Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Sand Sailor Studio
Publisher: Square Enix
Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.
Based on their childhood experiences in the communist-ruled nation of Romania the developers have managed to create a dystopian world that draws from their own memories of a country that only abandoned communist totalitarianism in 1989. Here they’ve taken their history and moulded it into a bleak vision of workers toiling away on dirty machines and stomping mechs that ensure none escape. Those who step out of line risk death at the hands of large supervisors and plentiful automated gun systems. It’s an oppressive atmosphere that is somehow still full of beautiful, bleak moments thanks to a strong visual style.
The end product side-scrolling puzzler that takes some of its visual inspiration from Limbo without ever feeling like a clone. You’ll be playing as Black, though is name is never explicitly stated, a worker who one day decides to escape the oppressive factory in which he and thousands of others labour every day under the watchful eye of brutish supervisors. There’s no dialogue present within the entire game, rather the story is told throughout the three hours or so the journey takes solely via the environment. Little glimpses of the wider world leave you wanting to know more about this alternate version of history.. I just wish they’d perhaps taken things further because I never felt much for the character I was playing as or the near zombie-like workers, or for the civilians you occasionally get to see. With that said the developers have still done oppressive world-building. The workers all wear strange backpacks with antennae that work in conjunction with the laser-pointers supervisors wear on their arms, so when the laser is pointed to something they hasten to their task.
Your starting skills are limited to running left and right, crouching and performing a pathetic jump. Before long, though, you acquire a handy-dandy laser pointer of your own that can be used to give workers commands, open doors, move lifts and even slotted into a special machine which can be used to continuously point the beam toward something such as a pesky door that won’t stay open otherwise. Forcing other workers to perform menial tasks and then abandoning them to their fate presents a moral slap to the face. You’re using the same tool that forced you to work to escape by Later on you’ll acquire a robot friend who can also be directed using your laser, his indestructible metal body and weight making him handy for solving a variety of puzzles, plus he can even be turned into a static cube.
So let’s talk about these puzzles, shall we? If you’re looking for something that will really tax the ol’ brain then this isn’t it. The puzzles are simple but well-designed affairs that may occasionally leave you scratching your head for a few minutes. Most of the time that’s because like all good puzzles the solution is often surprisingly simple and your mind just couldn’t see it. With that said a few of the solutions can be a tad obtuse, like dropping down into a darkened area when doing so previously would have resulted in death. Still, for the most part they’re fun to work through. You”l distract a mech with birds, balance a platform using lethal steam and sneak past supervisors. There’s even a truly wonderful sequence where you have to navigate certain death through audio only. Other puzzles are darker in their nature, like a section involving a moving boat that has corpses hanging from bars where you need to avoid the gazes of numerous cameras, or how you’ll dodge detection by hiding in a coffin. With just three hours or so of gameplay the developers can go from physics-based puzzles to light stealth and lever manipulation and back again without having to really develop any one specific mechanic, nor having to repeat any of their past designs.
Moving Black around these puzzles can sometimes be frustrating thanks to clunky movement and iffy collision detection that stops him from grabbing ledges when he probably should have. Sneak and dropping down are both mapped to the same button which can lead to some infuriating moments. Even the simple act of turning around feels like controlling a hulking bear with wooden planks strapped to its feet. Happily, the developers never force you into any complex platforming or situations that require split-second timing of jumps so you’re able to work around the controls even in the few instances where some precision is needed, but it’s still something I would have liked to have seen polished up.
Running on the Unity Engine it’s perfectly fair to say that Black The Fall isn’t an impressive game from a purely technical perspective. There are no fancy effects that will tax your graphics card or amazing texture work. Your computer isn’t going to be heating up like my cheeks when a girl actually speaks to me. Yet the developers have managed to create an often visually striking game, the grey and black colour palette contrasting nicely with splashes of color. The camera pulls out to give you a wider view of some of the areas, too. Don’t just take my word for it, though, that’s what the screenshots are for.
Comparisons could instantly be made between this and Limbo, but Black The Fall manages to differentiate itself through wonderful art and a keen eye for detail. You’ll never get to see a lot of the fascinating alternate take on history that Sand Sailor Studios has made, but what you do get to see captures the imagination.
However, while the shadows and hundreds of shades of black do make for an oppressive and bleak feeling I think it’s fair to say that death is oddly forgiving. Getting killed in Black The Fall simply means watching dispassionately as your little avatar gets turned into some black smoke before respawning with no progress lost. As a game that paints itself as a daring and tense escape from a deadly regime death feels like a very mild inconvenience and nothing more.
With the Unity Engine driving everything graphical options are practically non-existent. Indeed at the time of writing there’s no proper 21:9 resolution support, but there’s also no way to select resolution, leaving part of the screen cut off. The developers have stated this will be sorted, hopefully by launch. But at least the performance was solid across the board, though some frame drops do occur when the camera pulls out to offer a wider view of the environment.
As for the audio, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the effects are nice and when the music kicks in it’s actually rather impressive, but there isn’t enough of it for my tastes. Now, on the one hand it’s nice to see a game that appreciates the use of silence or sequences with nothing but quiet ambient sounds, but on the other there were a few moments here that would have been bolstered by the inclusion of music.
Black the Fall isn’t amazing. It’s arguably not even great. But it is a good, solid indie game from a bunch of developers with a bright future ahead of them. Their experiences in Romania have led a visually striking game with a fascinating setting, and it’s a shame that it never goes deeper into that setting. I could never form the connection I wanted with Black as he journeyed through grimy world of….not Romania. I wanted to know more, to see more, to experience more. It’s during moments of reflection, like when you’re using other people as labor, that Black the Fall is at it’s best and I wanted so much more of those moments. I suppose, however, that this is something of a compliment. If your biggest complaint is that there isn’t enough of it, then clearly the game must be doing something right. The puzzling isn’t going to amaze you with inventive situations that you’ve never seen before, either, nor does it have those fantastic eureka moments where everything comes together and you feel like you’re just bursting with pride because of your intellectual brilliance, but they’re almost always enjoyable to complete. By the time the credits roll you feel a little hint of exhilaration, the tiniest glimmer of what it must have felt like for the developers when Romania finally abandoned communism. While it may never be as emotional as it could be, this is still a beautiful game with a unique and fascinating core.
So, does that mean I can whole-heartedly recommend it? I think so, yeah. While from a gameplay perspective it didn’t amaze me, the overall experience feels unique and intriguing enough to make it worth playing, although with just three hours of content you may wish to wait for a sale to pick it up.
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