Sunday 13 May 2018

Switch Review - The Fall

Growing up John Warner loved games that encouraged exploration and discovery. It’s inevitable that his studio’s first game would involve the same things. But are these still what a modern gamer looks for? 

Developed by Over the Moon Games
Released in 2018

On the surface , ‘Super Metroid’ and ‘The Secret of Monkey Island’ share little common ground. One is a serious, intense action platformer. The other, a comedic adventure game where combat sees you trading witty retorts with an opponent.  But despite the window dressing differing vastly, at their hearts both games revolve around puzzle solving and telling an engaging story.  

Developer Over the Moon clearly noticed this, as ‘The Fall’ is best described as a fusion of both, with ‘Flashback’ style platform jumping thrown in. Like it's inspiration, it is a game that’s been intentionally made to focus on exploration. “‘The Falls’ main inspiration is ‘Super Metroid’” admits the game’s director and Over the Moon Founder John Warner.  “I was really inspired to make a game where players had to pay attention and players had to read. And that was the central thing that really moved the gameplay forward”. “‘The Fall’ really is about mystery because it’s about exploration and those two things go hand in hand” adds writer Caleb Allard. “We want to compel the players forward with the mystery and we want to give them solid answers as rewards as they’re going along”. 

You actually play as Arid, a female AI inside a robotic suit. Her only goal is simply to protect Colonel Josephs; the pilot within her.  Much like a pregnant mother, throughout this five hour game, she will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure the safety of her unconscious passenger. As the impressively complex but accessible story unravels, the player is forced to ask questions about preservation, purpose and priority. It’s a confident game that doesn’t shy away from difficult topics dealing with genocide, self sacrifice and the role of women within society. These may be intense and delicate subjects but the game’s black humour makes them far more palatable. Forced to do questionable acts for a greater good, Arid continually struggles to justify her actions. All the while facing inevitable death given that the Caretaker, remains game’s antagonist, is convinced her character traits are the result of internal flaws. Like ‘Metroid Prime’, much of the story is revealed through notes and conversations with computer systems. So meticulous examination of every pixel in the game is advised should you wish to fully embrace all ‘The Fall’ has to offer.  

To do this Arid is equipped with a gun-mounted flashlight that a player can aim at any point on the screen.  Along with the text based descriptions of environmental details, when a light hits certain things they can then be picked up. Scouring a new environment for collectible objects is an essential habit to get into, doing so adds them to an inventory to be used later to solve puzzles. 

The majority of a player’s time will be spent solving contextual riddles. So,  naturally it is vital that they feel interwoven within the compelling narrative, even if they’re really obstacles preventing the player from getting plot development. “One of the things I’ve really been interested in for a long time is how story and gameplay interact” says Warner  “The goal with ‘The Fall’ was to create puzzles that made the player think in a way that opens their mind up for the story.” 

While there are some physics based challenges requiring timing, the majority of puzzles in the game depend on the traits of the point-and-click genre. “I’ve added adventure game mechanics from games like ‘Monkey Island’” John Warner says in a Kickstarter video that helped finance the game. This becomes even more apparent when you learn that a mouse cursor was initially planned for the game and more interactions were available. “Originally there was a few more options. There was “Network”, “Talk To”, “Pick Up” and “Use”” recalls Warner. These would pop out like the “coin menu” used in many point-and-clicks but the interface was overhauled when it was considered cumbersome. “Most of that stuff can be covered with just interact. [So] that was optimised and so was the inventory as well.” In the final game you use an inventory item on a specific object to make a desired action happen. While the game does provide visual and audio clues sadly there are times when there is the temptation to brute force your way through. When stumped, the quickest way to solve a tricky puzzle is to use everything on anything until something good happens. Thankfully there are never item puzzles as complicated as those seen in the LucasArts or Sierra adventure games of old. Items can’t be combined and without exception the solutions are logical; never subscribing to famously bizarre point-and-click logic. Typically an item you find will prove useful within a few screens. 

While the game clearly has been inspired by the ‘Metroid’ games, you’ll never have to do the amount of tireless backtracking that that series demands. Ladders and lifts allow quick an easy access to sections you’ve already visited. 

