For as much as I'm skeptical about the current state of virtual reality, one genre escapes the in-your-face gimmicks of the format and feels absolutely natural: first-person adventure games. (Or "walking simulators." Or "environmental exploration games." Human language fails us sometimes.)
The slow, contemplative pacing of these games feels extremely appropriate for the world of VR. While most of the virtual reality demos I've played revolved around the threat of critical eye damage, I could easily see something like Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and similar experiences being far less exhausting when viewed through a headset. So I wasn't exactly surprised to see a new game from this genre pop up on Steam, touting its VR support: P.O.L.L.E.N by the fairly new Finnish studio Mindfield Games. And while I played their work the old-fashioned way, their subtle take on an immersive world helped convince me the VR experience doesn't have to be replete with flashy gimmicks.
As with any other game of this stripe, P.O.L.L.E.N is about the story of stuff—first-person adventure games tend to drop you into their worlds after a huge happening, and P.O.L.L.E.N doesn't veer from this trend. In it, you play a person tasked with reestablishing contact with a research base on Saturn's moon, Titan. Of course, when you arrive, said station is absent of life, leaving you with no choice but to pore over the various objects left behind to figure out what happened.
P.O.L.L.E.N goes beyond the ambitions of your typical walking simulator with an interesting mechanic that helps expand the possibilities of your very small surroundings. If you find the body of a crewmember, you can phase into the past, where the dank, dilapidated research station becomes bright and orderly (but still devoid of people). Since so many parts of the station can't be accessed in the present due to their state of disrepair, many of P.O.L.L.E.N's puzzles revolve around figuring out how messing with the past can open up new areas once you return. And this time jumping also assists with P.O.L.L.E.N's storytelling: Seeing items in their proper place in the past sheds light on their owners' possible fates, as well as their personalities.
P.O.L.L.E.N involves more than just exploration, though: A handful of puzzles scattered around the station task you with manipulating machinery in order to gain new items or open new areas. For the most part, these puzzles communicate their rules clearly, and choose to give the player clues via the environment rather than written instructions. None of them aspire to be as complex as anything in say, The Witness, since P.O.L.L.E.N's designers know a stumped player won't be as likely to fall for the charms of its unraveling mystery. With the few puzzles that didn't click immediately with me, simply experimenting with my options usually provided enough feedback to figure out what I'd done wrong.
It's true P.O.L.L.E.N's plot might feel a little predictable if you have a sense of Mindfield Games' various inspirations, but I'm still impressed at the team's level of self-control with their storytelling. P.O.L.L.E.N mostly communicates its narrative via the environments, and while it does rely on audio logs from time to time, they're relatively few in number and usually tell you more about that characters themselves rather than provide hints or give descriptions that could be better represented visually. And for a VR-geared game set on an abandoned (and often dark) space station, Mindfield gets extra points for not including any jump-scares in their game—or any scares at all, for that matter. The environments build atmosphere so effectively that P.O.L.L.E.N doesn't need to resort to cheap tactics to get you to feel something.
Overall, I'm very impressed with Mindfield's attempts to bring more adventure and puzzle-solving elements to a genre that's mostly gotten by on atmosphere and emotion alone. And P.O.L.L.E.N goes to great lengths to be more than just a tour through a sterile museum of content: Nearly everything that isn't nailed down can be picked up, twisted, turned, and thrown, and interacting with the station's machinery often involves twisting knobs, pulling levers, and spinning wheels. If you walked away from first-person adventures thinking they're too stiff and static, definitely give P.O.L.L.E.N a try; the genre's definitely going places, and with teams like Mindfield innovating, it'll be interesting to see just where it ends up next.
Simple and straightforward, P.O.L.L.E.N's interface does its best to not disrupt the experience.
Given that it's fairly easy to experience everything in a single playthrough, you won't be jumping back into P.O.L.L.E.N right after the credits roll.
P.O.L.L.E.N's fantastic sound design does much to sell its eerie atmosphere.
Though P.O.L.L.E.N takes place almost entirely within the confines of a single location, the attention to detail paid to every tiny object prevents the experience from being visually boring.
With P.O.L.L.E.N, Mindfield Games goes beyond the basics of first-person adventures for a time-traveling journey full of things to tinker with. And if you have an Oculus Rift, you may find it even easier to fall in love with their well-crafted world.