Environmental Station Alpha(ESA) is Hempuli’s love letter to the metroidvania genre and has been in development for over three years. ESA features all the trademarks of an indie game, incredible pixellated graphics, a one-man gaming studio and an engine that was built on Multimedia Fusion 2. Underneath this layer of familiarity, ESA features a rich world, increasingly hairy boss fights and pixel perfect platforming. I have not had a Metroidvania draw me in and keep me hooked since the days of Metroid and Castlevania. Hempuli manages to craft an incredibly deep and vibrant world that is extremely fulfilling to explore, power-ups that are a joy to use and stunning graphics.
Your opinion on the graphics hinge on your opinion of blocky pixel art. I’m a big fan of pixel art and the graphics for ESA are some of the best that I’ve seen. The backgrounds are incredibly detailed, with each world having a completely unique look and feel. You’ll experience heatwaves in the lava world, quicksand in the desert area, and poisonous spores in the swamp area. Each environment that you traverse is unique, with environmental hazards dotting the landscape, and enemies that are native to that particular biome. Beautiful landscapes and great graphics need to be paired with fluid animations in order to create a game that looks vibrant and feels smooth.
Clean and fluid animations can make up for what graphics cannot, as can be seen from physics based platformers such as Rain World and Fancy Pants adventure. Animation, not graphics, is often the dividing line between a game feeling polished and complete, and a browser-based flash game. In the case of ESA, the animations and graphics work in tandem and create a diverse world that feels alive. Jellyfish spurt forward and back like we expect them to, the heatwave the emanates from the lava looks like it could melt the metal right off your robot, and the boss animations are absolutely jaw dropping. Those with an appreciation for pixel art will fall in love with this game, and those that aren’t may have trouble getting over the art style of the game
Fluid animations and amazing visuals are great, but the addition of high quality soundtracks and sound effects that fit the mood of the game, quickly drive the game from polished, to memorable. ESA has achieved this with wild success. As I step into the elevator, I hear it give a small grind as it starts its ascent, and the dull hum of the elevator as I rocket upwards. As I dash and tumble through the air, I hear the satisfying sound of my grappling hook reach out and latch onto a platform. Every single shot I take with my gun feels strong, and purposeful, a satisfying sound emitting from my gun as I shoot it over and over. The sound effects in ESA are top notch, and add the little bit of oomph that adds gravity to your actions. The accompanying soundtrack that follows you as you explore this derelict space station serves to set the mood and allows you to immerse yourself into the dangerous environments that your robot finds itself in. From the wave of trepidation that washes over you as you approach a boss fight to the feeling of wanderlust that permeates your soul when you first spawn, the soundtrack ties the experience together and wraps it up in a neat little bow.
Great visuals and immersive sound do not equate to polished gameplay and tight controls. I’ve run into games such as Eternity’s Child that just oozes eye candy, but handles like an elephant on ice. Onn the other hand Super Meat Boy boasts a unique art style with responsive controls that gives you complete control over your protagonist. In Environmental Station Alpha, your ability to handle your character is superb. The controls are responsive and your character grapples, dashes and double jump at your every whim. Any mistake made while platforming feels like it’s ultimately your fault. The environment that you find yourself traversing and exploring contains a myriad of enemies, all with different behaviors. Platforming challenges that require pixel perfect timing will lead you to find secret areas and rooms around every corner.. The controls in ESA are tight and responsive and help support the varied and dangerous areas of the space station. ESA forces you to know every nuance of your powerups in order to traverse the world safely, as well as to access those out of the way areas that may hold a health powerup.
The tight controls and character dexterity that you gain all come together whenever you enter a boss fight. Boss fights in ESA range from a walk in the park, to computer-smashingly difficult. Each one is beautifully animated, with bosses having a wide range of attacks and behaviors, that require meticulous planning in order to avoid their attacks. Every boss fight can be beaten with minimal amounts of health, but only if you’re good enough to read their attacks and react accordingly. The boss battles really get you out of your comfort zone, as you must take advantage of your powerups, platforming skills and the environment in order to effectively neutralize a boss. I’ve experienced losses where the boss and I are both at 1 HP and battles where I’ve taken them down without having a single attack touch me. Every one of these wins and losses are a direct result of my skill. There was never a point in which I felt that a boss had an “artificial difficulty”, unlike the hardest mode in Fallout 3 where enemies just became bullet sponges Each showdown promotes good judgement, and knowing when to take risks, and more importantly, when to fall back and spend time dodging various projectiles instead. There’s no better feeling than effortlessly grappling across a map, while projectiles are barely missing you and you’re blasting holes into your opponent . As much as I hate to make a reference to Demons Souls, ESA’s bosses have similar aspects to Demons Souls/Dark Souls. I think the defining feature of DS, isn’t the difficulty of the game, but in knowing the enemy and how to respond, and this is reflective of the enemies and bosses in ESA. Each boss follow a certain pattern in their attacks, and your ability to read the attacks and react will determine how well you fare against them, any death that you incur feels like it’s entirely your fault. When combined with tight controls and fun powerups, each win against an almost overwhelming adversary is extremely rewarding.
Exploration in ESA is a central theme, and the world they offer you is large, varied and incredibly detailed. There’s always someplace to explore and with each additional powerup, more and more of the map is opened up to you. I will say that one of the drawbacks in ESA is that at time the world felt too spread apart and not connected enough. Even with the use of teleporters I was trekking back and forth through the same areas as I tried to find out where I’m supposed to go in the story. There is an expansive world for you to explore, with challenging platforming, difficult boss fights and beautifully animated envronments.
ESA sports 15 different powerups, and while some powerups are just upgrades of previous ones, the games keeps platforming fresh by introducing a steady stream of upgrades to support all your exploration needs. I’ve been trying to keep this review relatively spoiler free by avoiding specific bosses or upgrades you can obtain, but I will say that the grappling hook is definitely one of the most satisfying powers in the game.
There aren’t very many negatives to bring to light about ESA. I will take the time to say that one thing I wanted to see an improvement in was the inconsistent difficulties of boss fights. While the large majority of boss fights were extremely difficult, some of the boss fights were extremely easy. This isn’t relegated to just the beginning boss fights, some of the ones in the mid-late games were much easier than boss fights I had experienced in the early game. For example, I had a much easier time with the final boss than I did with some of the other bosses in the games. Whether or not this was due to an increase in my individual skill or a lowering of the difficulty of the final boss, I cannot say. The answer is likely a combination of the two.
I also found a fair number of glitches in the game, but none that affected the gameplay in a negative way. Many of the glitches I discovered helped me sequence break, which I think is one of the hallmarks a metroidvania. I’ll refrain from mentioning them, but I did want to include them in this section, because some people May consider it important. I believe that this actually enhances the gameplay, as I love getting into places and situations that I’m not supposed to.
I’ve also heard about some people getting lost and not knowing quite where to go next. While I admit that I definitely got lost and wandered around the space station for awhile, I think this is indicative of all games in this genre. There some resources online to help you on your way if you do manage to get lost and can’t find out where to go.
I loved absolutely every moment of ESA and can’t recommend it enough. There are a limited amount of games that I sit down and finish it 100%, but ESA was the first game that I did so in quite awhile. ESA excels in every category, and most all, it’s a fun romp in a genre that I don’t believe is getting nearly enough love. ESA’s gameplay with inevitably be compared to classics such as Super Metroid, but it manages to come out of the shadows of the classics and stand proudly on its own.
You can also get higher than 100% and there’s a secret bicycle upgrade as well.