The Fall’s opening act is something out of a collection of Ray Bradbury short stories, where hard science leads to deeper questions of morality puzzled over by engaging characters. It’s the right sort of science fiction, the kind that challenges both your mind and your heart. The Fall is a story first — the emotional core is never overshadowed by the technicalities or the underlying themes.
The puzzles can border on the obtuse, and the action borders on redundant. But the game’s atmosphere is rich, and games rarely tackle artificial intelligence with this level of…well, intelligence. And there’s no puzzle in this game that is frustrating enough to keep people away from The Fall‘s brilliantly crafted finale.
The Fall (Linux, Mac, PC, PS4 [reviewed], Wii U, Xbox One)
Developer: Over the Moon
Publisher: Over the Moon
Released: May 30, 2014 (PC) / July 14, 2015 (PS4)
The Fall opens with style, as gravity slowly kicks in for a mysterious suited figure entering the dusky atmosphere of an alien world. This figure is Colonel Josephs, a soldier in a generic future army. But the good Colonel is in critical condition, leaving his life in the hands of ARID, the AI controlling Josephs’ suit. Unfortunately, she’s trapped in a decrepit android repair facility, packed with hostile security drones and run by a fantastically creepy caretaker. Her one ally is the facility’s mainframe, who is understandably happy to see a friend after decades of loneliness.
The character writing is fantastic. ARID doesn’t know it, but every attempt to save the meatsack trapped inside her suit brings her closer to escaping her restrictive programming. At first, her determination appears to be a result of coding, but as Josephs comes ever closer to expiring, genuine emotion begins to push through her automated facade. Rogue artificial intelligence hasn’t been this compelling since the Portal games.
The same goes for the other characters. The caretaker’s job is to designate malfunctioning units, but nothing is safe from its critical eye. Both malfunctioning robots and innocent humans are killed and literally crucified by its hand — a result of overly rigid programming. The character is brought to life by some delightfully creepy animation and a holographic disguise gone horribly wrong. The mainframe, on the other hand, wants to be closer to humanity in the hopes of being treated fairly. ARID exists in a space between these characters; between rigid adherence to the rules (the caretaker) and simulated humanity (the mainframe). Without spoiling the game’s killer ending, ARID does make something of a decision between the two.
It’s also worth noting that The Fall is not technically over, with two more parts supposedly on the way. The ending of Part One brings closure to the game’s themes and ARID’s character arc, so it’s difficult to guess where the game could end. There’s certainly something to be said for exploring characters after a major revelation, so I have faith in the future of The Fall. As long as the writing stays at this level, we’ll be in good hands.
If there’s one area where the game could improve, it’s the puzzles. ARID’s suit has a series of abilities that can only be activated if her human pilot is in danger. In order to get through the facility and make it to the medical center, ARID has to find a way to manipulate both her environment and her programming. This leads to clever scenarios, where you transform a harmless security door into a death trap, all in the hopes of activating your cloaking mechanism.
Unfortunately, most of the puzzles can be reduced to “use item on other item.” In retrospect, they seem well-telegraphed, but they’re frustrating in the moment. The bulk of the item-based puzzles take place in a domestic droid training center, which makes up for the frustration with atmosphere and some clever jokes. I imagine pumping up the game’s brightness would also help a lot with finding interactive objects. Like a fool, I went with the default. Don’t be like me.
There’s also combat, made more tactical by ARID’s weak shields. Although the health bar is fairly sizable, both the shields and life support regenerate more slowly than a dead turtle. The real penalty for poor performance is having to sit around and wait. Or you could take a page out of my book — I was able to make a quick sandwich, eat it, and clean up in the time it took for ARID to come back to full health. This doesn’t matter after a certain point; once you get a certain gun upgrade, you can pop headshots like nobody’s business. When you nail The Fall’s combat, you feel like a badass.
The Fall Part One’s minor gameplay shortcomings don’t even begin to tarnish the sheen on everything else. It’s a seductive old-school sci-fi yarn, with characters that somehow manage to represent greater ideas and exist as fully-formed beings. Even though two more episodes have been confirmed, the game ends on an exciting conclusion that could function either as a cliffhanger or a definitive finale. If you’re into books like The Martian Chronicles, there’s no reason to let some potential head-scratchers keep you from a great experience.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]