price purchase. Like a valuable trinket, it’s polished and pretty to look at, but doesn’t represent anything that hasn’t been done before.
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