STAFF REVIEW of Black The Fall (Xbox One)

Friday, August 11, 2017.
by Chad Goodmurphy

Black The Fall Box art Those of us who live in first world countries tend to take our freedom for granted. It’s not because we’re unappreciative of what others have done for us during wartime, nor is it because we’re unaware of their sacrifices. Instead, it’s blissful ignorance that comes from not having to think or worry about such things during day-to-day life.

The sad thing though, is that life isn't like that for every inhabitant of this planet we call Earth. Many continue to suffer under communist regimes, and many have suffered similarly or worse throughout history.

Enter Romanian developer Sand Sailor Studio and its debut game, Black the Fall. It is a very depressing and dark Orwellian experience that doesn’t hold any punches in its portrayal of the communist attitude and everything that has come with it. Things like distrust, food rationing, abuse and dehumanizing work environments.

In Black the Fall, you take control of an unnamed machinist who’s had enough of his day-to-day life inside a dark, heavily secured and outright terrible work camp. One that is partially underground and forces its workers (read: prisoners) to run themselves ragged until they cannot work anymore. The result is lots of premature death, although those at the helm could seemingly care less.

This two to three hour-long experience takes the form of a LIMBO-style puzzle platformer, albeit one that doesn’t have the same amount of charm as PlayDead’s beloved classic does. This means gameplay is based on right to left movement across 2D environments, as well as tons of running, jumping, climbing and hiding. Sometimes being quick on the draw with one's platforming can also mean the difference between solving a puzzle and staying alive, or dying and having to try again.

Those who decide to give this mature game/political statement a chance can expect to do lots of running, and you can also look forward to lots of puzzles involving lasers. You see, although the main character is never introduced, and never speaks (there’s absolutely zero dialogue in this game, nor is there any text), our protagonist is a spry and inventive man. As such, it isn’t far into his escape attempt that he comes across and steals a laser pointer of sorts. After that, the tool becomes the key to solving the majority of the campaign’s remaining puzzles.

Aiming the laser pointer is accomplished by moving the right joystick around and pointing it at switches, mirrors or other workers. Through this, you can make others do your dirty work, or bounce and angle the light where it needs to go. Elevators also require a similar mechanic for use, as holding the white laser upwards makes them ascend, whereas holding it downwards makes them descend.

The first half or more of Black the Fall is all about using this laser to bypass dangerous situations, including blockades, turrets, guards and red laser grids. For the most part, it’s all pretty straightforward, as is the platforming that goes along with it. Platforming as in jumping from one bridge to another, or climbing and maneuvering oneself across vents and catwalks in order to avoid detection.

Later on things open up more, although everything still remains on a 2D plane. It’s at this point where mechs that resemble Star Wars’ AT-STs are introduced and must be avoided.

Our machinist isn’t alone during this section, as he ends up coming across a friend that is best described as a misshapen robotic dog. And, after joining your cause, this robot ends up becoming the key to solving quite a few puzzles, some of which require you to climb onto or hold onto its metallic body. There are others though, that will require quick platforming, fast thinking and knowledge of basic physics.

Getting the robotic dog to go where you want it to is actually pretty simple. Although it follows you around by nature, telling it to go to a certain place, or interact with a specific object, is as simple as aiming the laser pointer and pressing a button. You can also walk up to it and press the interact button in order to turn the thing into a platform of sorts, which then allows you to reach greater heights. Needless to say, it’s pretty helpful.

What’s good about Black the Fall is that it has a point. That is, to educate the western world about the terrible and inhumane indignities that people in Romania (and other similar countries) have endured throughout history. Sure, it’s not exact in its storytelling, given that sentient robots and Star Wars-like mechs never factored in, but sometimes eccentricities are okay.

That said, Black the Fall isn’t exactly the most entertaining game around, nor is it the longest or the most memorable. It’s interesting while it lasts, for sure, but it does suffer from tedium due to repetition. Variety is also lacking, so make sure to note that before spending any money.

My time with the Xbox One version was also not without its moments of frustration. I say that because I ran into glitches on several different occasions, starting with the first time I loaded the game up and found that it wouldn’t start. I’d pressed the correct button, but the loading wheel simply kept spinning while the main menu animation looped over and over again.

Black the Fall can be finicky and isn’t without gameplay glitches; however, the one that I experienced most often was crash related as opposed to anything else. As I played, I would occasionally check the Microsoft Edge app for a second before going back to the game. Well, two or three of the times that I did this resulted in the game crashing and I needed to restart it before I could continue. I’d pause it, go to the guide, select the browser app and do what I wanted to do. Then, when I tried to go back to the game it’d need to boot up all over again.

I guess it goes without saying, but due to all of the above, Black the Fall isn't something that the average gamer will really enjoy or appreciate. It’s made for a certain and mature audience, for sure. That’s okay though, because those who are looking for something different (or just happen to love LIMBO and games like it) will appreciate what Sand Sailor Studio has attempted with its debut effort, even if it’s somewhat repetitive, occasionally tedious, sometimes glitchy and a bit rough around the edges.

So, now that that’s all out of the way, how does the game look and sound? Well, the best way to describe its art style would be to call it muted. The colour palette is generally dark and drab, the human characters all lack facial features, and you almost never get a good look at the machinist you’re playing as because the camera is zoomed out so far. This is all purposefully done though, in order to create a depressing atmosphere and show how inhumane similar institutions were.

The only audio to be found comes in the form of sound effects and music, or the odd TV showing communist propaganda. There’s never any dialogue though, even from the televisions found in game. Instead, different noises come out of their speakers, while the machinist’s platforming and puzzle solving create other expected sounds. The music itself is original and orchestral, but it’s not used to excess.

At $14.99 USD/$19.99 CAD, Black the Fall is a tough recommendation. On the one hand, it’s a decent video game with something interesting to say. On the other hand, it’s hard to see the value in such a price tag, as this is merely a two to three hour experience, and one that doesn’t have any replay value.

Overall: 6.2 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 6.4 / 10
Sound: 6.3 / 10


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