Of course Arid’s gun isn’t used solely to shine a light on random objects. There are enemies to shoot and the tactical combat revolves around taking cover and timing attacks carefully.  While there is a shield that regenerates over time, Josephs’ limited amount of health can deplete quickly. Unlike the best point-and-click games, it is possible to die in ‘The Fall’ causing a player to return to an earlier checkpoint. Annoyingly this re-spawn point is occasionally placed before lengthy conversations, so should you fail in a fight you'll have no choice but to read (or at least skip through) the chat once again. Sadly these action sequences are mandatory and require quick reflexes with an unnecessarily complicated number of button presses. While they haven’t proved popular with all players, the shooting sections have been defended by the game’s director. “The point of the game was a simple exploration based experience” Warner claims. “That said, I do really like combat and I think that there is a place for it in a game like this”.  Writer Allard believes that the combat was there to intensify the "atmosphere and danger," but it also adds variety to the game. “If you have people just running around doing puzzles for 5 hours, they might go insane."

More enjoyable are the stealth sections available once the camouflage option is activated. It is possible to hide in the environment and unaware enemies can be taken out from behind. However like so many things in ‘The Fall’ it’s a game play mechanic that’s introduced, but forgotten almost immediately. With cover always present during combat sections, the need to lurk in the shadows is all too scarce. 

Shadows aren’t in short supply of course, the game is exceptionally dark visually as well as thematically. “The game started out as a painting, so really it was about feelings more than anything else” notes Warner. “I’m drawing inspiration from ‘Limbo’, that amazing game with that unforgettably haunting vibe”. Accordingly, most of ‘The Fall’ is almost in silhouette, with pops of colour punctuating the darkness. Arid is somewhat SciFi typical, looking like a character that’s escaped from ‘Tron’ and the majority of other robots you meet look identical. Despite this there are lots of interesting details going on throughout the decaying facility you inhabit and by the game’s closing the environments do start to vary. However, when you’re encouraged to turn the game’s darkness down as much as possible it’s easy to miss these. Naturally this also means it’s easy to miss that all important object needed to solve a puzzle. While the game is stylish and atmospheric, this seems to be a priory over functionality. 

There’s also a wealth of nods to vintage technology. The fuzzy dot matrix display of the menus and the disc accessing sounds that ring in your ears as you open them.  Old familiar modem dial-up noises blend into the pulsing ominous soundtrack that’s continually bubbling away as you play. While there’s minimal music, unnerving clinks and crashes punctuate a throbbing drone that never distracts but certainly amplifies the ‘Super Metroid’esque ambiance. 

‘The Fall’ isn’t a new title. Part funded by a Kickstarter campaign, over 4 years this award-winning game has been released on PC, Mac, Linux, PS4 and Xbox One but Nintendo players may be most familiar with the Wii U version. The sequel is in fact already available on the Switch eShop, which includes a prologue explaining this prequel to players who may have missed it. However, the developers do insist this version of ‘The Fall’ is optimised for the system,  running at 1080p when docked and 720p when in handheld or tabletop mode. Theres a consistent 60fps and the Switch Edition includes lighting and rendering improvements that were introduced to the series in the sequel.  “We’ve had a lot of requests to bring ‘The Fall’. to the Nintendo Switch; it’s a great fit for the system,” claims Warner. “[It] lays the thematic and interactive foundations for ‘The Fall Part 2: Unbound’ I can’t wait for players to dive in and gain some more insight into the world and ideas underpinning the series.” While the sequel is the superior game, to really get the most from it, it’s worth spending some time with this first entry in the series; principally because it defines so much of the series’ lore.

Combat may be repetitive, game mechanics are introduced then discarded and the game is visually too vague. However, if Over the Moon intended to tell an intelligent engaging story they have certainly succeeded. “We found if someone picks up ‘The Fall’ and doesn’t like to read they have a miserable time” jokes John Warner.  But for those who like to invest time in a story, with a taste for pointing a light and clicking on random items, it’s a game to certainly add to your inventory.

If you enjoyed this review you’ll be delighted to know I’ve co-written a book exclusively about the point-and-click genre. If you’re interested in more head on over to the Bitmap Books website.


This game was provided for review by the publisher. They have not had approval of any content prior to publishing.

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