Believe it or not, it wasn’t so long ago that the term “Indie Developer” was an alien and often ridiculed phrase within the gaming community. It also wasn’t so long ago that if a game wasn’t made by the likes of EA, Ubisoft or Activision, you probably wouldn’t have heard of it because it was “probably” poor. Much in the same way that TV draws in more eyes than cinema these days, independent studios are now getting their dream projects out into the many hands of gamers around the world, churning out more incredible, critically acclaimed titles these days than the big AAA teams, even more so when you have the likes of Square Enix helping you do just that. The Square Enix Collective is an initiative that helps small studios bring their visions to life by giving them the backing and platform they need, and this latest, enthralling and Romanian game currently paused on my PS4 couldn’t have existed without it.
Black the Fall is a side-scrolling, 3D puzzle-platformer developed by the Romanian team at Sand Sailor Studio, out now on PS4, Xbox One and PC. Set within a futuristic, oppressive communist regime, you control a simple worker who makes his grand escape from ‘The System’, avoiding robots, scary fat men and perilous, insta-death landscapes. You, as well as your imprisoned colleagues, are equipped with an aerial sticking out of your shirt, and it’s this aerial that seemingly controls the wielder’s mind, making them subject to any mundane and often deadly task available. Acting as a kind of hybrid of Little Nightmares and Oddworld, you must traverse the factories and post apocalyptic world to make your escape, avoiding vicious traps and using your brainwashed comrades to conquer them. Armed with nothing but a laser pen, you must command your troop of braindead cohorts to help with your escape, making sure to not trigger gun turrets or to attract the attention of the world’s terrifying authorities. It’s certainly an intriguing idea on paper and in premise, but with similar looking and admittedly feeling titles already available, does Black the Fall have what it takes to break away from the pack? In short no it doesn’t, but that’s no bad thing, as fans of Limbo, Inside and indeed Little Nightmares will thoroughly enjoy this morbid adventure.
Right from the off I was hooked, as I started my adventure breaking free from my mindless co-workers and dodging gun fire to sprint through an opened door. I had no idea what was going on, or specifically why I had to escape, but I pushed on through and leapt over pits, pipes and terrifying guards. I also witnessed colleagues strapped to bikes under duress, peddling to power up the weapons that hoed them hostage. I unleashed a horde of Romanian Metal Gear robots onto the world, and watched as they marched off shooting anything that moved. I had no idea why these events were happening, but the dark and frightening environment in which I was playing in was keeping me on the edge of my seat. As you can expect, this level of ambiguity is initially extremely intriguing, and the game’s punishing puzzles stopped me from asking questions, however it soon became clear that answers to those questions weren’t coming anytime soon; sadly the rest of the game follows suit, meaning you never do quite understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. The Square Enix Collective gives small teams with big ideas the chance to make their passions a reality, and Sand Sailor Studio had just that, a game inspired by their own country’s brutal escape from a deadly fascist regime, and though you can tell this is what it’s about (not to mention the studio’s website going into tremendous detail about the game’s specific influences), the underlying plot is still massively vague and you’ll finish your adventure unable to really process what on earth you’ve actually done and achieved. I feel that Black the Fall’s plot was hugely ambitious but highly possible, however with the seemingly science fiction influences coming into play and I failed to really see how their real-life inspirations impacted the game as one contradicts the other.
Much like the titles I’ve already compared it to, Black the Fall is a rather punishing puzzle game that forces you to find the solution through painful trial and error. A swift insta-death here, a spectacular insta-death there, in Black the Fall you’ll become accustomed to the landscape quite quickly, as you repeatedly get yourself killed at the seemingly simplest looking puzzle. With that being said, most of the games’ puzzles are fairly easy to workout, even if they are hard to actually complete. Sometimes a vague picture in the corner will hint at the solution but more often than not it’s just down to common sense and a shed load of patience. However, for every 6 puzzles there’s one that is so vaguely depicted that you stare blankly at the screen demanding to at least be shown even an ounce of guidance, only to then complete it and be filled with rage rather than ecstasy because of the complicated mechanics or presentation prevented you from solving it much earlier. It may sound like I’m over exaggerating, but every now and then you will be met with a puzzle so vague and unhelpful you’ll turn the game off due to your high blood pressure and heart palpitations; sometime I felt like I was being mocked for attempting some of them, I’m looking at you Crow/seesaw puzzle!!
Despite the frustrating difficulty and lack of aid in some of the game’s puzzles, Black the fall, for the most part is a rather enjoyable game to explore as it does become quite boring from time to time. It may be set in this futuristic, ravaged apocalyptic land, but you only actually see this land for a third of the game, as you’ll be spending most of your time in the dark, traipsing around a generic dishevelled factory; as enthralling as the game’s opening act got and as harrowingly stylish it looked, I did get sick of the same poorly lit pot holes, pipe work and crumbling ledges. Once you escape the depressing facility and breach into the outside world you’ll really come to appreciate the studio’s effort and artistic design, something you regrettably couldn’t fully understand playing in the dark and dying at every corner. Act 2 is a pleasure to playthrough and take in and it genuinely freshens up the game right at the point you begin to lose interest. From the desolate wastelands in the background to the toxic waters riding up your ankles, the Soviet-esque landscape is beautifully depressing and, for lack of a better word, fun to see in action. It’s a shame that the game’s 3rd and final act leads you back in to the dank, depressing darkness, but whilst it lasted the 2nd act was a sight to behold … even if it’s puzzles took the piss a little.
Overall Black the Fall, for the most part, is a challenging, intriguing and captivating puzzle platformer, however along the way you will find it to frequently be frustrating, a little boring and a tad confusing. The majority of the land’s obstacles and puzzles can be easily defeated by common sense and calculation, but every now and then you’ll come across one that is just far too vague in design and the lack of any guidance will make it feel almost unsolvable. The inspiration is clear and I can kind of see the story Sand Sailor Studio were trying to tell, but ultimately the plot and direction is a little too ambiguous for my liking as nothing was explained to me; all I knew was that I was a man who needed to escape an oppressive life and people wanted me dead. The world in which you reside in is a chilling and deeply disturbing one, however personally I was only able to fully immerse myself in it a third of the way in as I gradually became bored by the dark, depressing factory backdrop. Black the Fall is an enjoyable, devilish platformer and one that deserves a tremendous amount of praise, however what it lacks is character and narrative, and this is what sadly prevents it from joining the top ranks of other titles in the genre.