A struggle to escape both an oppressive regime and some dystopian clichés.
Black The Fall is a dystopian puzzle platformer which has been developed by Sand Sailor Studios and published by Square Enix Collective. First finding success on Kickstarter, the game went on to Execution Labs’ game accelerator program, all the while backed by a solid collaboration with Square Enix. In the game, you explore a post-communist industrial world as Black, an old machinist suffering from amnesia who desires to escape the clutches of the oppressive communist regime he inhabits. Crawling through the shadows, you’ll struggle to overcome the system and secure your freedom from a dystopian dictatorship that rules with an iron fist.
In a form of fictional surrealism, this game was based on the actual experiences of developers Cristian Diaconescu and Nicoleta Lordanescu, who started the endeavour as an art project to highlight the decades of communist rule that Romania had endured. They further expanded the project into a fully-fledged game as a way to illustrate and express rebellion against the mechanisms of the heavily corrupted system they experienced, and the game aimed to represent their feelings about the communist mentality by expressing themes such as distrust, the dehumanising work environment, and uniformity experienced in the country during this time.
In what is essentially a stealth-platformer, Black The Fall utilises trial and error style gameplay, tasking the player with unravelling a series of puzzles revolving around the oppressive atmosphere you are trying to escape, involving evading and outwitting mass surveillance, as well as dismantling the system that imprisons its citizenry. Mistakes or missteps result in a one-hit kill that is unfortunately represented by a generic death animation in which your character turns to a red mist, and in a game that involves dying over and over again, this can quickly become tedious, with the only variation being an awkward drowning animation when you come into contact with water.
The game world is presented to the player in what the developer describes as 2.75D, but what is essentially a 2D plane of movement with a 3D backdrop, and some level transitions contain hints early on that help you to understand the game’s mechanics. In terms of the controls, these are fairly straightforward and what you would generally expect from a puzzle/platform title – you have a button to jump, one to interact, and the back triggers to crouch and run. Pretty early on in the game you also acquire a designator tool that Black uses to manipulate people and machines still controlled by the system. The controls for this are somewhat awkward, featuring the use of multiple buttons to turn it on and off, as well as activate it, and the movement of the pointer is also sluggish and unresponsive at times, which results in an unintuitive player experience.
One of the more interesting mechanics featured in the game appears about halfway through the story when you liberate a dog-like robot you can give commands to. Your new companion adds a refreshing dynamic to the puzzle system, although the sometimes awkward controls don’t help in fostering this new found relationship. Having another entity along for the trip does add to the emotional impact of the game though, an area in which it is surprisingly lacking.
Graphically, Black The Fall isn’t an especially impressive game, not that it’s particularly aiming to be. It’s plagued by bland tones and dark colours that make the finer details hard to see and results in the need to aggressively adjust brightness settings on more than one occasion. Not only are the textures bland as well, but the game world is also often devoid of anything interesting, instead being populated by repetitive background items.
Unfortunately, things don’t get any better when it comes to the animations, as there’s a lack of overall smoothness here, with the majority of the animations looking jerky and behaving unresponsively. In a game where you have to rely on timing to complete puzzles, this can become quite frustrating, although it’s worth noting that the game features an excellent checkpoint system that never sees you having to retrace your steps after failing an ill-timed jump.
One thing that’s apparent with Black The Fall is the noticeable difference in what the final build looks like in comparison to what was showcased as part of the Kickstarter campaign. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a big deal – after all, games often go in different directions during development. Originally the game was presented as a black and white stylised sidescroller analogous to titles such as PlayDead’s Limbo, which obviously drew people’s attention. The decision to switch focus away from the monochromatic aesthetic and instead opt for the colour scheme used herein has certainly done the game no favours, with the added colour taking something away from the game’s original artistic style and atmosphere.
On the audio side of things, Black The Fall combines low dulcet tones, repetitive rhythms, and dark themes that in part feel representative to the context of the game and yet at times somewhat dull. The sound effects are certainly convincing, but that doesn’t help to save the unimaginative soundtrack from becoming monotonous as you progress further in the game.
It’s clear that Black The Fall was heavily influenced by classic cinematic platformers of the early ’90s, but struggles in living up to this legacy. The game even features a cell scene pulled directly from Another World in an effort to display its admiration for its forebears. You could also draw comparisons to other notable puzzle platform games, a genre that has become quite competitive in recent years. It seems Black The Fall struggles to find its own identity in this creative mix of inspirations and in our opinion it fails to effectively convey its underlying political message. The game displays its anti-communist ideals through iconography due to the lack of dialogue, but this results in a dystopian backdrop that serves little relevance to the player. It’s all symbolism, there’s not enough to connect the player to the experience, and there are not enough clear parallels drawn to ensure the message hits home with the impact that it needs.
Although it lacks the high-end polish present in similar entries in the puzzle/platform category, Black The Fall does have some interesting qualities that keep it enjoyable, especially if you’re a fan of the genre. The pacing is particularly well balanced, making the progression feel consistent and coherent throughout the story, and the puzzles are also not particularly taxing, making for a relaxing adventure that doesn’t require a large amount of brain power, which is often what you want when you’re looking to unwind. Finally, it does portray a sense of social commentary that carries the weight of the developer’s own experiences, which, if well informed, adds value to the game’s setting. Overall, though, Black The Fall ends up feeling like a markedly average platformer that is best suited to fans of the genre looking for their latest puzzle/platform fix, rather than the politically inspired artistic statement it could have been.
*Transparency: The opinions in this review were formed on the basis of a review copy played on PC.