Black The Fall Review
Reviewed on AllAlso available on PC, Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
In an underground factory, one man amongst a throng held prisoner by a totalitarian regime breaks free from the shackles of his oppressors and makes a break for freedom. Black The Fall intermingles its developers’ memories and experiences of Communist rule in 80s Romania with a backdrop of dystopian science fiction. The result is a claustrophobic puzzle game, whose impressive visual style doesn’t quite offset its uneven gameplay and pacing.
Your character, Black, traverses the industrial landscape armed only with a laser pointer with which he can activate machines and switches. As you crawl through vents, leap over ledges and run past the baleful red gaze of robotic sentries, a single missed step into a circle of sweeping searchlights will mean obliteration from automatic machine gun turrets. So, too, will falling too far, landing in water, or being scorched by steam or fire. There are umpteen hazards that can eradicate you in a blast of black smoke, and much like Inside — which delivers a slightly more ambiguous message about its nature — the side-scrolling 2.5D presentation serves up a variety of slick touches. Though your thumbstick is only ever pushing right at any point, the camera pivots and circles around Black as he picks his way through the machinery and rundown shacks, skewing his viewpoint in a variety of angles and preventing visual fatigue.
There is zero direct interaction with any humans in the game; the downtrodden captive populace will ignore you, while the grotesque foremen overseeing their graft simply want to murder you. A lack of dialogue combined with a harrowing depiction of oppression adds up to an experience which is simultaneously unsettling and detached. You feel very little investment in Black because, other than his need to escape, you learn nothing of him or the rest of his comrades. Nor do you learn of the reasons for their captivity, the motivation behind the regime’s relentless persecution of its civilians, or anything that can provide much of a narrative basis for the game. It’s fitting, then, that the sole glimmer of humanity comes from a robot dog companion, which injects some much-needed personality into proceedings.
In the early stages, Black has little more to do than distract guards and dodge sensors, but once your canine-esque buddy appears, the puzzles switch to a co-operative flavour as you direct it to stand on pressure points, act as an electrical conduit, provide a boost up, or even smash through walls. It shakes its head at your dubious orders, wags its tail, and generally acts like a faithful chum even as you force it to block steam vents with its metal doggy body.
However, while some of the puzzles are logical, others often feel unnecessarily unfair due to a minimalist interface which offers very little in the way of clues. When we acquired our dog, we spent a good twenty minutes wandering around a small area, getting it to try and interact with environmental objects via our pointer. It was only by sheer fluke that we found we could engage with it directly in order to proceed — the game had given us no indication that this was an option.
Similarly, although the 2.5D perspective is admirable in its detail of a bleak dystopia, its hazing between scenery and interactive objects can cause frustration. A see-saw puzzle was only solved when we accidentally jumped too far, and ended up grabbing onto a ledge that we had assumed was just background art. There are numerous similar scenarios peppered throughout the game, and while the majority of puzzles are well thought out and interesting to solve, it makes the ones that aren’t that much more irritating.
Furthermore, there are far too many instant death events triggered not necessarily by a lack of skill, but an inability to see what’s coming before it’s too late. Granted, you always respawn nearby (a very wise design decision, given the number of times you’ll die), but it doesn’t stop you from feeling a little cheated. The game often feels like it wants to dazzle you with its constant perspective shifts as it pushes you from task to task, at the cost of occasionally incoherent gameplay.
Yet, you’ll find yourself forgiving much of this as you play, in part due to the wonderfully gloomy visuals. Black The Fall takes its name literally, as over half the game sees you either in dimly lit darkness, or plummeting to the ground. One sound-based puzzle involving steam is completed in near total darkness, while sewers and factories are often illuminated solely by flickering orange furnaces or the probing red beams of hovering sentries. When we finally broke free of our prison and into the light, a palpable sense of relief washed over us. The game was far from over, but it highlights just how well Sand Sailor Studio have crafted their environments; a palette of muted colours on the outside still felt like glorious technicolour in comparison to the confines of our incarceration. The soundtrack is used sparingly but is consistently both downbeat and ominous, while ambient effects are superb and offer up the clank of machinery mixed with the screams of the downtrodden.
Though it may not provide quite the same level of satisfaction upon completion as similar side-scrolling puzzle games, Black The Fall is a diverting ten-hour experience. Frustrations with some of its challenges never linger enough to cause rage-quitting, and though the message it delivers is as subtle as a cosh to the face, interesting puzzles, stellar visuals and impeccable sound editing will keep you engaged until the slightly confusing ending which appears to negate much of what you’ve previously seen. But this is a personal journey through darkness, confidently delivered by a developer we’re looking forward to seeing more from; ruthless oppression has never looked so pretty.