In an alternate universe, Kennedy didn’t die and the USSR and the USA joined forces in the space race, colonising and exploring the solar system and beyond, finding amazing things in distant planets. After losing touch with Research Station M, on Titan, you’re the one sent to fix it all and find out what happened to the crew. This is P-O-L-L-E-N.
Developer: Mindfield Games
Publisher: Mindfield Games
Release Date: April 2016
Played: Full Story
Purchase At: Steam
I first played P·O·L·L·E·N at EGX last year, one of the many VR games on show at the event. I remember it vividly because it was the first VR game to almost make me vomit. The framerate in the demo was all over the place and if you know VR, you know that’s a cocktail for losing your lunch.
Before I go into the review, I want to point something out: if you’re going to spell the title of your game in hyphens or periods to somehow make it look or sound like an anagram, that anagram better mean something. In Pollen’s case, it doesn’t, it’s just meant to make the game sound much more interesting than it is—and to make it a bit of a pain to type the game’s name.
In fact, there’s so little about Pollen in the entire game that the name is more or less complete nonsense. There are, perhaps, a couple of mentions to the stuff and bees in the entire experience and the reality is the plot has nothing to do with it. When I first launched the game I said this aloud to myself and it’s always painful when my cynicism proves right.
The premise is interesting. It’s an alternate reality where Kennedy survived the assassination attempt, and the United States and the Russians joined forces in space travel. In short time the cooperation led to incredible discoveries in propulsion and anti-gravity systems and humanity began exploring other planets. But unlike our reality, computers never made it out of laboratories.
One of the Research Stations found something incredible, groundbreaking, but the people on Earth lost contact with them, so they sent you to re-establish contact and figure out what happened. If this plot seems in any way familiar, it’s because “Lost research team in remote base” is a very common Science-Fiction premise. One that’s been done to death to be honest.
Pollen is an exploration game, where you walk around reading people’s diaries, listening to audio logs and slowly piecing together the different elements of the plot. Pollen adds another layer by presenting the story in two worlds: light and dark. In certain spots around the base, you find objects with a mysterious energy signature that transports you between these worlds. In the dark one, the base is in shambles and you find the audio logs of a single crewmember as she struggles to keep her sanity. In the light, you find more logs from that character and a minuscule set of diaries from the other members of the station’s crew. In fact, it could be said that this character is the most important in the story, as the developers evidently didn’t put any effort in developing the rest of the—missing—cast, and even so, none of them are interesting or compelling.
At first the dual worlds intrigued me but Pollen’s storytelling is about as subtle as a C4-packed truck honking “La Cucaracha,” so soon enough I knew everything that happened and reached the only possible conclusion on what it all means. Worse still, the exploration is linear so there’s no chance to go off the beaten path and find out more about the characters or give the story a bit more context. In the end, with the heavy-handed information given to you, no nuance in the characterisation and a very short run-time, Pollen seems to waste a perfectly fine alternate history setting. Even the premise, though done many times in the past, could’ve been great, but they didn’t use it properly.
Without spoiling much, the ending is a ten-minute sequence that seems part Windows Screensaver and part tech-demo, as you have no choice but to watch fractals appear on screen and then some strange architecture before a final shot that left me saying, “That’s it?” Worst of all, I saw the post-fractal ‘twist’ coming a mile away, not that it made it any less nonsensical.
Pollen’s visuals are beautiful. I can’t deny that they are, with highly detailed environments that match the setting perfectly, with computers and other equipment being extremely bulky, showing how little they developed in this timeline. Having said so, if there’s one thing the environment didn’t make me feel is “lived in.” Sure, there are possessions strewn about the environment, but everything’s too neat, making the space feel artificial. The crewmembers don’t even have clothes in their rooms. If you’ve ever lived with other people, you know how messy they can be.
Sound design is a mixed bag. The voice acting is great but the music, what little there is of it, comes at odd times. Just when the game is doing its best to set up an atmosphere, you enter the main hydroponics room and it switches to an upbeat melody, meant to make you greatly admire the wondrous complex you stand on. It’s not the only time it happens, and the only thing it does is shatter the immersion completely, evaporating the atmosphere.
Pollen, or P·O·L·L·E·N, has a fantastic setting, which is why I’m so sad that it wastes it with a subpar story, with bland storytelling and without even giving you decent exploration. I’m completely disappointed in this game.
1.5/5 – Bad!