It’s in the atmosphere
HIGH A gorgeous sci-fi aesthetic wrapped in a great sense of atmosphere…
LOW …that can’t disguise a slight and inconclusive story.
WTF That ending, man.
The title of Mindfield’s adventure game P.O.L.L.E.N. may suffer from an affliction of unnecessary punctuation, but the word itself is perfectly appropriate. Like its hay fever-triggering namesake, a player can practically breathe in the game’s atmosphere and environmental world-building. Mindfield has managed to construct a lovely, chunky, retro-futuristic aesthetic to rival the classic sci-fi look pioneered by Alien.
If only the game draped in these good looks were as substantial.
Unfortunately, while P.O.L.L.E.N. looks great and would probably look amazing if viewed via virtual reality (this reviewer played without a VR headset) its narrative feels unsatisfying and truncated in places, and just doesn’t hold up.
At least things begin well.
Players are dropped at a lonely, desolate research base located on Titan, a moon of Saturn. P.O.L.L.E.N. works hard to drive home its alternate history, where the failure of the Kennedy assassination somehow keeps consumer-level computing off the table but kicks off a global age of space exploration that sees global mega-corporations colonizing the outer planets by 1995. The notion sounds slightly absurd to the mind of a jaded gamer in 2016, but things do work out and give a sense of credibility and place that tends to evade some of its competitors. What ends up lacking, however, is the core storytelling.
Most of the tale is delivered via found audio logs, which are a somewhat played-out conceit. Less conveniently, the logs need to be accessed via static player devices, forcing players to sit and stew while they listen to exposition. Though this may be an alternate history, one would think that portable speakers or headphones would have been invented.
P.O.L.L.E.N. does contain one semi-unique storytelling device, enabled by the same forces that spur the mystery. At specific points, players can travel to alternate versions of the same area to bypass obstacles or solve puzzles. These shifted environments are as intentionally devoid of life as everything else in the game, but that doesn’t pose much of a problem since the thrust of the story is about investigating what happened to everyone in the first place. It’s hardly a unique premise, but it adds enough variety to the limited suite of interactions in P.O.L.L.E.N. to give the game a greater feeling of depth.
Unfortunately, the lack of human presence tends to make P.O.L.L.E.N.’s weakness in core storytelling more apparent since the game doesn’t have engaging characters to paper over the narrative seams. Titles like Soma and Firewatch drive characterization forward more effectively, while titles like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Gone Home do more with their environments. If the field were less crowded, P.O.L.L.E.N. would be a more potent contender, but the narrative is overly-familiar and not exactly helped by a dearth of engaging or novel mechanics.
The nail in the coffin is the overriding sense that P.O.L.L.E.N. is somehow unfinished. The ending of the game is a lengthy, baffling anticlimax, and it smacks of a hastily put-together conclusion following budgeting or scheduling problems during development. This would be more disappointing in a longer, more substantial title, but seeing as P.O.L.L.E.N. can be finished in a weekend, this unfortunate turn didn’t rankle too much, since not much time was “wasted” by a bad ending.
Ultimately, P.O.L.L.E.N. fails to live up to its lofty narrative aspirations, but deserves credit for its considered, lovingly-crafted aesthetic and intriguing premise.
Disclosures: This game was developed and published by Mindfield Games. Code for this review was obtained via publisher and it was reviewed on the PC. Approximately 4 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game’s rating is pending. However, it contains suggestive themes, blood, violence, and suggestive language.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All dialog subtitled subtitles, and most puzzles can be solved without the need for audio cues.
Remappable Controls: The game has fully remappable controls, and is compatible with both Oculus Rift and standard 2D display options.
Colorblind Modes: There is no specific colorblind mode in-game, but a color correction mode can be enabled that makes certain colors more prominent and visible to players with color blindness.