There is nothing worse as a person that plays video games to see the credits roll and be sufficiently entertained while at the same time feeling like what you have just witnessed could have been so much more. That nagging feeling that you just witnessed something skirt so close to greatness but never quite sticking the landing.
It starts so well. ARID, an AI powered exoskeleton crashes planet side with her severely injured passenger still inside. Used to be being purely assistance rather than in charge, she has no authority to use the swiss army knife of features built into the suit. The perpetual conflict between her desire to save the person contained within and not breaking her programmed protocols provides the grounding for a fascinating narrative arc. As an example, an early puzzle forces ARID to put herself and her occupant in danger by walking in front of an automated security gun. This provides enough of a threat to the human life she is to protect for her to override her own programming locks and provide access to a new function of the suit that will save them both. There is the distinct taste of Asimov in the story of The Fall. AI struggling with their hard wired restrictions, discussing amongst themselves how they fit into a world where they were created, what authority they have over other AI and over humans.
Graphically The Fall delivers in spades. Lighting is used exceptionally well throughout, and unusually for this style of game the characters end up occupying the largest amount of screen real estate, emphasising the claustrophobic nature of the environment. The characters themselves, of which there are only two that manifest physically, are well animated and feel solid and well crafted. The presentation also pulls directly from ARID’s nature as software, with menus presented as text interfaces, attempts to mess with her programming affecting her vision of the world with a particularly impressive ASCII text render and “smear effect”, and combat damage manifesting in cracked glass and distorted visuals. Yes, combat damage. What starts as a sidescrolling adventure game very quickly takes on a cover shooter turn after acquiring a weapon. While less Gears of War and more Time Crisis, the mechanics are very similar to Gemini Rue, another adventure title with combat mechanics. One button to stick to cover, another to pop out and a further one to shoot. ARID is not particularly robust, and so the combat relies on more careful cover play than all out run-and-gun.
It’s not a mechanic that feels particularly well thought out however, and is a good example of why I feel The Fall could have been more than the sum of it’s parts. The parts themselves are exceptional. An interesting story, simple but tense combat, and visuals that go beyond what’s expected in what is ostensibly an adventure game. The problem is that The Fall feels like it was made by a group of people that never talked, but all felt like they should touch every part. The narrative starts with a concept that immediately grabs with an interesting concept that begs exploration, but then fails to do anything with it. After an intrigue packed opening, the game devolves into a collection of fetch quests with vignettes of narrative that are tangentially linked to the core concept, forgetting the concept that brought me on board in the first place. The combat has a solid mechanical base, but very quickly devolves into pattern recognition and simple timing rather than skill, with a particularly bad “boss” encounter that simultaneously felt like I was missing the point, while never really feeling like I was in any danger. The adventure and conversation based gameplay borrows from the fascinating narrative setup, and then wastes some fantastic voice acting on a series of very cryptic object manipulation puzzles that require Myst levels of abstract thought to solve.
After an ending that, while not exactly expected, felt abrupt and anti-climactic the game ends with a “to be continued”. It says a lot about the potential of the game that I will be back for round two with The Fall. I only hope that they take the experiments from this game and flesh them out to a greater degree. This is a series and a team that could go places that would make me very excited, it just needs some focus and some restraint.