Version Tested: PC
Available On: PC, Oculus Rift
Developer: Mindfield Games
Genre: Indie, Adventure
Official Site: http://pollengame.com/
Release Date: 20 April 2016
Where To Buy: Steam
P.O.L.L.E.N. is set in a world where Kennedy was never assassinated, the Cold War never really happened, and computers never made it out of high-tech laboratories. The tense peace between the USA and the USSR slowly became a fully-fledged alliance, and the space race became a collaborative effort. As a result, rather than the digital revolution, we had the interstellar revolution, where humanity set up shop amongst the stars rather than in cyberspace.
However, the final frontier is anything but a known quantity by the time the player character enters the scene, and there are still many mysteries to be solved in the deep black. And it is one of these mysteries that you, a replacement mechanic, are expected to solve. Upon landing, you find an empty base, a cold silence and only more questions for every vague answer. As you proceed through the research facility, you find details and clues through tapes, notes and messages left behind by the crew you were supposed to supplement – all referring to some strange discovery, known only as The Entity…
P.O.L.L.E.N. is an exploration game, with a few puzzles and plenty of environment to fumble through. There are no guns, no explosions, just you in a space suit exploring a space station, collecting tapes and solving simple puzzles to continue. I am not one to usually enjoy walking simulators – Dear Esther was more of a yawn than a masterpiece to me, and I have not so much as touched Gone Home, but P.O.L.L.E.N. managed to do something I thought was impossible for something from this genre: it kept me hooked, and made me want to have a second playthrough.
You often find with these kinds of games that the first time through reveals everything you need or want to know, but P.O.L.L.E.N. remains intentionally ambiguous and mysterious regarding exactly what is going on. You can miss tapes, misinterpret notes and misunderstand what the game is trying to tell you, but it never really feels like you are completely in the dark. Even if you don’t discover every single little crumb of information, you can still gather a vague idea of what is going on. This is a game that will not wrap everything up in a nice little bow for you to discover – if you want to know everything, you’ll have to work for it! It’s better to know the full tale (it’s really quite fantastic), but if you don’t want to go exploring every nook and cranny for tapes, you don’t necessarily have to.
However, you may find yourself doing so anyway, in light of the incredible environments. I have never played a game that has such an attention to detail; every drawer, every bookshelf, every piece of furniture and every light switch has obviously been placed with a great deal of care. In fact, the environment is so effective that it could be described as one of the main story-telling features of the title. You can tell a great deal about the people whose voices you are listening to simply by the state of their quarters, for example. It is extremely satisfying to go rummaging through a kitchen drawer and actually find boxes of knives, forks, cleaning supplies and all the other culinary paraphernalia. While the sporks themselves don’t do much to further the plot, it’s just a perfect example of how the devs for P.O.L.L.E.N. obviously wanted to create an experience that demonstrated measured thought in every aspect.
The environment, for all its fantastic design, would be nothing without the music. From bright and futuristic to dark and oppressive, the score for P.O.L.L.E.N. is appropriate at every step, every turn and every environment. Step into a dark room? Prepare to feel ill at ease, no jump scares required. Open up the research lab for the first time? Bright, triumphant electronica will supplement your discovery. The score manages to instill curiosity, tension, and catharsis, all at once. It is truly a crowning achievement, and along with the physical environment, it is the most impressive part of an already impressive game.
The actual game design itself is simple, but effective. Because the same rooms are used multiple times in different ‘scenarios’ (I don’t want to spoil anything), you get to explore various different stages in the life of the crewmembers and work your way towards solving the ultimate problem. While this does present the issue of a repetitive world with a fair bit of running back and forth, it’s hard to fault P.O.L.L.E.N. for reusing what is the main draw of the game. It would be like saying Call of Duty has too much shooting in it. Nevertheless, it does get a little tiresome and is one of the few points against the title. On the other hand, the re-use does make it very easy to memorize and learn exactly where you are on the space station, and without a map that is a very important factor. If this was intended by the developers, it is a very clever and subtle way to ensure the player doesn’t get lost and frustrated constantly – though it is a little bit of an irritating method.
Other than that, there are a couple of other small, technical issues. Each door in the station is a hidden loading screen, and you might find some performance problems whenever you enter a new room. Because each setting is packed with objects, the game can stutter quite a bit before returning to regular framerates. It’s a small problem, but one that was consistently irritating and constantly destroying the carefully crafted immersive atmosphere. The characters can also be a little tricky to tell apart in the tapes, as their voices can sometimes sound very similar – the short runtime of the game doesn’t give you much of a chance to learn the difference. However, these are all just small marks in an otherwise brilliant game.
Overall, P.O.L.L.E.N. is a brilliant, immersive exploration game with some satisfying puzzles, lovely graphics and environment and an incredible soundtrack. Despite being short, it’s a title that will surely stick in the minds of anyone who decides to play it. Whether you want to test our your new VR headset or just fancy a trip into an alternative timeline, P.O.L.L.E.N. from Mindfield Games is a great choice for those who like space, science, mystery and exploration.
- Gameplay: Pick stuff up, rotate it, put it back down. Walk around. Uncover The Entity.
- Graphics: One of the most detailed and lovingly crafted games I have played to date.
- Sound: Best played with headphones, the score is one of the truly impressive parts of P.O.L.L.E.N.
- Presentation: In space, no one can hear your mixtapes.
- Beautiful environment
- Fantastic score
- Engaging plot
- Interesting characters
- Quite short
- Performance issues
- Plot can be a little dense at times