I'VE FALLEN AND I CAN'T GET UP
A mysterious figure streaks across a starry sky, punching through the atmosphere of a dark and foreboding planet. It's a stunningly cinematic moment, and caught me completely by surprise, but from the moment you start a new game, The Fall feels like it punches above its weight.
A side-scrolling sci-fi adventure Kickstarted last October, the game is the very first release for Vancouver-based studio Over the Moon. It melds tense exploration of an alien world with devious puzzles and occasional action sequences, all tied together by a genuinely interesting and original story.
Players take on the role of ARID – an artificial intelligence embedded in a combat suit, intended for use by a human pilot. As the game begins, ARID's pilot is mortally wounded, and her systems are damaged. You don't know where you are, having crash-landed on an unknown planet, but you must do everything you can to keep your pilot alive. While I might otherwise criticise the choice to make ARID yet another sultry female-voiced AI (cf. Star Trek, System Shock, Halo, Mass Effect, Portal, et al.), in this case I think it puts an intriguing, almost motherly, spin on the character's unwavering dedication to protecting her pilot.
It's not often that game stories examine AI personalities. There's the classic Planetfall by Infocom, and Wadjet Eye Games' recent Primordia, but it's surprising how few other games touch on a topic so intertwined with the computer technology that they're based on. By raising questions about forced obedience and the legitimacy of artificial life, The Fall is a worthwhile, if short, addition to these efforts.
As with all good things, however, it doesn't last. Time spent figuring out puzzles aside, the story motors along at a formidable pace and I don't feel like I was ready for it to end as quickly as it did. It isn't all bad though, as this is just the first game in a planned trilogy, so there's more to look forward to.
VIOLENCE ISN'T THE ANSWER
The game focuses mainly on exploration, which makes for a refreshing change of pace when compared to other side-scrollers. More importantly, it allows players room to breathe; there's no relentless push to the next objective, and you can really soak up the atmosphere on offer. While the default running speed is adequate, I actually felt compelled to walk for much of the game, because I wanted to spend more time enjoying the sense of exploration and suspense.
It's a shame that the story, as compelling as it may be, is told almost exclusively through dialogue. Given the strong atmosphere and fascinating setting, I would've loved to see more environmental story-telling a la Fallout 3 (although a section involving the abandoned data logs of two human scavengers comes close).
Occasionally, The Fall dips its toes into the action-platformer pool by throwing a handful of enemies your way. There's a rudimentary cover system on offer, but the combat feels pretty clunky; a tacked-on way of ratcheting up the tension which I felt did more to undermine the abandoned, creepy vibe than to enhance it. Fortunately, battles are few and far between so the damage done is minimal; so few and far between, in fact, that I didn't die even once during multiple play-throughs. I think most of the blame can be placed on the overly-simplistic enemy AI, but when combat has no real danger, it's reasonable to question whether or not it should be in the game at all.
In an interesting design decision, the exploration and combat modes of gameplay are separated by way of a toggle switch. When inspecting the world, ARID can use a broad torch beam to highlight interactive objects, but it switches to a laser targeting sight at the press of a button. You can't examine anything with the sights active, and you firing the weapon automatically switches the flashlight off. Fans of FPS games will no doubt have flashbacks to the horrors of Doom 3, but fortunately you'll never find yourself needing to use the flashlight when enemies are around.
PAINT IT, BLACK
Graphically, The Fall looks great thanks to its brooding minimalism. The focus on silhouettes draws obvious comparisons to Limbo and the many games released afterwards that tried to ape its art style, but it's done well enough here that I really can't fault it. Special mention must also be made of the GUI, which does an excellent job of emulating an ageing ASCII-based command-line system – complete with whirring fans and clicking disk drives. It's very cool, although one has to wonder why a futuristic robot has such an archaic operating system. The influence of Fallout 3 is clearly felt here.
The audio, too, is excellent throughout. The game is fully and ably voiced, with no noticeably flubbed dialogue. I was also very impressed with the soundtrack, which makes several dynamic changes based on location and fits well with the visuals.
Sadly, with no difficulty settings or branching paths (beyond a handful of achievements that will require multiple play-throughs), I suspect most people will find replayability limited. This wouldn't be an issue at all if the story were longer, but even the most puzzle-averse gamer is likely to complete the game in 4 hours, perhaps less. Still, this isn't unreasonable for a quality title, and The Fall fits firmly in the same realm as games like To the Moon and Botanicula, price point included.
If you're looking for your next action-packed side-scroller, you'll probably find this game unsatisfying and a little long-winded. For everyone else, especially fans of adventure games and sci-fi, you won't want to miss this one. The Fall is a great story, well told, and it's thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.
Well-crafted story. Enthralling atmosphere. Unusual control scheme.
Combat is half-baked. A little too short. Apparently robots in the future can't power a flashlight and a laser at the same time.