Imitation isn’t always the sincerest form of flattery. For some, having their words compared to others by arguably more well known or appreciated artists can be an honor or a compliment of the highest level. But that comparison often comes at a price, and then other ideas and moments of your works may also be considered, and perhaps what you’ve created, while comparable in several facets, is glaringly lacking in others. People may want their efforts and ideas to stand alone and not have to constantly be measured against someone or something else in order to achieve recognition. With that pretty clear narrative established, I present, in all its glory, Black the Fall.
Our titular hero, Black, is a machinist in a communist regime who has decided Communism blows and needs to escape to far, far away. He’s been plotting his escape for some time now, so this is truly a now-or-never situation, fraught with peril and danger. Through a series of well timed traps and mechanisms, Black is able to make his way out of his prison/factory, befriend a little robot and learn the true meaning of what it is to be “free” and the price and weight of “freedom.” Storywise, I was deeply on board with the tale that Black had to tell. Presented in such a way that you’re dropped into the beginning of the escape without clear ideas as to the why or how of your predicament, the player is drawn in with the same curiosity and drive as another game, Inside. The two games have actually received a lot of comparison, and it’s pretty easy to see why.
Much like Inside, Black the Fall relies on the player to gradually understand the story through observation, rather than being told, and that mostly works well for Black. There were some points that were pretty clean cut, but I was left with questions regarding the state of the world that we see. Is the Communist takeover related to World War II, or just idolizes that era? Has he attempted escape before? Why was he so sure this path and this time would work out? Sand Sailor Studio didn’t feel the need to address these questions and, for what it’s worth, it doesn’t change the game’s enjoyability or immersion. Once you’re on Black’s quest for the outside world, you simply get into the game and go for it.
Puzzle platformer is the name is the game here, with Black needing to use a lot of patience and trial and error in order to figure out what he needs to do. Besides figuring out physics and shadows, you very early on obtain a glove that allows you to delegate tasks to other prisoners that you encounter and they are forced to obey your directive in order to further your own plan. All questions of how messed up that is aside, the way this technique plays itself out is purposely hampered in several ways. For one, it can’t go through walls of ceilings, and, secondly, other guards and sentry robots can “see” the laser and where it came from, which automatically makes them investigate the source of the laser. It feels like an inherently weird thing, because, if it worked that way for all the lasers, wouldn’t there be a ton of wasted resources within the Communist capital of guards and robots checking in on each other constantly on the off chance that one of them was a spy? Deeper questions about the technology aside, Black the Fall’s puzzles are pretty spiffy and have a nice mix of straightforward, convoluted and “just wait for it,” with enough variety that you don’t find yourself sitting through the same song and dance too many times in a row.
Something that I didn’t totally care for was the way puzzles punished you when you took a wrong step. It’s totally alright that Black gets shot, incinerated, vaporized and several other forms of death thrown in his general direction, but they always felt sudden and punishing. When the security guard spot you, you only have a second to realize you’ve messed up before you’re a pile of meat. At which point the game asks you if you’d like to respawn, like you just got ganked during a particularly bad raid. But, most of the time, Black doesn’t go on the offensive, so it’s not really the same feeling, and why the hell wouldn’t I want to respawn? It just came across as awkward in a game where a.) it’s a given you’re going to die a lot and b.) it’s not like there’s another path or story I’d rather do.
You also may want to do as much of Black as you can in a single setting, because the autosave breaks the game into “chapters.” If you die during a puzzle, you simply start over at the beginning of that puzzle, no problem. But if you exit the game while you’re in the middle of a chapter, you have to restart at the beginning of said chapter, and the defining line that separates one from another isn’t always clear. As clever as some of the puzzles are, having to do them all over again, especially puzzles that ask you to wait a lot, is fairly unpleasant and feels like a waste of time. Of course, the simple solution is “just play the whole game at once,” and, as a game that’s only slightly longer than the average movie (I got about three hours total) it’s not totally unreasonable.
Graphically, I really enjoyed Black the Fall. It’s got a good “Dystopian future meets alternate history” feel to it, and everything is sharp and angular, almost like the Communist party had a hand in how the whole game is viewed. If you enjoy playing in a dark environment, you’ll be good to go, but be warned that, early on, Black the Fall is pretty shadowy and solutions to puzzles may evade you simply because you can’t see them. I had to max out the brightness in a couple of places just to realize there was a switch or doorway that I couldn’t view normally. I’m starting to think I might need a new monitor. Additionally, there’s a nice contrast between the inside and outside areas, as it does paint a sufficiently grim picture of the world around Black. The sky appears to be on fire, nothing is green (not near the compound, anyways) and suddenly being a mind-controlled slave for gray monstrosities doesn’t seem like such a bad deal.
Lastly, the sound for Black the Fall is ridiculously subtle. I actually had to stop and listen before I realized there was any form of music playing during the beginning, and I think it frames the entire picture of what’s happening well. The clank of gears and the padding of footsteps takes priority over any kind of “music,” and only when you have a moment to breathe and aren’t trying to listen for something can you hear anything. I think the intent was to highlight the score in this way, but it just made me brush it to the side and ignore it even further. Still, applause to Sand Sailor Studio for taking a risk and trying to do something different, even if it didn’t totally work out.
That, incidentally, is the theme that I brought away from Black the Fall. I love seeing Square Enix take risks and gamble on new indie studios with their Collective label, and, for the most part, I feel like it’s paying off. Sure, Black isn’t my favorite game of 2017, but it was an interesting and satisfying experience. I had some issues, this is true, but I also played it to the bone and would definitely recommend others to take a run at this semi-unique experience. The story it tells, combined with the way it executes, makes Black the Fall a solid and worthy entry to the puzzle platformer genre, and I hope we see more from Sand Sailor Studio in the near future.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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