The ascension of indie video game development over the past decade promised profound change in the industry. No longer would innovation and originality be shackled by the overbearing risk aversion and market trend analysis of money-grubbing publishers. Gone would be the era of the overstuffed, big budget AAA title, where a game could only turn a profit after moving 4 million units. Instead gamers across the globe, united by the internet, would enter an epoch of unprecedented creativity. Of course, what all this idealistic guff really meant was that we’d see so many side-scrolling puzzle games that we could scarcely fathom a world that wasn’t on a 2D plane with some kind of time-altering, physics-based, shadow-manipulation mechanic.
Indeed, the genre is so crowded nowadays that any developer late to the party must scrounge up an eccentric art-style, core mechanic or mode of presentation just to give their game a fighting chance. The question then for genre-fatigued gamers considering The Fall is whether it differs enough from other side-scrolling puzzlers to warrant the plunge, something best answered by posing three queries:
1) What is it trying to achieve?
2) Does that appeal to you?
3) How well does it succeed?
Enough setup; developed by indie studio Over The Moon, The Fall blends disparate sources of inspiration to create a uniquely appealing, albeit not fully realised experience. Unlike other side-scrolling puzzlers such as Fez, Braid or The Swapper, which hinge on the interplay between platforming challenges and a distinctive core mechanic, The Fall is mercifully not yet another puzzle platformer. Rather, it strives for a narrative-driven melange of classic point-and-click style problem solving and modern cover-based shooting alongside the exploration of tried and true science fiction themes. The downside is that a few of the ingredients in this exciting ‘old-meets-new’ mixture feel undercooked.
The Fall begins with its titular descent, as A.R.I.D., a female-voiced A.I. system embedded in an armoured combat suit, plummets from the stars to crash land on an unknown world. With the human pilot encased in this combat suit ostensibly incapacitated by the collision, A.R.I.D. must operate the armour herself in search of the necessary medical aid to safeguard her pilot’s life. Along the way A.R.I.D. discovers a dilapidated facility that hides perhaps as many secrets as it does furtive figures in the shadows. It’s a standard science fiction horror premise with a novel twist, as you navigate and interact with this creepy environment through the sensors of an impassive A.I. rather than the eyes of a frightened human. At least, that’s how it seems at first, as there may be more to A.R.I.D. herself than the player initially suspects.
The first noteworthy feature of The Fall is its immersive presentation. Immediately upon booting the game players are confronted with an archaic computer interface ripped straight from MS-DOS that signals the Sci-Fi themes to come. After this, the eerie desolation of A.R.I.D.’s environment is evoked through a fusion of subdued visual and audio design. Jagged rock formations, dangling wires and misshapen piles of scrap litter the scenery, their features swathed in an all-pervading murk that leaves only ambiguous outlines discernible. Meanwhile ambient sounds echo through the cave structure, the guttural reverberation of erratic synth notes producing a foreboding impression of the unknown. In such circumstances you can’t help but tread lightly while exploring, especially when you catch brief glimpses of shadows darting across the background. Truly, The Fall marries Limbo‘s minimalist aesthetics and The Swapper‘s sense of futuristic isolation in a wonderful way.
Happily navigating this environment is generally simple and elegant. With the left analogue stick and jump button players manoeuvre A.R.I.D. on a 2D plane, while the right analogue stick surveys her surroundings using a flashlight and inbuilt object sensor. Illuminating relevant objects will cause an icon to appear, signalling further interaction options, and if an object is lit for long enough an additional descriptive text box will pop up. This use of light as the game’s primary means of exploration is a wise decision that accentuates The Fall‘s atmosphere, as mysterious dark outlines are gradually uncovered by the player’s careful examination. In turn, interacting with an object and the items in your inventory is as easy as holding the right shoulder button and using the left analogue stick to scroll through A.R.I.D.’s options. The only awkwardness that can arise between the game’s controls and interface are occasional moments when illuminating multiple objects causes overlapping text boxes to obfuscate each other and the player’s interaction options.
Sadly the same relative lack of frustration does not always transfer to the puzzles that will preoccupy you for much of The Fall. Admittedly these point-and-click adventure style problems do not resort to the absurd leaps in logic made infamous by the Monkey Island series. For the most part, provided the player explores their surroundings, tasks like attracting an animal from its lair to retrieve a stolen weapon have an intuitive, satisfying solution. Where The Fall more frequently falters though is in those instances when A.R.I.D. must uncover a specific item or feature of the environment to begin a puzzle. Indeed, finding a tiny security card amidst rubble and wreckage, the particular panel you must shoot to dislodge a light, or the precise spot where a liquid can be poured, often devolves into pixel hunting because of how dark and featureless the environment is without A.R.I.D.’s flashlight. This is especially so midway in the game when several areas open up at once, each with multiple puzzles, forcing the player to illuminate every nook and cranny in hopes of exposing any required ‘trigger points’.
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