The Fall is a side-scrolling adventure game with platforming and combat elements. Your character is an AI controlling a combat suit whose occupant is unresponsive and presumably dead or seriously injured. You have crash landed on an unknown planet for unknown reasons and must seek medical attention for your 'pilot'.
The bulk of the gameplay resolves around completing a series of object-matching puzzles in the style of classic adventure games, interspersed with occasional platforming/jumping puzzles and combat sequences.
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This review contains spoilers
The Fall tells a good story but suffers from considerable problems in the gameplay department.
Quality science fiction yarn treads familiar ground in a fresh way – Good presentation and voice work
Cumbersome control scheme – Takes pixel hunting in a whole new, still bad, direction – Often problematic puzzles – Overreliant on barely functional combat
If you are into science fiction videogames, the odds are good that you are somewhat burned out on the whole “sentient AI” trope: while the concept might have been fairly novel for the medium back in the System Shock era, games dealing with the implications of the Turing test, whether computers are capable of thinking like humans, are a dime a dozen these days, both in the indie and AAA sphere (and Hollywood on top of that), so that you could be excused for not being in any hurry to play any more “are robots people?” products. Fortunately The Fall deals with the trope in a way that, while not original by any stretch, avoids falling into the bog of excessive familiarity. It also comes in a pretty good package, since it loosk and sounds really good, with pretty backgrounds, great animations and quality sound design and voice work.
The game tells the story of an AI-powered combat suit designated A.R.I.D. Mark-7, or Arid for short, which crash lands in mysterios circumstances on the surface of a planet and rebooting inside of a dilapidated underground facility. Running diagnostics reveals the suit occupant, a military colonel, is in critical health conditions, which prompts the on-board AI take over all motory functions to try and locate medical assistance before his death. This is the most interesting aspect of the game: imagine if in Halo Master Chief were unconscious for the vast majority of the game and you played as Cortana instead. Instead of a heavily stylized character, however, Arid is precisely what you would expect a computer to sound and behave like: not snarky or sarcastic but suitably robotic and adherent to procedure. To say much more about the plot would be spoiling it, but suffice to say that it’s worth experiencing: it’s nothing that will blow your mind, but you probably haven’t seen anything quite like this before in a game.
It turns out that the abandoned facility is a testing ground for malfunctioning droids where something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. It isn’t long before Arid meets a talking computer which denies access to medical facilities before the completion of a series of tests designed verify the compliance of domestic droids, which Arid being a combat suit is not programmed for. This is where the puzzle design comes into play and also the problems inherent to the game immediately surface. The Fall is presented as a point and click adventure game with a sidescrolling action control scheme: WASD moves, spacebar jumps and the mouse aims a combination of flashlight and pistol, which can be fired with left click. Using the flashlight reveals interactive hotspots in the environment the way a normal point and click game would do by hovering the mouse cursor on them. It is not dissimilar to what the scanner does in Super Metroid.
This is problematic because interactive elements are very often completely blended in with the background, whereas in most adventure games they would be colored slightly differently to make them stand out from the rest and decrease pixel hunting. The Fall assumes the player will stop and carefully scan every inch of each area for interactive elements, so it makes no effort to differentiate any of them from backgrounds that are already designed to be very dark. You will quickly learn that you need to keep the flashlight on at all times, as it’s all too easy to miss an important spot and get irremediably stuck until you backtrack and comb every area again. It doesn’t help that Arid walks more slowly while holding the flashlight, which makes you want to put it away, knowing you shouldn’t, especially since new elements tend to appear all the time after certain events, and they’re just as invisible as the rest. Also irritating is the fact that you don’t just turn in place: the camera snaps brusquely to the side whenever you rotate the flashlight behind Arid’s back, making scanning rooms unnecessaily cumbersome. The result is a completely new way to do pixel hunting: instead of hovering on every elements that looks potentially interactive, you will have to walk around fanning your flashlight up and down not to miss an important object.
Once you do find something to interact with, you will also realize the game suffers from a bad case of “use everything on everything” and “found the key before the door”. I don’t know when it became a lost art for adventure games to present the problem before offering the tools for the solution, but here we are: you will often pick up items you have no idea what to use them on, instead of finding something you can finally use to solve that problem that’s been nagging you for the past twenty minutes, as it should be. The puzzles are fairly illogical as well; they’re not quite moon logic-bad but you’ll more than once put something together out of trial and error or not knowing exactly what you are doing, arriving at a solution out of chance rather than intuition, and that is never a good thing. Emblematic of all this is an on paper pretty damn good puzzle where you need to get a wooden cutout of an old lady run over by wooden cutouts of cars, and your problem is that the cars don’t move fast enough, so you need to replace a low voltage battery with a stronger one one floor below, but 90% of players will replace the battery before the puzzle even becomes active and learning that the cars are moving too slowly, completely negating the challenge.
The interface isn’t great either: when you find an object you need to highlight it with your flashlight (can’t interact with anything otherwise), press the action key (default E) which opens a popup menu, then press A or D to select the interaction you want (an “interact” option or a barely used “networking” action) and press E again. To use something out of your inventory (inventory you can’t open unless you are interacting with something) you need to press D to select the use icon, then S to scroll down and then A or D to scroll to the item you want, and then E to confirm. Combine that with the trial and error nature of some of the puzzle and you can see how that could be an issue. A mouse interface when the menu is open and during dialog interactions would have worked wonders for the game.
The aforementioned controls become a further problem when combat comes into play: Arid is fairly often set upon by hostile security robots that fight by taking cover behind objects and periodically peeking out to fire blindly. It’s as basic as it comes and further simplified by the fact that you can press the shift key to press against the wall and become invisible and impossible to hit, which begs the question of why they bothered to code cover mechanics, including vaulting over cover, when it’s far more efficient to just stand in place and hold a button. If you played the old Blizzard game Blackthorne, this is exactly how it is: you need to press against a wall and emerge when the enemy is done shooting, then rinse and repeat until you win. Further annoying is that your flashlight turns into a laser pointer every time you fire, meaning you have to switch it back manually by pressing F. Hit detection is also oddly finnicky: often your laser will be aimed directly at a robot’s head and no hit will register, leading to irritation.
With all that, combat is still barely an issue however: you have a generous health bar that regenerates over time and you can even sneak up on unaware enemies for a bit of extra variety, which is good, but when it does get irritating is near the end when you have to fight a ridiculous amount of robots in confined spaces, including bullet spongy kamikaze ones that beeline for you, and you even have one instance when they shoot you full of lead as you’re coming in through a door and have no control until the animation is done. You even have a boss fight to deal with, and considering how clunky the controls are it’s not fun at all, though very easy to deal with nevertheless. A good aspect of the combat is that you gain more skills over the course of the game, which adds a sense of progression which might be artificial, but is always welcome.
The Fall is definitely worth playing for the story; as mentioned it’s nothing mind-boggling but it will please you with what it does. Whether you will be willing to put up with the many small annoyances of the gameplay is up to your individual level of tolerance but I can recommend this game to point and click fans looking for a fix. Those under the impression of having found a Metroid game need to look elsewhere.