Environmental Station Alpha (short ESA) is one of the most content-rich metroidvania’s I’ve played, but also one of the most frustrating. In terms of difficulty, only An Untold Story is harder, and harder only in the sense of the platforming skills required, when it comes to boss design ESA definitely takes the cake. I played ESA’s demo when it came out in 2014 (which you should play if you want to see some extra-content), started ESA in 2015 and needed almost two years to see the finish line.
This is not to say that the game is unfair. It’s one of the most honest hard games I’ve played, each boss is doable with a lot of training and skill, it’s just that I prefer my metroidvania’s with less difficult bosses. Not that I find difficult bosses in general bad, it’s just that in this type of game they badly break the flow of gameplay and act like hard counters that just stop everything. I play these type of games more for the exploration than anything else.
This connects to my second point. The level design in ESA is superb, with lots of smart backtracking, winding corridors that lead back to the same hubs, with items required to open ways in areas you already covered. The problem is, the game requires so much backtracking, that you could only keep all that in your head and remember if you beat the bosses in a timely manner, if not you feel utterly lost. Once you’ve entered a room and see something you can’t reach, but the room itself is already uncovered on the map, you forget later that there was something to do there.
A map where you could jot down some notes would have helped make traversing the game much easier. At one point I stopped proceeding not because of one of the bosses, but because I’d forgotten that I could clear a certain type of block with one of my new items, because I didn’t realize I had to go there.
The graphics for the most part are quite cool, with a simplistic but inspired retro-vibe that feels like a high-quality demake of a game that never existed in the first place (apart from the obvious Metroid-vibe). That said, sometimes they are too sparse to make out details or differentiate between background and foreground. Most of the bosses also have quite neat sprites.
I didn’t much like the language encryption puzzles of the post-game content, I hated this stuff in Fez and I hated it here and the secrets are ridiculously obscured. I would have preferred something less oblique, but then I’m not a fan of adventure games and that type of thinking. Keep stuff like this to the genres where it belongs.
This sounds all a bit critical, so I want to iterate that I think ESA is one of the best metroidvania’s I’ve ever played. It has superb level-design and controls, it has excellent boss design, even earlier passed levels remain dangerous with tougher enemies getting activated later on and there is just tons of content here that beats most games done by larger teams.