The cinematic platform game is a curious genre, not just because it uses an adjective borrowed from another medium. (How silly does a ‘gametic drama movie’ sound?) As a genre, such titles have grown apart from other platformers and have relatively fewer core texts: Prince of Persia and Another World, for sure. Certainly, the first two Oddworld games qualify, but not many more.
In the modern age though, a pair of titans loom: Playdead’s Limbo and Inside. Both games are emblematic cinematic platformers of the highest order, meticulously polished and predestined for plaudits. Their unmatched critical reception is not unlike an impact radius for the otherwise under-served genre. Onlookers can only imagine the sense of terror a developer feels trying to take the next step in this field.
Nothing should have to live up to the expectations that Playdead’s one-of-a-kind opuses have made, particularly after Inside (for more on what made that game special, see OnlySP’s review). Black The Fall is the first release from tiny Bucharest-based developer Sand Sailor Studio, as part of the indie-focused Square Enix Collective—and simply finishing development in the shadow of Playdead’s success should be commended.
If this clanking, steaming, beautifully oppressive universe intrigues the player from appearance alone, read no further. As a game, Black The Fall is exactly the kind of experience a fan of Oddworld or Inside might expect, and worth checking out for the puzzles and atmosphere. On the other hand, read on and even those who are not fans of the genre may find value in this dark adventure.
True, Black The Fall‘s muted colour palette, industrial sci-fi locales, and brutalist architecture do a poor job of refuting the Inside comparisons at first sight—and is not up to the same level of polish that a more experienced developer may have given the project. Sound is noticeably average, with an anomalous original score and a collection of effects that, though accomplished in their job of evoking the industrial nightmare, are nothing special on their own. Yet the few unremarkable aspects do not ruin the experience, and the rest show that Sand Sailor Studio was committed to a certain brand of dystopian vision, rather than focused on having to distance the game from others with similar settings (whether this choice is a net positive rests on the cynicism of the beholder).
The fact remains that, in the canon of European dystopian fiction, historical precedent for the look and feel of a totalitarian state exists—beyond the aforementioned brutalism. Where Inside made use of dystopian visuals as a storytelling tactic, Black The Fall creates a science-fiction-tinged version of true events. At least, the game’s themes and atmosphere are closer to life than most puzzle games.
Romanian history is easy to research for a video game review, but the developers of Black The Fall have friends and family members who actually lived for many years under a totalitarian government. In English-language countries, dystopian literature such as George Orwell’s 1984 is the inspiration for modern science-fiction. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the real world was inspired by dystopian literature. For about four hours until the credits roll, Black The Fall may not appear that dissimilar from other dystopian narratives, but reality adds depth—whether in an interactive scene inspired by a personal anecdote, or through the recreation of a famous photograph in game form.
Of course, these touches are all in service of a well hewn puzzle-adventure that takes players from the interior of a monstrous factory, over roads guarded by terrible machines, and into areas this review will not spoil. Nothing in the puzzles themselves stands as tall as, say, the versatile Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2, but neither is anything unnecessary or tedious. Like the game’s genre fellows, Black The Fall introduces and discards puzzle premises liberally, so there is always something new to see and do. More importantly, the puzzles hint at broad themes such as a sequence of rooms where escaping requires the manipulation of other factory workers (which is uncomfortably ironic). However, despite constantly commenting on the nastiness of totalitarianism, Black the Fall is not interested in nuanced politics. Since the game is built to entertain, not sicken, this choice was probably for the best.
Controls are not quite as slick as the puzzles, with a few clunky moments of traversal introduced in pseudo-3D rooms: areas where the player can still only move forward or backward, but the path twists and intersects itself. On consoles, the basics of interacting with switches, security lights, and enemies are reminiscent of Oddworld, including the use of the triggers to alternately sneak or run. Finally, the aiming of a laser pointer with the right stick does fall to the limitations of gamepad controls and cannot be helped. Gamers interested in precision may wish to play with a mouse and keyboard instead.
Although predicated on the usual trial-and-error mechanics that cinematic platformers are known for, the game is generous with checkpoints, and very few loading screens appear, making the overall experience frictionless. On the whole, Black The Fall‘s greatest commitment is to good level structure and a thrilling journey that compares positively to other games in both the ‘dystopian’ and ‘cinematic platformer’ genres.
Without revolutionising any of its constituent parts the way that a true classic might (Half-Life 2 remains enthroned), Black The Fall is exactly the kind of game the player should expect, and more, thanks to a little real-life context. The writer Louis L’Amour said that adventure is just a romantic word for trouble. The hell that real people experienced under totalitarianism can hardly be called romantic, but the video game inspired by their experiences is quite a ride.